Commentary | China’s Military Leadership Reflects Space Commitment

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With the impending summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as the recent visit to China by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, it is clear that both Beijing and Washington are concerned about security relations between the two states. While much of the attention has focused on the cyberspace element, space issues are likely to be a major focus for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and therefore should be of concern to American military leaders as well. 

The composition of the PLA’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the entity that directs the activities of the entire Chinese armed forces, reflects a substantial concern with space, from a technical and operational viewpoint but also from a long-term perspective that is likely to provide programmatic stability for high-tech projects for the coming decade. 

The CMC includes the top leadership of the Chinese armed forces (comprised of the PLA, the People’s Armed Police and the reserves), and combines many of the functions of both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is headed by the chairman of the CMC (who is usually also the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of China) and two uniformed vice chairmen. The other members include the heads of the General Staff Department (war planners), General Political Department (political orthodoxy, morale), General Logistics Department and General Armaments Department (weapons development, space and nuclear complexes), the minister of defense as well as the commanders of the navy, air force and 2nd Artillery Corps. 

These 10 officers in effect direct the actions and oversee the programs of the entire PLA. Among these, at least four of the current members have significant ties and interest to the development of China’s military space capabilities, including the two uniformed vice chairmen of the CMC. 

Gens. Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang are the two most senior officers in the PLA. Gen. Fan was promoted to the vice chairmanship from command of the Jinan Military Region — a jump of two grades in the Chinese military hierarchy. His promotion almost certainly reflects the importance of the Jinan Military Region as a test bed where the Chinese have extensively trained in joint operations. As PLA writings have often emphasized, the successful conduct of joint operations requires the ability to create a common situational awareness among the various participating forces, which in turn requires access to space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

Gen. Xu is the first air force officer to serve as a vice chairman. As the U.S. Defense Department’s 2013 report on Chinese military capabilities notes, “He vocally advocated … in 2009 that the air force should lead the development of offensive space capabilities.” While it is not clear that the Chinese air force has, in fact, been granted that role, Gen. Xu’s new position ensures that there will be high-level interest in development of such capabilities, wherever they reside in the Chinese military bureaucracy. 

Several of the other members of the CMC also have ties to the military space effort. The defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, was previously the head of the General Armaments Department, which is responsible for managing China’s space program. This includes overseeing not only China’s three launch sites (and a fourth one under construction) but also its fleet of space tracking ships and  telemetry, tracking and command facilities, as well as training China’s space operators. Replacing him is Gen. Zhang Youxia, one of the few Chinese military officers with combat experience, having served in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Placing a war veteran in charge of weapons development suggests an effort to ensure that there is a real-world connection for PLA research and development. 

Not only is there significant bureaucratic and organizational interest in space in the senior Chinese leadership, but as important, there is likely to be programmatic stability. Several of the members of this new CMC will not reach the mandatory retirement age of 68 by the next Party Congress in 2017 (when a new CMC will be appointed). This includes Gen. Xu and Gen. Zhang as well as Gen. Wei Fenghe of the 2nd Artillery. In addition, Gens. Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, heads of the General Staff Department and General Political Department, respectively, are also young enough to stay on. While there is, of course, no guarantee of a place on the next CMC, nonetheless, with half the members at least eligible, this limits possible disruption in programs due to lack of leadership continuity. Consequently, long-term programs, such as those associated with space systems, will likely enjoy funding and managerial stability that will allow them to reach fruition. 

This will benefit not only China’s growing space infrastructure, as the Hainan launch facility is expected to come on line by 2020, but also the array of new space launch vehicles (the Long March 5 heavy-lifter, as well as the Long March 6 and  7), a new “stable, all-weather, 24-hour, multispectral, various-resolution Earth observation system,” manned space efforts including a space station, as well as dedicated military capabilities.  

These various new space capabilities, in turn, are essential for the PLA in fulfilling its “New Historic Missions.” Then-President Hu Jintao charged the PLA with these missions in 2004, and his successor, Xi Jinping, shows no signs of rescinding them. Among the key responsibilities of the PLA are to secure space and cyberspace dominance, both of which will have a direct impact on Chinese national security and national interests. As China’s interests expand and PLA capabilities improve further, the emphasis placed on being able to secure space dominance as part of the “New Historic Missions” will only grow. Recent Chinese antagonistic behavior toward its neighbors, from Japan to India, gives little hope for a more conciliatory mood arising in Beijing.  

Consequently, for the United States, the coming decade will see a growing space challenge from Beijing. The Department of Defense  will need to improve its program and budgetary management skills if it hopes to match China’s burgeoning capabilities in a resource-constrained environment.  

 

Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.