President Hu Jintao's election yesterday as chairman of the state Central Military Commission fills a largely ceremonial position, but further cements his authority as commander-in-chief of the mainland's 2.5-million-strong armed forces. For the foreseeable future, Mr Hu is likely to follow the existing strategy and policies enshrined in what is known as 'Jiang Zemin's thoughts on national defence and army-building'. This indicates that Mr Jiang's influence will remain strong within the People's Liberation Army, whose leadership was mostly appointed during his 15 years as military chief. However, Mr Hu looks set to strengthen his grip by reshuffling the top brass and rallying PLA support by promising funds for the development of hi-tech weaponry. He is also expected to further streamline the armed forces. But for now, his biggest challenge as military chief is striking a delicate balance between accelerating military preparations for a possible conflict across the Taiwan Strait and doing whatever it takes to seek peaceful reunification with Taiwan. The mainland leadership has long made it clear that the PLA's one and only priority is to prepare for and win a war. The anti-secession law, to be passed today, will give the PLA the legal basis to attack Taiwan if it believes Taipei crosses the line on independence. This is likely to give more ammunition to hawkish generals clamouring for an early solution to the Taiwan issue. But the moderate tone and conciliatory gestures conveyed by Mr Hu in his keynote speech on Taiwan on March 4 suggest that mainland leaders want to play down the military option. Meanwhile, speculation is building about a possible reshuffle of top military leaders. Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan could be on the way out because of his age. Although the mandatory retirement age for government officials does not appear to apply to PLA generals, 70-year-old General Cao does not fit in with Mr Hu's efforts to make the top brass younger and more professional. Analysts said General Xiong Guangkai, the 65-year-old deputy chief of general staff, is also expected to retire. During the past 10 days, the PLA generals participating in NPC sessions have heaped praise on Mr Hu, who has never served in the armed forces. However, reading between the lines of several generals' interviews with the South China Morning Post, all implied that Mr Hu was still learning about the armed forces, albeit quickly. General Hu Shixiang, deputy director of China's manned space flight programme, recalled how Mr Hu, during a visit to a space research centre in Shanghai, postponed other appointments to learn more about hi-tech developments. Analysts said Mr Hu, an engineer by training, was expected to direct more money and efforts to the development of hi-tech weaponry, including the construction of an aircraft carrier. They said Mr Hu was expected to push for further cuts in the army while boosting funding for the naval, air and missile forces.