The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force (RF) is a rising one. Recent promotion patterns show that President Xi Jinping is intentionally cultivating the RF – China’s strategic and tactical missile force – to take on a greater role in policy-making.
General Wei Fenghe, a favorite of Xi, is poised to assume vice chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the coming 19th party congress next month. Moreover, RF brass now run several key PLA offices and constitute the second-most represented branch of service – after the army – among heads of the Joint Staff Department, which is responsible for PLA operations command, recruitment, mobilization, formation, training and administration.
Once the least-represented branch on the Joint Staff, an ascending RF is steadily grabbing a greater share of the pie.
Three RF leaders deserve special attention.
Born in 1954, Wei Fenghe joined the PLA at the tender age of 16. Of peasant origin, he is far from being a princeling and had to work his way up from the lowest ranks of the Rocket Force – or the Second Artillery Corps as it was then known – en route to becoming its Commander.
In October 2012, Wei became the only lieutenant general to lead the RF. A month later, Xi personally bestowed the credentials of general on the native of Shandong province as he promoted him to the CMC.
Now an “elected” delegate to the 19th congress, Wei is a very strong contender for the CMC’s vice chairmanship.
A lifelong political commissar, Lieutenant General Zhang Shengmin, born in 1958, took over the military’s Commission for Discipline Inspection in January this year from General Du Jincai, a close associate of disgraced former CMC vice-chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.
Tasked with rooting out graft in the PLA, the Commission for Discipline Inspection acts as Xi’s baton in intimidating the officer corps. Although Xi sets the overall goals, Zhang has considerable agency in driving the campaign – which means the baton may fall less frequently on RF officers. Moreover, how Xi perceives threats from inside the PLA will very much depend on Zhang’s assessments.
The RF’s first brigade commander with a Ph.D., Major General Chen Guangjun was already famous before he took over the Joint Staff Department Intelligence Bureau. Through 2007, and the year following, Chen was the focus of several newspaper stories chronicling his role in improving his unit’s levels of education.
Born in 1966, Chen joined the RF in 1984. In the mid-2000s, he earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern Polytechnical University, known for producing some of the best brains in China’s defense industry. Chen currently serves as the PLA’s spymaster and as an assistant to the chief of joint staff.
January 2016 reforms fused the PLA’s diverse military intelligence agencies into one Intelligence Bureau under the Joint Staff. As Xi’s eyes and ears observing foreign armed forces, Chen has enormous power in shaping Xi’s threat perception. From that position of influence, Chen will likely encourage policies conducive to RF growth.
General Gao Jin, commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force responsible for space, cyber and electronic warfare also hails from the RF.
Empowering the underdog
Regardless of restructuring since 2012, when Xi took power, the PLA remains dominated by its ground force. Thus, it is not hard to understand the “core” leader’s aim of equalizing the ratio of power through strengthening the standing of non-army branches.
Furthermore, by empowering the underdog, Xi is cultivating a loyal vanguard for his reformist agenda. The army, which kept other branches from entering top levels of the Joint Staff before 2004, represents entrenched interests. Xi is therefore seeking to build up an opposing camp that can be a catalyst for deeper change.
Besides these considerations, Xi genuinely recognizes the importance of the RF. The ongoing North Korea crisis attests to the importance of tactical and strategic missiles in future conflicts. As more RF chiefs ascent to influential offices, expect them to lobby on behalf of their branch of service. Looking ahead, it’s likely that we will see more attention paid to it and upgrades to RF capabilities.
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