Analysis: China's new general Xi offers cohesion over possible Taiwan plans

Chinese President Xi Jinping's new generals may be singled out for their political allegiance to him, but the relationship could serve at least one important military goal in a planned Taiwan invasion: ensuring cohesion and decisiveness.

While the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee will make the final say on any Taiwan action, the Central Military Commission will draw up and execute a battle plan, eight Asian and Western military attaches said.

Three new generals were appointed to the supreme command body on Sunday after the Communist Party's five-year congress - an event in which Xi said China would "never promise to give up the use of force" to take control of the self-governing island.

Four security analysts and four military attaches said the Russia Ukraine disaster had shown how important speed - both in building and execution - would be in China's plans, in part to prevent Taiwanese forces and international support from mobilizing.

"If Xi Jinping is going to pull the trigger in Taiwan, then he cannot accept dissent from the Central Military Commission," said Singapore-based strategic adviser Alexander Neill.

"To secure any advantage, they have to move fast, lightning fast," added Neill. "There's no room for hesitation. That's always been China's thinking in Taiwan, and the Ukraine standoff has underlined the need to avoid getting caught up in a slow logistical buildup."

In his first two terms, Xi cleared thousands of officers on corruption charges and has sought to tighten the party's control over the military.

Xi further strengthened his grip on his military command, with three new generals appointed to a seven-man commission and an extension beyond the retirement age granted to his closest military confidant, General Zhang Youxia.

"This precedent violation was used to his advantage to achieve two goals at once," said James Char, a military scholar at the S. Rajaratnam Sinagpore School of International Studies, referring to keeping Zhang in his retirement years after retirement. "To ensure the PLA's main soldier is someone experienced in operational command and politically reliable." China's Defense Ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Some analysts and attaches have described the commission as a closely linked group that blends operational experience and political loyalties while maintaining ties to China's last shooting war, against Vietnam.

Zhang, 72, is described in a 2021 Pentagon report on China's military modernization as a People's Liberation Army "prince" whose father served with Xi's father at the end of China's civil war in 1949.

One of Zhang's protégés, General Li Shangfu, was also promoted to commission. Most importantly, Li has experience with the Army's digital strategic support force People's Liberation, a body covering electronic warfare, cyberspace, and space.

General He Weidong will serve as the second vice chairman under Zhang. He was promoted to the position after his command of the reformed Eastern Theater Command, which was in charge of Taiwan operations.

He oversaw unprecedented military drills and missile tests around Taiwan in August that Beijing conducted to protest US House leader Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei.

General He is widely known to be in touch with Xi through his service in the former 31st Army Group in Fujian during Xi's time in the province, which faces Taiwan.

This was the background he shared with the eminent political commissar Admiral Miao Hua, who remains on the commission.

The new line-up straddles the military generation, given the promotion of General Liu Zhenli, who has led troops around Beijing and has experience in the People's Armed Police, China's internal security force.

Liu, 58, along with Zhang, have combat experience since the ill-fated conflict with Vietnam, which rumbled into the late 1980s.

"The relationship with Vietnam's troubled campaign is a reminder that for all the PLA's progress in recent years, there has been a glaring lack of modern combat experience," said an Asian military attache, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“All the rehearsals, rehearsals and parades cannot replace that. As cohesive as this team is, there are glaring questions about the PLA's ability to wage war – for them, and for those of us on the outside looking in,” added the attache, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Which commission member will serve as Minister of Defense, replacing the retired Wei Fenghe, will emerge when the National People's Congress convenes a new governing team in March.

The position, which includes a broad diplomatic-military role, is seen as less important than the work of the commission itself, which operates amid the tight secrecy of an impressive command center in western Beijing.

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