PLA hawk Ma Xiaotian flying ever higher

Ma Xioatian, new commander of the PLA’s air force and outspoken as the military’s foreign affairs chief, has been a rising star since his 20s

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 7:25am

The People's Liberation Army's new air force commander is an outspoken officer known for his hawkish comments on China's territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

General Ma Xiaotian, 63, who handled the PLA's foreign affairs as its deputy chief of general staff for the past five years, is rare among incumbent senior PLA officers in daring to express a militant view.

In May, China and the Philippines were locked in a stand-off over the South China Sea's Scarborough Shoal - known as Huangyan Island to China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines. Ma told the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV "the South China Sea issue is none of the United States' business; it's just [territorial] disputes between China and its neighbouring countries".

He also said "the PLA is able to protect China's maritime territories", but "at the moment China is not preparing to resort to military means - that would be the very last option".

At the annual intergovernmental security forum in 2010, known as the Shangri-La dialogue, Ma told the US' Pacific commander, Admiral Robert Willard, China would not accept any surveillance by US ships and planes in the South and East China seas, and that Washington's arms sales to Taiwan were "creating obstacles" for Sino-US military-to-military exchanges.

He also reiterated concerns about cold-war-era alliances and called for more equal, trusting relationships - a dig at Washington's traditional approach.

Ma, from Gongyi in Henan province, likes to display his bravery and expertise. In 1998, then a 49-year-old pilot, he flew a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet in front of a domestic and foreign crowd at the Zhuhai International Air Show.

He was born into a military family in August 1949. His father, Ma Zaixiao , and father-in-law, Zhang Shaohua , were founding senior colonels for the People's Republic of China. Ma Zaixiao oversaw the PLA's ideological training base in Beijing for senior cadres.

Ma, one of seven children, aspired to be a soldier from a young age. He joined the air force one month before his 16th birthday and was a military pilot six years later - one of the youngest in the PLA.

Since then Ma has been a rising star. He was named a major general of the air force in 1995 and promoted to deputy chief of the PLA general staff two years later, aged 48. Next, he became chief of staff of the Guangzhou military command. From 2000 to 2003, Ma was commander of the country's two most important military commands in coastal Nanjing and Lanzhou , in Gansu province in the northwest, dealing with the Taiwan Strait, Tibet and Xinjiang .

In 2003, he was promoted to deputy commander of the air force and, in 2006, he was named president of the PLA's National Defence University.

He succeeded Xu Qiliang as the PLA's deputy chief of general staff in 2007 when Xu was made commander of the air force. Now, he has again inherited Xu's post, with the latter expected to become a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

"Ma's promotion indicates the old days of the land forces' domination in the CMC is passing, and that more talent from the air force and navy will be valued," said Ni Lexiong , director of a research institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.