Xi cements control over PLA with unique background
New leader's unique background means he can quickly assert his control over the world's largest army
Xi Jinping, now firmly in command of both the world's largest political party and army, is poised to become a stronger military chief than his immediate predecessors, analysts say.
The vice-president has already surprised many with how quickly he has established his authority over the People's Liberation Army. Just one week after taking over as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission (CMC) - a post some believed President Hu Jintao might attempt to keep for two more years - Xi demonstrated his grip on power by appointing his PLA general on Friday.
In a Xinhua photo of the ceremony to install Wei Fenghe as commander of the country's strategic missile force, Xi looked confident, wearing a relaxed smile and a ceremonial suit. He was the only civilian among the 11 CMC members.
Analysts credit Xi's ability to quickly settle into the position to his diverse background, including military service and his status as the "princeling" son of a revolutionary leader.
Such experiences make him better prepared than Hu or Jiang Zemin , who both struggled to solidify control amid the lingering influence of their predecessors.
"Xi will likely be a stronger military leader than his predecessors because of his political capital, as well and his character and personality," said Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy defence minister of Taiwan.
Having a strong commander-in-chief is of growing importance to China as it enters a new era of increased territorial disputes with its neighbours and anxiety over the country's rise in military power.
Xi's biggest challenge may be recovering amicable relations in the Asia-Pacific region, a task that was arguably easier for his predecessors, such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping , who were in power when the country was still recovering from decades of war and internal turmoil.
"Xi is facing the most knotty military-diplomatic problem that his predecessors Mao, Deng, Jiang and Hu never had to face," said Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau.
"But today, the PLA is trying to narrow its gap with Western countries, especially the US."
The drive to modernise the PLA has been as subject of increased scrutiny in the region, as China takes increasingly assertive steps to enforce territorial claims in the East and South China seas, where China Marine Surveillance ships have engaged in duelling patrols with other nations.
"China's assertiveness when dealing with territory disputes in the South and East China seas is telling the world that the world's biggest army is not merely a defensive army, but proceeding in an aggressive way now," Wong said.
At 59, Xi, whose ascension will be completed with his appointment as president in March, is the youngest leader to take command of the country's 2.3 million troops since Mao's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng , took the helm in 1976. Hua was 56 at the time.
Xi not only served in the PLA, but had an opportunity to see military diplomacy up close. When he was a 27-year-old junior officer, Xi accompanied former defence minister Geng Biao on a trip to the Pentagon, which included a visit to a US aircraft carrier.
He later spent 17 years in Fujian province , where, due to its close proximity to Taiwan, he would have frequently encountered the delicate issues of cross-strait relations.
"Indeed, Xi is a rare top Beijing leader, one who has military-diplomatic experience," Lin said
The ease with which he appears to have taken to the job may also stem from personal experiences outside the military.
He is the second son of the late vice-premier Xi Zhongxun , who was purged during the cultural revolution, and was later close to reformist leaders, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang .
"I think Xi inherited some of his father's beliefs, although he probably has been very careful and more skilful because he knew the political risks," Lin said. "But that does not means he does not have beliefs."
Moreover, Xi is the first modern leader whose ascension has not been hampered by some form of overt factionalism. Neither Hu nor Jiang enjoyed such support at the beginning.
Jiang had to wait more than four months for Deng to give him control of the CMC after becoming party chief following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.
Similarly, Jiang remained CMC chairman for two years after handing the party chief's post to Hu in 2002.
Xi will need that political support if he is going to move ahead with efforts to weed out corruption and institute reform in the military. His speech after the 18th party congress earlier this month showed his determination to do so, said Xu Guangyu, of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing.
"Xi's anti-corruption campaign will not face any obstacles because he is the top leader of our party, which the army should absolutely obey, according to the PLA's core principle," Xu said.
"Xi's early military experience in both army and local government will help him to make smart political decisions, with tackling corruption being the most efficient way to win public support and save our party's regime," he said.
Only time will tell if Xi will become the kind of leader that analysts say he is capable of being.
"It's a critical challenge for Xi to get a balance between party survival, national interests, economic development as well as public support," Wong said.