At-Sea Political Officers Could Pose Problems for Chinese Navy in War, Experts Say

September 20, 2023 6:28 PM
Guided-missile destroyer CNS Dalian (105) attached to the PLA Southern Theater Command sails during a far-sea joint training drill in early April, 2023. Chinese MoD Photo

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – While the Chinese Navy has made progress operating at sea, institutional issues between its military and political leadership could pose problems in a wartime scenario, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s unique command system aboard its warships has never been proven during conflict, Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt said during a panel event hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute.

“The shared command between the warship’s captain and a ship’s political officer is a potential weakness, one that is foreign to the Western tradition of naval command because in this case, the commanding officer and the political officer are essentially coequal. Now this is the only system that the PLA Navy officers have ever known,” McDevitt said.
“What we do know is it has never been actually been tested in a modern war at sea.”

While the People’s Liberation Army has dealt with corruption and mismanagement issues over the years, the political leadership historically let the military solve those problems within the institution, according to Xiaobing Li, a history professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, who once served in the PLA and author of  China’s New Navy: The Evolution of PLAN from the People’s Revolution to a 21st Century Cold War.

“The military could work out the way among itself. Not anymore. Now the party had to stand in, direct to lay off or replace or dismiss those generals, admirals because the military lost their traditional political power to fix its own problems. So Xi Jinping ran out of patience. ‘So if you don’t do, I will do for you,'” he said.

Over the summer, China installed a new chief of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force after ousting the previous leaders due to a corruption probe, the South China Morning Post reported at the time. The new leader, Wang Houbin, was the deputy commander of the PLAN before taking over the PLARF in July.

“It’s not a mystery to them that they have no experience,” McDevitt said of China’s political and military leadership.

“They keep harping as I said, in very strident and sometimes embarrassing language, calling out the PLA different branches for one thing or another, for not training hard enough, not being tough enough,” he added.

McDevitt, who noted the PLA is a military for the Chinese Communist Party rather than a national military, pointed to the PLAN’s ongoing anti-piracy deployments in the Indian Ocean that it uses for training as an example of how China’s navy is capable. But the rhetoric that the political leadership uses to describe its military could tell a different story.

“So perhaps more telling is what Xi Jinping and senior PLA leaders have to say. They’re often harshly critical. They publicly criticize the entire PLA for not being good enough, for suffering from peacetime disease, for not conducting realistic and rigorous enough training. They keep emphasizing that the objective is not simply to fight. The objective is to fight and win,” McDevitt said.

McDevitt said the deployments to the Indian Ocean, which the PLAN has been doing for nearly 13 years, are often five to seven-month patrols that include two warships and an oiler, showing the Chinese Navy’s able to keep ships and their crew operating continuously at sea.

“Their ships are not breaking down. They don’t have to send a tug boat along like the Russians do to make sure … they have somebody to bring them home if the engineering point fails,” he said.

Asked by USNI News for examples of how the PLAN is showing its efficacy, McDevitt pointed to its methodical approach to carrier aviation.

“They have they have not been in a hurry. They’ve been very deliberate and careful and taking step by step by step to make sure that when their large carrier that still under construction is completed and what have you, they can actually have a credible air wing that doesn’t have to do jump jets to fly,” he said.
“They will have catapults and they will be able to perform with new tactical airplanes better than the ones they have now. I would say that’s an example of the fact that they recognize what they don’t know. And they’re very willing to take the time, spend the money and move in a way to make sure that when they finally get it, it’s done right.”

Heather Mongilio contributed reporting.

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox