The ouster of retired People's Liberation Army Gen. Xu Caihou from the Communist Party of China this week represents a major political blow to China's all-powerful military.
For a decade, Gen. Xu was the most powerful man in uniform in China as the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in charge of political affairs. From that post between 2002 and 2012 he wielded enormous power, ultimately controlling all things military in China, from the PLA's multibillion-dollar budgets to appointments and promotions of all senior leaders.
Now facing court martial for corruption, Gen. Xu was accused of selling military promotions and access to power.
However, U.S. government analysts say his expulsion and prosecution have less to do with President Xi Jinping's much-heralded anti-corruption drive than old fashioned political score-settling. Animosity toward Gen. Xu dates to the regime of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his differences with Hu Jintao, who took over as partial supreme leader in 2002.
Gen. Xu, who visited the Pentagon in October 2009, is known to defense officials as a suave political operative who understood the mechanics of getting, holding and using power. His downfall was due to his role as a political henchman for Mr. Jiang, who as Chinese leader continued to control the military as CMC chairman for three years after passing control of other elements of the Chinese power structure to Mr. Hu beginning in 2002.
Mr. Hu was said to be angered by the humiliation of not getting full control right away. As a result, he is now regarded as a mediocre transitional leader who stepped down in 2012, along with both CMC vice chairmen, including Gen. Xu.
According to U.S. government China analysts, there is high confidence that the outgoing Mr. Hu warned his successor Mr. Xi that Gen. Xu, a Jiang loyalist and member of the ruling Politburo, was someone not to be trusted. And that is what officials say led Mr. Xi to the use the party investigatory system to bring criminal charges against the Chinese general, culminating his prosecution and disgrace within the party.
The problems do not appear to be over for Mr. Xi in his drive to further consolidate power in the party. Gen. Xu remains a powerful figure in the military because he was able to use his decade of political control over the PLA to position tens of acolytes in top ranks. In fact, both current CMC vice chairmen, Gen. Fan Changlong and Gen. Xu Qiliang, are proteges of the ousted general.
The party and military, however, continue to promote the official propaganda line that corruption and not power politics was behind the biggest shake-up in the PLA since the ouster of military leader Lin Biao in 1971.
"Xu's biggest mistake was using his power to arrange for his men to fill seats in the Central Military Commission leadership before Xi became its chairman in December 2012," a Chinese military official told the South China Morning Post. "That made Xi very unhappy. [But] Xi will not rashly make any personnel changes in the commission yet as he needs more time to boost the army's morale as a way to win trust."
What remains unclear is whether senior PLA leaders will orchestrate their own behind-the-scenes backlash against Mr. Xi from within the military. The PLA in recent years has shown disturbing signs of operating independently of the party leadership, a troubling concern, considering China's largely secret strategic nuclear and missile buildup.
The Chinese military remains the most powerful segment of the party-government structure, operating its own businesses and a massive state-controlled defense industry that has helped enrich most top leaders in China, not just those in the military.
Worries over a rogue Chinese military were highlighted Tuesday in the official PLA newspaper. The PLA Daily, in a front-page commentary, declared that all military leaders "resolutely endorse[d] the correct decision" to oust Gen. Xu. The fact that the commentary was published at all reveals high-level unease among the party leadership over the action against Gen. Xu.
Corruption is said to remain endemic within the military. Cases have included selling military land to civilians, selling military license plates, illegally occupying military housing and graft related to purchases of military goods and equipment.
U.S. F-22s send signal to China
As part of its mostly non-military pivot to Asia, the Pentagon last month sent a powerful political signal to China by dispatching six front-line F-22 stealth jets to take part in a joint exercise with Malaysia.
It was the first time F-22s were used in the biennial U.S.-Malaysian military war games known as Cope Taufan.
The Malaysians are a key focus of Pentagon efforts to bolster U.S. alliances and ties to Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is among the more silent partners in the region looking for U.S. leadership to counterbalance China and who privately have voiced alarm over Chinese bullying in the South China Sea in maritime disputes with most states in the region.
Judging by a review of Chinese state-run media, the message sent by the F-22s was received loudly in Beijing.
According to U.S. officials, the Chinese viewed the F-22s in Malaysia as an opportunity to learn the war-fighting characteristics of Malaysia's Russian-made Su-30s that are similar to Chinese Su-30s that would be encountered in any future conflict with China.
The Chinese also believed the exercises allowed the Air Force to operate its F-22s in strategic locations near China's coasts. F-22s have been based temporarily in Northeast Asia but the deployment in the southeast is new.
Chinese press reports also charged that the U.S. F-22s in Malaysia — operating from the Royal Malaysian Air Base at Butterworth about 218 miles north of the capital — improved U.S. combat readiness for a future attack on China.
F-22s in the past were deployed from home their home base in Hawaii to Japan, South Korea and Guam.
Defense officials say the F-22's unique capability is called "supercruise" that allows the jet conduct long-range supersonic flights with a large weapons payload.
That is needed for the Pentagon's largely-secret Air Sea Battle Concept that calls for swiftly defeating China in a conflict by attacking strategic targets deep inside China, including command centers, underground facilities, missile bases, oil storage facilities and electrical grid elements.
The bad news for U.S. war planners is that China's air defenses are becoming increasingly more capable of attacking such stealth jets. Russia announced last month it will sell China its top-of-the-line S-400 anti-missile and air defense system, considered one of the most advanced in the world.
China's new attack sub mock up
China's military is investing heavily in advanced submarines, including both ballistic and cruise missile firing vessels and attack subs. Recently, Beijing showed off what appears to be a mock-up of its next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine, according to veteran military analyst Rick Fisher.
"A large outdoor model of a next generation nuclear attack submarine [SSN] has appeared at the People's Liberation Army Navy [PLAN] submarine academy in Qingdao, China," Mr. Fisher stated in a report published by the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank.
"The role of this model may simply be to inspire the academy's students, but it may signify a larger personnel investment by the PLAN to prepare for its next generation submarines, as it may also offer some indications about a new class of SSN," he said, referring to the military acronym for attack submarines
Photos of the model were first published in April during a Chinese naval conference, and Mr. Fisher said the Chinese have long used such photos of mock-up weapons as political messages for both domestic and foreign audiences.
The mock-up could be the first peek at China's Type-095 attack submarine — the second nuclear-powered attack submarine being built by the Chinese after its current Type-093.
In addition to the attack subs, the Chinese also are building two new ballistic missile submarines, the Type-094 and Type-096.
The Pentagon in its latest annual report on China's military said currently two Type-093s are deployed and four improved Type-093s will be fielded in the next five years.
However, Mr. Fisher said Asia military sources have indicated that in addition to the six Type-093s, two new Type-095s could be deployed by 2020.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.
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