The senior ranks of the People's Liberation Army are due a major reshuffle at the top after the 18th Communist Party congress.
Among the likely changes, the head of the General Armaments Department, General Chang Wanquan, and the air force commander, Xu Qiliang, are the front runners to become the two officers serving as vice-chairmen of the PLA's top decision-making body, the Central Military Commission (CMC), and as members of the party's Politburo, though General Fan Changlong, the commander of the Nanjing military area command, could be a dark-horse challenger to Chang.
Seven of the 10 PLA officers on the CMC are too old to serve another term, leaving just Chang, 63, Xu, 62, and the navy commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, 67, who is a possible successor to Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie, provided he does not retire but remain a member of the CMC.
If Fan, who is not a member of the CMC, manages a "two-step" jump and becomes one of the CMC vice-chairmen, Chang will then most likely be the minister of defence but a mere member of the CMC.
Chang, who was secretary to General Han Xianchu, the commander of the Lanzhou military command between 1973 and 1980, has long been tipped to replace CMC vice-chairman General Guo Boxiong in the once-in-a-decade reshuffle after this year's party congress.
Both Guo and Chang, his protégé, have been considered heavyweights in the PLA's so-called " northwest army", with each having served in the Lanzhou military command for more than three decades.
Meanwhile, Chang is also generally seen as a close ally of Hu Jintao, the state president and CMC chairman.
Although Chang was named a member of the CMC along with Xu and Wu after the party's 17th national congress in 2007, Chang is the only one of the trio to come from one of the PLA's four general departments, a tacit condition for a military officer hoping to become a CMC vice-chairman.
As commander-in-chief of China's manned space programme, Chang raised his public profile when he declared the launch of Shenzhou IX, carrying the country's first woman astronaut, a success shortly after the spacecraft blasted off on July 16. The successful docking of the Shenzhou IX with the Tiangong I space station during the mission further bolstered Chang's prospects of becoming one of the vice-chairmen of the CMC and securing a seat on the Politburo.
Recent speculation has it that Fan, 65, is a rival to Chang for the post of CMC vice-chairman, but Chang is in pole position because he is younger and already a CMC member.
According to convention, one of the PLA officers serving as vice-chairmen of the CMC should be a military operational field officer (currently Guo, a former first deputy chief of general staff), and the other from the functional areas of political affairs (currently General Xu Caihou).
But none of the three top political commissars in the PLA at the moment, General Liu Yuan, 61, of the General Armaments Department, General Zhang Haiyang, 61, of the Second Artillery Corps, and General Zhang Yang, 61, of the Guangzhou military command, are members of the CMC and so are not senior enough to succeed Xu Caihou as CMC vice-chairman. That makes Xu Qiliang the best choice to fill the vacancy. After enlisting in the air force in 1966, Xu Qiliang went on to become an outstanding pilot.
Wu, regarded as another protégé of Hu, was promoted to vice-admiral in 2003, months after the 70 crew on a Ming-class submarine died in the Bohai Sea. He became navy commander in 2006.
While he appeared more likely to succeed Liang who is now 72, as defence minister, Wu was somewhat tarnished by the downfall of the Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, because he was supposedly one of Bo's closest friends among the PLA's top brass. They were said to have established a close relationship in the mid-1990s, when Wu served as president of the Dalian Naval Academy and Bo as mayor of Dalian.
Speculation has been rife over the past few months that a third seat may be reserved for the PLA on the next Politburo, in addition to the two occupied by the CMC vice-chairmen. If that is the case, Wu would be an easy choice to fill the vacancy, but given that the cut-off age for appointment to the Politburo is 68, he would only serve one five-year term.
Of the remaining seven places on the CMC, the seat belonging to the director of the General Political Department is the most fiercely contested. Zhang Yang is seen as a late bolter for the post after long-term friendships with Bo clouded the prospects of Liu and Zhang Haiyang. Both General Zhang Youxia, 62, the commander of the Shenyang military command, and General Fang Fenghui, 61, the commander of the Beijing military command, have long been tipped to be the next chief of general staff, succeeding General Chen Bingde, 71, who is due to retire after the party congress.
Thanks to the close relations between Zhang Zongxun, Zhang Youxia's late father and a former senior general, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of CMC vice-chairman Xi Jinping, Zhang Youxia will more likely have the blessing of Xi, who is set to become party secretary general and state president.
In that sense, Zhang will have a better chance of landing the position of chief of general staff. In that case, Fang, widely considered another protégé of Hu's, will be the next chief of the General Armaments Department. Both Zhang and Fang will secure their places on the decision-making CMC in either case.
General Zhao Keshi, 65, commander of the Nanjing military area command, and General Hou Shusen, 62, another deputy chief of general staff, are strong candidates to head the General Logistics Department. Hou once served as secretary to a general logistics department head, General Wang Ke, and is known for his familiarity with PLA logistics.
The three other vacancies on the CMC are likely to be filled by three current deputy chiefs of general staff, General Wei Fenghe, 58, Admiral Sun Jianguo, 60, and General Ma Xiaotian, 63. Wei is tipped to become commander of the Second Artillery Force after the party congress, Sun is likely to head the navy and Ma is expected to become air force chief.Topics: 18th Party Congress PLA Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang