Who will be China’s next defense minister?

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China’s next defense minister will be confirmed and announced by the country’s national legislature when it next meets in March. General Chang Wanquan, who has served in this role since March 2013, will most likely be replaced by General Wei Fenghe, a former commander of China’s missile forces.

This would be the first time that a non-army general is appointed to the role. While he will bring to the role fresh perspectives, China’s underlying military strategy is unlikely to change.

In the Chinese system, the defense minister is the public face of the military and its chief diplomat. Key military decisions are made by the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s supreme military body that oversees the massive People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Ministry of National Defense is not responsible for military operations or planning, but manages the PLA’s relationships with foreign militaries, state institutions and the public. While it is nominally a state institution, it is also a military organization that directly reports to the CMC.

In addition to the defense minster role, Wei will likely be elected in March as member of China’s cabinet, the State Council. This will enable him to play a coordination role between the civilian state and the military, and ensure military input into national policymaking. Under the Chinese system, the military is only answerable to the Communist Party and not the Chinese state.

Why Wei?

In recent decades, China’s defense ministers have generally served one five-year term that coincided with their membership on the CMC. The current CMC membership was announced in October at the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress, consisting of one chairman (Xi Jinping), two vice-chairmen (Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia) and four ordinary members (Wei Fenghe, Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin). Given that Chang Wanquan was not on that list, he will not stay on for another term as the defense minister.

Predicting top leadership changes in Chinese politics can be haphazard, but strong evidences suggest that Wei will get the job.

Past pattern suggest that the defense minister will be selected from a senior member of the CMC. Both the current defense minister and his predecessor were the first-ranking ordinary member of the CMC at the time they were appointed. If this pattern holds, Wei should be the right pick.

In addition, each ordinary member of the CMC has traditionally had a concurrent role in the military. Except for Wei, all ordinary members of the current CMC have concurrent roles: Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the CMC; Miao Hua, director of the Political Works Department, responsible for ideological education; and Zhang Shengmin, head of the Discipline Inspection Commission, the internal watchdog.

Most likely, Wei was intentionally not given a role because he was slotted for the defense minister position. Chang was also in a similar position before he was appointed defense minister.

General Wei Fenghe

Born in 1954 in Shandong province, Wei enlisted at the age of 16 and joined the Communist Party in 1972. He has more than 40 years of experience as a soldier and officer in the Rocket Force (and its predecessor, the Second Artillery Force), which is responsible for China’s conventional and nuclear missile forces. He started as a private in 1970, and rose to become the commander of the Rocket Force in October 2012.

He was also promoted to full general and made the a junior (11th-ranking) member of the powerful CMC in that year. Currently, he is the fourth-ranking member on the (smaller) seven-member CMC, behind Xi Jinping and the two vice-chairmen.

From December 2006 to December 2010, Wei served as the chief of staff of the Second Artillery Force. He served as the commander of the force (renamed the Rocket Force in late 2015) from October 2012 to September 2017. His tenure coincided with the rapid modernization of China’s missile capabilities into a more diverse, mobile, and advanced portfolio of both conventional and nuclear missiles and launch systems.

From December 2010 to October 2012, Wei served as the deputy chief of the General Staff, a first for an officer from the Second Artillery Force. In that role, he frequently met with foreign delegations and built up an international standing that is unprecedented for a Second Artillery Force officer.

What does this mean?

Wei will be the first non-army general to take the defense minister role, a signal that the traditional army-dominance of the PLA is changing. This shift is important for effective joint operations among land, sea, air, missile and information forces. The increased investment in recent years in PLA Navy, Air Force and Rocket Force capabilities, and the reduction in the size of the army, highlight the changes under way.

China’s next defense minister is unlikely to make dramatic changes to the country’s underlying military strategy because of his limited power and circumscribed role. But he will be a proponent for the importance of strategic nuclear deterrence and joint operations. If nothing else, Wei’s experience in the missile forces will bring fresh perspectives to a role traditionally dominated by army generals.

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