A group of senior naval commanders of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), all of whom have overseas military operation experience, have been promoted in the first month of 2018, showing that the PLA Navy's overseas presence will be increased in the future, experts said.
Several PLA senior naval officers, including three rear admirals, Li Yujie, Zhang Wendan and Zhou Xuming, with experience of non-combat overseas military operations, including escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, circumnavigation and far-sea military training, took up their new positions in January, including the Chief of Navy Staff, the commander of the North Sea Fleet and the head of the equipment department.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, ordered the military to improve its combat capability when he issued military training instructions for 2018 earlier this month.
"In peacetime, the most effective way to test a commander's combat capability and ability to win battles is to conduct massive non-combat military operations, such as far-sea combat training, anti-piracy and overseas evacuation, as these are very close to real combat," Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the Global Times.
Standards for commander selection and appointments in the PLA have always been based on combat capability, but as China has not been at war with any country in the past few decades, there has not been a chance for the PLA to seek improvements in combat capability in a real war, and most other countries are the same, Xu said.
"Therefore, we need to increase non-combat military operations to allow more officers to make improvements in commanding."
Rear Admiral Li, 56, was promoted to Commander of the North Sea Fleet from the director of the logistics department of the PLA Navy, and was the first destroyer captain to complete a global circumnavigation by the Chinese navy, sources told the Global Times on January 9.
Li was the captain of Qingdao, a Type 052 missile destroyer, and in 2002, he completed the first global circumnavigation by the PLA Navy in four months, visiting 10 countries around the world.
Rear Admiral Zhang, Li's predecessor (commander of the North Sea Fleet in 2017), was appointed chief of Navy Staff of the PLA in January. When he served in the South Sea Fleet in 2010, he was Commander of the 5th Chinese naval escort task force to the Gulf of Aden.
The task force consists of a destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship. Zhang led the task force for 192 days in the Gulf of Aden and successfully completed missions to protect 41 groups of Chinese and foreign civilian fleets (consisting of 588 ships) from pirates.
On the way home, Zhang's fleet visited Egypt, Italy, Greece and Myanmar, the Beijing Daily's WeChat account Capital News reported on Tuesday.
Rear Admiral Zhou, 56, was promoted to head of the equipment department of the PLA Navy, according to military sources on January 9. Zhou set 10 records when he served in the East Sea Fleet as the captain of a "new type submarine," including the longest duration and the longest range of voyage, as well as the deepest dive.
In May 2016, two months before the Hague "arbitration" on the South China Sea island disputes, a massive PLA naval fleet consisting of advanced missile destroyers, frigates and a supply ship led by Zhou conducted combat exercises in the South China Sea.
More overseas operations
All these senior naval commanders have one thing in common: experience of overseas military operations, said Commodore Zhang Ye, a research fellow at the PLA Naval Research Institute.
Rear Admiral Zhang Wendan told the Nanfang Daily that the UN-authorized escort mission in the Gulf of Aden, nearing Somalia, was a historic opportunity for the PLA Navy to deploy its fleet overseas and has expanded the space for China's military presence around the globe. Since 2008, China has sent 27 fleets to the region on escort missions, and all of them have to go through the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean is important for China since the sea routes for its energy imports and cargo transport mainly go through this region, "and the escort mission in the Gulf of Aden has objectively improved the PLA's knowledge and operation experience in the Indian Ocean," Zhang Ye said.
In order to safeguard the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and China's overseas interests, more overseas military missions will be required, and the PLA Navy needs to gain the capability to act globally, which means more overseas logistic bases will also be needed, Xu added.