The new appointments, analysts said, underscored the party’s focus to continue professionalising the military by promoting officials who were "politically reliable"

China on Thursday announced the appointment of a new Army Chief of Staff amid a sweeping reshuffle of its military leadership ahead of the Communist Party’s once-in-a-generation leadership transition.

General Fang Fenghui, who was earlier in charge of the Beijing Military Region, was announced as the new Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by the Defence Ministry on Thursday. As the head of the General Staff Department, General Fang will be in charge of the PLA's operations command, the Army and defence relations with foreign countries.

Earlier this week, the PLA announced the new head of the Air Force and heads of the powerful Political and Logistics Departments, shedding light on the composition of the next Central Military Commission – the all-powerful military body.

The new appointments, analysts said, underscored the party’s focus to continue professionalising the military by appointing and promoting officials who were “politically reliable”. Two influential Generals who appeared to miss out in the round of promotions were officers seen as having close ties with the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was expelled from the Communist Party of China (CPC) last month.

General Fang, the new Chief of Staff, is now a favourite to occupy a position on the next Central Military Commission (CMC), whose new members will be confirmed following the November 8 Party Congress. The leadership transition congress will also announce the composition of the next Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. Only two members of the current Standing Committee, Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, will hold on to their positions on the ruling body following the transition.

Hu Jintao will relinquish his posts as President and Party General Secretary, but it remains unclear if he will stay on as the Chairman of the CMC. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, held on to the post for two years following the last leadership change in 2002. Mr. Hu has been filling the top positions in the military with his allies, leaving unclear how much power Mr. Xi, who is now a Vice Chairman on the CMC, will have when he takes office.

Earlier this week, the PLA announced two likely candidates to occupy a position on the CMC along with General Fang. General Ma Xiaotian, earlier the Deputy Chief of General Staff, was named the new Air Force commander, a position which makes him a favourite for a post on the body. The PLA also named Zhang Yang, who was earlier the Political Commissar of the Guangzhou Military Region, as the head of the PLA’s General Political Department.

General Ma’s expected appointment to the CMC has been seen by analysts as reflecting the PLA’s shifting priorities, with Air Force and Navy officers beginning to command greater influence.

“Ma’s promotion indicates the old days of the land forces’ domination in the CMC is passing, and that more talent from the air force and navy will be valued,” Ni Lexiong, director of a research institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told the South China Morning Post.

Familiar with India

General Ma is a PLA official who has closely worked on defence ties with India, which have been strained in recent years. Ties were suspended for a year in 2010 after the PLA refused to host the then head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, Lieutenant General B.S. Jaswal, on the ground that he was serving in the “sensitive” region of Jammu and Kashmir. As the Deputy Chief of General Staff, he was in charge of the PLA's foreign relations.

General Ma, who will now command the PLA Air Force, served in the Lanzhou Military Region from 1999 to 2001, at a time when China embarked on upgrading its land and air infrastructure in border regions in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Lanzhou Military Region oversees the disputed Aksai Chin region and the western section of the disputed border with India. Testing its new capabilities, the Lanzhou Military Region in July carried out a high altitude drill with new surface-to-air missiles, which followed a ground attack training drill for the PLA Air Force’s J-10 fighters in March.

Focus on “politically reliable”

Two Generals who were not named in the reshuffle were General Liu Yuan, the Political Commissar of the General Logistics Departments, and General Zhang Haiyang, who headed the political department of the Second Artillery Division. Both Generals, who commanded considerable influence as the political commissars in two powerful departments, were known to have ties with Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary who was expelled from the party last month.

That they were overlooked underscored the party’s desire to appoint “professional” officers who were seen as politically predictable, analysts said. Many of the promotions announced earlier this summer, in the midst of the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal, were reserved for Political Commissars, who are tasked with ensuring political discipline in the PLA and maintaining the CPC’s control over the army.

“Those who have proven to be politically reliable and performed well in emergency situations will be put into more important positions,” Song, a retired teacher from the PLA’s Second Artillery Engineering University, told the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper. “Most of the promoted officials,” he said, “have experienced real tests like earthquakes and maintaining national stability at major national events.”

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