Chinese military top brass mirroring command failures in Russian army

Any move by Chinese President Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan would be met with little resistance by his military commanders.

 95th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), in Beijing (photo credit: REUTERS)
95th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), in Beijing
(photo credit: REUTERS)

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) high command became so centered around President Xi Jinping that any move to invade Taiwan would likely meet little resistance from generals, according to a Pentagon-funded report, similarly to command issues in Russia's top military brass highlighted in the invasion of Ukraine.

The report, “Gray Dragons: Assessing China’s Senior Military Leadership,” analyzed more than 300 biographies of senior Chinese military officers from 2015 and 2021 to assess the composition, demographics, and career patterns of the PLA leadership.

“When you go through the data and analyze who China is promoting up to [senior] levels, you start to see some parallels” with “the generals who were faulted for giving [Russian President Vladimir] Putin apparently pretty bad military advice”, Joel Wuthnow, a senior fellow at the National Defense University, which is funded by the Pentagon, told the South China Morning Post.

“What happens if Xi Jinping himself makes up his mind that, for political reasons, he has no choice but to [invade Taiwan]? How willing would the military be to voice their concerns to him?” Wuthnow asked. “Would they not be under significant pressure to do what the boss asks them to do without pushing back?"

“What happens if Xi Jinping himself makes up his mind that, for political reasons, he has no choice but to [invade Taiwan]?”

Joel Wuthnow

PLA officers must continue to be responsive to Xi and the party, according to the report, as all the officers are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must have enough political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his agenda.

Xi has been personally involved in selections through his position as CMC chairman and has increased his control through anti-corruption investigations. Also, officers are rotated geographically to prevent patronage networks.

The top 25 or so senior officers serve on the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and in the National People’s Congress, where they provide military advice and look after PLA equities.

“After the Party Congress, I think the decision-making in China will be even more Xi-centric,” Wuthnow added, referring to the 20th National Congress of China’s Communist Party, set to take place this fall.

President Xi Jinping is expected to accept a third term without facing explicit resistance, although observers worry about uncertain days ahead, especially regarding Taiwan.

Cohesion gaps similar to Russia's military

"Rigidity in PLA assignments could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts—especially those requiring a high level of jointness and adaptability, like the war that Russia launched against Ukraine in 2022—if Chinese military leaders lack perspectives beyond their own service, specialty, and department," the report said.

The PLA frequently advocates for officers who can think in new ways, but the assignment system does not prioritize or produce broad experience or risk-taking.

Officers with almost no experience leading troops from other branches are less likely to be confident in commanding those forces and more likely to delegate authority to specialists within those services.

This could produce situations such as that of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the overall cohesion of forces was low.

Senior PLA officers also tend to stay not only within their own services but also in their assigned functional areas. Operational commanders, for instance, rarely have career-broadening experience in logistics and vice versa.

Operational commanders who never gained a high level of logistical or maintenance understanding might fail to use those tools optimally in a broad combat scenario, paralleling another Russian failure in 2022.

“Whether that is talking about logistics, or whether it’s talking about the inventory of supplies that you need, leadership is one of the important things, too, because if you don’t have adequate leadership then actually using these things effectively in battle is much more problematic,” Wuthnow told the South China Morning Post.