Navy man tipped to command PLA’s key southern region

Sources say vice admiral is front runner to head strategic southern command, which would break with a long PLA tradition favouring the army

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 7:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 1:25pm

The PLA is set to break with a long-standing tradition if a proposal to appoint a naval officer to head its strategic southern command is adopted, four independent sources said.

The proposed reshuffle at the helm of the Southern Theatre Command, which is responsible for the South China Sea and the PLA South Sea Fleet, also underscores the rising importance of the navy in the Chinese military and the decline of its army-centric doctrine under an overhaul begun by President Xi Jinping last year.

It also comes at a time the military is considering the successor to its naval chief, Admiral Wu Shengli, who is to retire.

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“The main tasks and future missions of the Southern Theatre Command all focus on naval operations, especially in the South China Sea region, where a key base for China’s nuclear-powered submarines is based,” a Beijing-based retired senior colonel said.

“The commander [of the Southern Theatre Command] should have experience of strategic deployment of warships, and knowledge of joint operations among different forces like marine corps aviation, the air force and the rocket force. A commander with a land force background is unable to adapt to the modern warfare situation.”

If the proposal was adopted, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, a deputy commander of the Northern Theatre Command, appeared to be the front runner to head the southern command, the sources said. The retired senior colonel said Yuan, a former submarine captain, had been tipped to be the new chief for a “long while”.

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If Yuan’s promotion is real, it will break a PLA military tradition going back almost 70 years, in which strategic commands have been lead by army officers.

The southern command, ­formerly the Guangzhou Military Region, covers key borders with Myanmar and Vietnam, the South China Sea, and four provinces: Guangdong, Guangxi, ­Hunan and Hainan.

Another big development for the navy will be the retirement of Admiral Wu, a different source close to the PLA said.

“Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, the top officer for the South Sea Fleet, has been the front runner to be the next commanding officer of the PLA Navy, succeeding the 71-year-old Admiral Wu,” he said.

The information on the likely promotions of Shen and Yuan was supported by another military source close to the Southern Theatre Command, and by a mainland-based business source.

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If Shen secures the top navy job, it will surprise many PLA watchers at home and abroad. Shen would have beaten a number of rivals, including Vice Admiral Qiu Yangpeng, the chief of staff for the navy, and Vice Admiral Wang Hai, the navy’s deputy commander.

Wang is tipped to be the new commander of the South Sea Fleet and deputy commander of the Southern Theatre Command, according to the sources.

Shen would be the least experienced naval boss for decades. Almost all past commanders had been vice admirals for years before taking the helm of the navy, which also secured them a seat on the decision-making Central Military Commission.

Admiral Wu, the current naval commander, was a deputy vice admiral for three years before he took the helm of the navy in 2006.