China is expected to appoint a new air force commander as part of a People’s Liberation Army leadership reshuffle ahead of the national congress in autumn, sources said. The front runner to lead the country’s 420,000-strong air force is Lieutenant General Ding Laihang, three separate sources told the South China Morning Post . Ding, who will turn 60 next month, has held the top air force job in the Northern Theatre Command since last year. He is tipped to succeed Ma Xiaotian, 68, who has been the air force commander since 2012 and is expected to retire. Ding was previously air force commander of the Shenyang Military Region from 2012. An announcement on the appointment would be made soon, according to a diplomatic source. How a humanitarian naval mission is boosting China’s global ambitions Two other rising stars in the air force – Lieutenant General Yi Xiaoguang, deputy chief of the joint staff, and Lieutenant General Ma Zhenjun, chief of staff of the air force – had both previously been seen as strong contenders for the job. “Ding was generally considered the third preference after Yi and Ma Zhenjun to take over from Ma Xiaotian,” one of the sources said. Analysts have noted that Yi, 59, is a more experienced candidate than Ding. But if President Xi Jinping was looking for a younger general to lead the air force then he might go for 55-year-old Ma Zhenjun, who holds the same rank as Ding. Ma Zhenjun was the youngest leading military officer with the air force when he took over the top job at what was then the Beijing Military Region in 2012. Ding’s career overlapped with Xi’s in Fujian province in the early 2000s. In 2001, Ding became chief of staff of the Eighth Corps based in Fuzhou, and the same year went on to lead the air force in the city. Xi was governor of the province from 2000 to 2002. Ding graduated from the PLA’s Air Force Command College. He became president of the college in 2007 and a year later took over as air force chief of staff of the then Chengdu Military Command. The change would follow a reshuffle of the navy leadership in January, when Rear Admiral Shen Jinlong was a surprise pick to take over as new commander. Call to allow Hongkongers to serve in the PLA to ‘cultivate pride’ in Chinese culture A front runner for that job, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai was named head of the Southern Theatre Command, which oversees the South China Sea. Pundits will be closely watching to see whether Yi and Ma Zhenjun are given other top jobs in the military. Retired PLA major general Xu Guangyu, who is based in Shanghai, noted that the air force had made rapid progress in recent years, particularly with the success of its J-20 stealth fighters. Three Chinese-made J-20s made their debut flight during a parade to mark the PLA’s 90th anniversary at a training base in Inner Mongolia last month. From stealth fighters to ballistic missiles, China shows the world its weapons of war “Apart from upgrading the hardware, one of the most challenging tasks for the new air force commander will be to improve the quality of its pilots,” said Xu, adding that Ma Xiaotian had made significant progress in this area in recent years. China is trying to streamline its army, but it is expanding the navy and air force.