02 March 2017

China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 1): Spotlight on Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong

Andrew S. Erickson and Kenneth Allen, “China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 1): Spotlight on Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong,” Jamestown China Brief 17.3 (2 March 2017).

A new leader has just taken the helm of the world’s second largest navy. Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong (沈金龙) reportedly replaced Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利) as PLAN Commander on January 17, 2017 (Global Times Online, January 20). On the morning of January 20, Shen offered Lunar New Year greetings to sailors on patrol in the Gulf of Aden via video-teleconference (Chinese Navy Online, January 20). Authoritative state media reports have offered few details on Shen, making it important to analyze a broad array of Chinese-language sources to distill what his elevation may mean for China as a maritime power. Given Xi Jinping’s sweeping and ongoing military reforms, the organizational dynamics surrounding Shen’s rise merit particularly close examination. Understanding these dynamics can help outside observers anticipate the identity, experience, promotion of PLAN leaders, as well as the positions that they hold relative to the PLA and its key commands.

Shen’s Selection

Admiral Sun Jianguo, long viewed as Wu’s natural successor as PLAN commander by many, represented China at the 2015 and 2016 Shangri-La Dialogues. Sun is now expected to retire by the end of February 2017. Sun’s impending retirement opened up possibilities for a set of Vice Admirals considered by foreign observers to be potential candidates to succeed Wu, namely Tian Zhong, Liu Yi, Ding Yi, Jiang Weilie, Yuan Yubai, Su Zhiqian—and, most importantly, Shen Jinlong …



Andrew S. Erickson, “The Next Generation of China’s Navy: Transformation and Transition for the PLAN,” The Diplomat, 30 January 2017.

As China’s navy undergoes a change in leadership, what lies ahead for the rapidly modernizing service?

On January 17, 2017, 71-year old Admiral Wu Shengli retired from a 41-year career culminating in nearly 11 years as commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), making him the second-longest-serving Chinese naval head in history. The longest-serving was Xiao Jinguang, who led the PLAN, albeit with some political interruption, during a particularly difficult three decades from 1950-79.

The events of the previous month offered a fitting capstone to Wu’s career. On December 8, Wu attended a high-profile ceremony commemorating the “70th Anniversary of China’s Recovery of the Xisha (Paracel) and Nansha (Spratly) Islands” in the South China Sea, having previously inspected some of China’s increasingly fortified installations there. On December 29, Wu participated in a video-teleconference commemorating the eighth anniversary of the PLAN’s anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Most dramatically, on December 23, in a widely-reported display of naval and national prestige, Wu guided flight and formation training including “air refueling and air confrontation” from aboard China’s first aircraft carrier. Liaoning’s circumnavigation of Taiwan and passage through the Taiwan Strait on January 11, 2017 must have been a sweet swan song for him just days before he stepped down.

History tends to remember major personalities who lead the achievement of dramatic progress. Here Wu has made a name for himself that will be remembered and ultimately rediscovered by all who follow Chinese naval developments, in his case as a leading career-long naval officer who took his service far out to sea. Wu will also be linked to an even more powerful leader who is leaving an even greater mark on history – Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Wu’s retention in October 2012, when all other service-grade military leaders of his age were forced to retire, suggested both the Chinese leadership’s prioritization of naval modernization and its particular confidence in him. Wu’s position was greatly facilitated by support from Xi, who when he assumed all three offices of Chinese executive leadership in 2012 was not only determined to further China’s maritime interests and capabilities but also unusually well-placed to do so. Wu’s father’s status as a former vice governor of Zhejiang province, made the admiral, like Xi, one of China’s “princelings.” Also like Xi, however, Wu made his own achievements and would ultimately surpass his father in prominence.

Read the full story here, in The Diplomat magazine:

Andrew S. Erickson, “The Next Generation of China’s Navy: Transformation and Transition for the PLAN,” The Diplomat Magazine 27 (February 2017).


Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Naval Modernization: The Implications of Seapower,” World Politics Review, 23 September 2014.

This month, the heads of the world’s navies and coast guards converged on the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, for the International Seapower Symposium (ISS). ISS assembles distinguished international naval leaders to enhance common bonds of friendship and to discuss challenges and opportunities, this time under the theme of “Global Solutions to Common Maritime Challenges.” This was the 21st iteration of ISS, which was first held in 1969. It was the first with Chinese attendance.

After years of invitations that Beijing did not accept, coupled with last year’s cancellation of the event due to sequestration, the head of China’s navy, Adm. Wu Shengli, led a nine-officer delegation. Participants in the plenary and regional breakout sessions no doubt wondered who exactly Wu is, what mandate he has, what sort of navy he leads, where it is heading and how it will be interacting with the U.S. Navy. This article addresses these timely questions.

Leading China’s Rapid Naval Modernization

The son of a former vice governor of Zhejiang province, Wu is one of China’s “princelings.” According to a report by Cheng Li, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, Wu “formed a client relationship with Jiang Zemin in the late 1980s, when Jiang was party secretary in Shanghai and Wu was the deputy chief-of-staff of the Shanghai Base of the East China Sea Fleet.”


Dr. Andrew Erickson with Admiral Wu Shengli on his Sept. 20, 2014 visit to Harvard University. Photo courtesy of Adam Mitchell.

Wu joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1964 at the age of 19, when he was admitted to the PLA Institute of Surveying and Mapping in Xian. Since graduating from the institute in 1968, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise, attaining the rank of rear admiral in 1994, vice admiral in 2003 and admiral on June 20, 2007. Wu also serves on the PLA Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest military decision-making body. In his capacity as a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member, Wu has been a full member of the CCP Central Committee since 2007, serving on the 17th and 18th Committees. …