A slew of naval commanders who took part in patrols in disputed waters in the South China Sea and overseas operations have risen through the ranks to the top echelon of the People’s Liberation Army and PLA Navy, as Beijing doles out promotions and political perks in a bid to further boost morale in its armed forces.

Three PLA rear admirals, Zhang Wendan, Li Yujie, and Zhou Xuming, commanders of the United Nations-led escort missions in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia and other bluewater war games in the vicinity of the PLA’s first overseas base in Djibouti, have taken up their new positions this month as Chief of Navy Staff, commander of the North Sea Fleet and head of the equipment department, according to a presidential order signed by Xi Jinping, who also heads the PLA’s Central Military Commission.

Among them, Rear Admiral Li, 56, the newly installed North Sea Fleet commander, once oversaw and steered a PLA Type-052 destroyer on a high-profile global voyage and visited ports in the United States.

In May 2016, two months before the Hague arbitration on the South China Sea disputes, a massive PLA naval fleet consisting of advanced missile destroyers, frigates and a supply ships led by Zhou conducted circumnavigations and combat exercises close to islets and reefs covered by Beijing’s territorial claims.

Chinese naval vessel departs Guangdong Province en route to Djibouti. Photo: Chinese Navy
A Chinese vessel leaves Guangdong province en route to Djibouti. Photo: Chinese Navy

“In peacetime, the way to test a commander’s combat capability and his will and strength is to conduct massive non-combat military operations, such as far-sea training, anti-piracy escorts and airlifting or ferrying large numbers of Chinese expats away from tumultuous regions, as these missions are very close to real combat,” Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the Global Times.

The PLA has not fought a battle or fired a bullet in any standoff since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. So, Beijing is anxious to hone the force’s skills with drills, manoeuvers, plus mock battles between PLA battalions. Those keen to be promoted must be able to demonstrate exceptional guts and wisdom to outwit and defeat any “foe”.