What you need to know
General Yi Xiaoguang would have the opportunity to shape the PLAAF’s organizational culture and solidify the PLAAF’s vision of itself as an independent warfighting service.
Central Military Commission (CMC) Member and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF) Commander, General Ma Xiaotian (馬曉天), will reach his mandatory retirement age later this year and will likely retire in conjunction with the 19th Party Congress. While much of the PLA’s promotion process remains opaque, the transition of the top PLAAF leadership may be becoming more predictable. Ma’s most likely successor is General Yi Xiaoguang (乙曉光), who currently serves as a Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff (formerly General Staff) Department. If appointed, Yi would become the 12th Commander of the PLAAF since it was created in November 1949. If recent precedent is followed, he would likely also receive a grade promotion from Theater Command Leader to CMC Member and serve concurrently as the Deputy Secretary of the PLAAF’s Party Standing Committee.
A review of his background and career progression in comparison with previous PLAAF commanders strongly suggests that Yi is the most logical successor to Ma. Yi has extensive operational and leadership experience and professional military education. He has rapidly risen in grade and rank since 2001 and since 2014 has held key positions that qualify him to serve at the next higher grade. Since 2012, he has also been an alternate member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 18th Party Congress. Additionally, it has already been established that top PLAAF leadership are expected to represent the service to foreign counterparts. Yi is well prepared to fill this role. He is a strategic thinker who has published on a range of technology-related issues, and in contrast with most of his peers, he has broad experience representing the PLAAF overseas as well as hosting foreign military delegations in China. While his career has followed a similar trajectory to other top PLAAF leaders, Yi is representative of the generational and educational change that is occurring within the PLAAF and being pushed to help build a “strategic air force”.
A Rising Star
Born in June 1958 in Jiangsu Province, Yi joined the PLAAF at age 15. He began his career as a pilot and has been stationed in four different Military Region Air Forces (MRAFs)—Shenyang, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Nanjing—as well as PLAAF Headquarters. Yi is a highly experienced fighter pilot and is qualified in multiple aircraft. Over the years, Yi has flown the PLAAF’s Mig-15, J-5, J-6, J-7, Su-27, and Su-30. He is a special-grade pilot (特級飛行員), an all-weather qualified flight instructor (全天候飛行教員), and is qualified as a flight controller in the tower (飛行指揮員). It is clear that Yi was identified as a promising officer early in his career, although the reasons are less apparent. He has extensive leadership experience, having commanded a flight squadron, flight group, air regiment, air division, and command post. Additionally, Yi participated in Peace Mission 2005 (和平-2005) with Russia on the Shandong Peninsula, which afforded him the opportunity to help manage and oversee a combined exercise with a foreign military.  In September 2015, Yi was the senior officer in charge of the first Sino-Malaysian combined military exercise in Malaysia, identified as Friendship 2015 (和平使命-2015), which lasted six days and involved a PLA Navy destroyer, a frigate, a hospital ship, four transport aircraft and three helicopters and 1,160 PLA personnel (Straits Times, September 19, 2015).
In addition to wide-ranging command experience, Yi has held important positions as a staff officer throughout his career, likely to prepare him for leadership at the next level. He served as a Deputy Chief of Staff in Chengdu MRAF prior to becoming the commander of Wuhan Base/Command Post. Yi then served as a Deputy Chief of Staff in Guangzhou MRAF before becoming the Commandant of the Air Force Command College. He has also served as Deputy Chief of Staff for the PLAAF, one of the assistants to the Chief of the General Staff, and is currently one of the Deputy Chiefs of the Joint Staff (formerly General Staff). Based on his travel abroad as well as his participation in meetings held in Beijing, it appears that Yi’s portfolio includes United Nations peacekeeping and certain relations with NATO (Baidu Baike [accessed May 30]; MOD, November 16, 2015; ECNS, April 23, 2015). As with Ma, Yi’s experience on the Joint Staff likely gives him important insight into the military’s overall situation, foreign relations, joint military training, and inter-service coordination. 
Yi was twice selected for professional military education (PME). He was chosen for a two-year program at the PLAAF Command College in 1984, and he later obtained a master’s degree from the PLA NDU.  Typically senior PLAAF officers have only a senior technical degree (equivalent to an American associate’s degree) or possibly a bachelor’s degree and receive only a certificate while attending PME institutions for less than one year. Yi’s military education distinguishes him from most other senior PLAAF officers, as do his publications. Yi has been a frequent writer during his career. For example, between 1992 and 1995, he wrote a 100,000-word Air Force Pilot’s Common-use Chinese to English Small Dictionary (空軍飛行員常用和英小辭典). He also authored Stealth Aircraft and Their Nemesis (隱形飛機及其剋星) and Armed Helicopters and Their Nemesis (武裝直升機及其剋星) and co-authored a series of publications called 21st Century High-technology Main Weapons Nemesis Series (21世紀高技術主戰兵器剋星系列叢書). Yi’s academic credentials likely contributed to his selection as the Commandant of the PLAAF Command College during 2004-2008. Indeed, it appears that his long-term portfolio has involved military education and training issues. Earlier in his career, in 1989, Yi was the Director of the newly created Chengdu MRAF’s Flight Transition Training Base, and from 1996–2001 he served as the Director of the Military Training Department in the PLAAF HQ’s Headquarters Department.
Yi has been on the fast track for several years, as evidenced by the timing of his grade and rank promotions since the early 2000s.  Regarding promotions in grade, Yi became a Corps Deputy Leader-grade officer in January 2002, which made him the second youngest officer in that grade in PLAAF Headquarters. He then progressed to Corps Leader-grade in March 2004, to Military Region Deputy Leader-grade in December 2010, and Theater Command Leader-grade (renamed from Military Region Leader in Sep 2016) in August 2014. At the same time, Yi was also advancing in rank. He received his first star in July 2001, when he was promoted to Major General as a Division Leader-grade officer. In July 2012 Yi was promoted to Lieutenant General (2 stars), at which time he was a Military Region Deputy Leader-grade officer and was the youngest 2-star general on active duty. Finally, in July 2016, when he was a Theater Command Leader-grade officer, Yi was promoted to General (3 stars), at which time he was the youngest 3-star general on active duty.
Interactions with Foreign Counterparts
The PLAAF commander plays an important role in military diplomacy, promoting the service’s relations with foreign counterparts, typically through traveling abroad and hosting foreign delegations in China. Historically, the PLAAF commander has traveled abroad once per year to one to three countries. From 1979-2012, PLAAF commanders visited over 35 different countries, including several countries more than once. Ma Xiaotian diverged from this precedent while serving as PLAAF Commander. Upon assuming the commander’s position, he publicly announced that he was not going to travel abroad because he had traveled frequently when he was the Deputy Chief of the General Staff and was responsible for foreign relations, and, as such, he wanted to spend his time focusing on key PLAAF issues. Although Ma has not traveled abroad, he has hosted an average of eight foreign air force leaders per year in Beijing.
Senior PLAAF leaders benefit from international exposure earlier in their careers, and participation in multiple official PLAAF delegations, particularly if they accompany senior leaders, can be an indicator that an officer is being considered for a more senior leadership role. In contrast to most PLAAF officers, who rarely travel abroad in an official capacity, Yi has traveled overseas at least seven times, and in some instances was the lead officer for the delegation. In 1997, Yi was part of a delegation led by then-Chief of the General Staff, General Fu Quanyou, who visited the Pentagon, West Point in New York, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Norfolk Naval Base and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and Pacific Command in Hawaii (RAF, November 16, 2010). While in Hawaii, he flew in an F-15. In 2000, he was part of a delegation that visited Greece and Turkey, where he flew in a Mirage 2000, a Mirage F1 simulator, and an F-16 simulator. In November 2010, Yi led a PLAAF delegation to England, where they visited Royal Air Force (RAF) Cosford. The delegation specifically asked for permission to visit RAF training establishments and gain a broad overview of the academic organization of the RAF air training system. In October 2011, Yi accompanied then-CMC Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong, then-Deputy Chief of the General Staff Wei Fenghe, and others on a visit to Cuba, Columbia, and Peru (ChinaNews, October 23, 2011).
More recently, in May 2014, Yi was part of a five-member delegation led by CMC Member and Chief of the General Staff, General Fang Fenghui, which visited the United States as guests of then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey (ChinaMil, May 14, 2014). The delegation visited San Diego, Washington DC, Fort Bragg, and New York. In November 2015, he was part of a five-member delegation to Russia that was led by CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang, where a contract was signed for the purchase of 24 Su-35 fighters (Chinamil, November 16, 2015; Global Times, November 15, 2015; MOD, November 16, 2015; DefenseWorld, November 19, 2015). Finally, in September 2016, he led a delegation to Belarus to observe personnel training (Belta, September 22, 2016).
During 2015–2016, Yi also hosted at least two foreign delegations in China. In June 2016, he hosted a meeting in Beijing with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations (Chinamil, June 7, 2016). In April 2015, he hosted a meeting with visiting Director General of the NATO International Military Staff Air Marshal Sir Christopher Harper (ECNS, April 23, 2015). Additionally, in late 2016, he attended meetings in Beijing for Russia’s and Brunei’s Defense Ministers, which were respectively hosted by Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan and CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Qiliang (MOD, November 24, 2016; October 13, 2016). Given his experience interacting with foreign counterparts at home and abroad, Yi is well prepared to fill the role of promoting the PLAAF’s relations with foreign militaries.
The Road to the Top
In order to understand why Yi is the most likely candidate to serve as the next PLAAF commander, it is useful to examine the career progression and general qualifications needed for the position, as established by a review of the current and past PLAAF Commanders’ career paths. While there is no one size fits all formula for promotion to PLAAF commander, a review reveals commonalities and milestones along the road to the top. All PLA officers work their way up the 15-grade career path until they reach their mandatory retirement age based on their grade (China Brief, February 4 and 23, 2016). Promising officers are typically identified early in their careers and then given opportunities to prove themselves, further hone their leadership abilities, and obtain the breadth of operational and staff experience needed to be successful at the highest level. Additionally, loyalty to the Party and to the leader of the CMC have considered core criteria when selecting top military leaders (SCMP, December 30, 2015).
All previous PLAAF commanders joined the PLA relatively young, between the ages of 15 and 19 years old. Of the first 11 commanders, the third commander (Ma Ning – 1973-1977) was the first aviator, while the fourth commander (Zhang Tingfa – 1977-1985) was a career political officer. All of the commanders either initially served a few years as enlisted members until receiving a direct promotion to become officers or those who became aviators began their careers as aviation cadets. The latter group attended flight training for one to three years, then became officers and were assigned to operational units as pilots (PLAAF 2010, NASIC; Chinese Communist Party Previous Central Committee Member Dictionary 1921-2003). Once they became pilots, they moved up the career ladder as flight squadron (company), flight group (battalion), air regiment / independent flight group, and air division deputy commanders and commanders. After that, they served in various corps deputy leader- or leader-grade billets, and then Military Region Deputy leader-grade billets, including deputy chief or chief of staff (e.g., leaders of the Headquarters Department), deputy commander, or commander billets in bases, MRAFs, PLAAF Headquarters, or academic institutions. Starting with Wang Hai, all commanders served as an MRAF commander and/or a PLAAF deputy commander, which are both MR deputy leader-grade billets. Holding two different billets in the same grade helped broaden their experience.
As shown in the following bullets and Table 1, there is no single path to becoming the PLAAF commander. There are, however, patterns in terms of grade and rank promotions to reach the commander’s position. For example, of the 11 commanders:
- Three served as political officers and as the PLAAF political commissar (PC)
- Five served as a concurrent CMC member
- Two served as a Deputy Chief of the General Staff (Joint Staff) Department
- One served as the commandant of the National Defense University (NDU)
- Six served as a PLAAF deputy commander
- Six served as an MRAF commander
- Three served as a base commander
Although Liu Yalou and Zhang Tingfa were CMC members, the PLA did not regularize the appointment of PLAAF, PLAN, and Second Artillery (now Rocket Force) commanders as CMC members until 2004. Since that time, as the PLAAF Commander, both Xu Qiliang and Ma Xiaotian received grade promotions from Military Region (now Theater Command) Leader to CMC Member. If this precedent is to continue, then the next PLAAF commander needs to be qualified to serve in this higher grade. In Xu and Ma’s case, they both served in Theater Command leader-grade billets for at least two years before becoming the commander. Specifically, both Xu and Ma served as a Deputy Chief of the General Staff (now Joint Staff). Ma also served as the Commandant of the NDU. In addition, they both received promotions in rank to general prior to assuming the commander’s billet.
Importantly, Yi meets the requirements for promotion to the next higher grade. He has served as a Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff, which is a Theater Command leader-grade billet, since August 2014. He was promoted to the rank of general in July 2016, at which time he became the youngest 3-star general on active duty. Finally, he has been an alternate member of the CCP 18th Party Congress (中共第十八屆中央委員會候補委員) since October 2012. Although Yi has not served as a PLAAF deputy commander, he appears fully qualified to assume the commander’s billet, receive a grade promotion from Theater Command Leader to CMC Member, and replace Ma on the CMC.
General Ma Xiaotian will reach his mandatory retirement age and likely retire later this year in conjunction with the 19th Party Congress. Although his successor cannot be predicted with complete certainty — as evidenced by the PLA Navy leadership transition earlier this year — General Yi Xiaoguang appears to be the most likely candidate. His career path has followed a similar trajectory to that of past commanders, and he has held key positions that would prepare him to serve in a top leadership billet. Yi is already a 3-star general, an alternate member of the CCP 18th Party Congress, and is qualified to be promoted to grade to CMC Member. He stands out from other senior officers because of his operational expertise and leadership experience, rapid advancement, professional military education, and his multiple opportunities to represent the PLAAF with foreign counterparts at home and abroad.
While Yi’s elevation to PLAAF commander is widely anticipated (SCMP, December 30, 2015), the timing of the transition remains unclear. Ma will reach his mandatory retirement age in August, likely before the 19th Party Congress has convened. Yi may become the PLAAF Commander before Ma officially retires, as was the case in January when Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong became the PLAN commander but outgoing Commander Admiral Wu Shengli remained on the CMC (China Brief, March 2 and 16, 2017). It is difficult to predict the composition of the CMC after the Party Congress, but if Yi is the sitting PLAAF commander and recent precedent is followed, he will likely be among its new members (China Brief, February 4 and 23, 2016). This would require a grade promotion from Theater Command Leader to CMC Member and he would serve as the deputy secretary of the PLAAF standing committee.
Yi would assume command at a very interesting time when the PLA at large is undergoing historic organizational reforms aimed at improving the military’s warfighting capability. Chinese President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping has communicated his expectations for the PLAAF to accelerate its modernization, strengthening exercises, and be prepared for combat—while maintaining absolute loyalty to Party leadership. Xi has described the PLAAF as a strategic military service that plays a vital role in safeguarding national security and has urged the service to speed up airspace integration and sharpen its offensive and defensive capabilities (Xinhua, April 14, 2014; April 15, 2014). To date, the reforms have primarily focused on headquarters above the corps level, including reorganizing the former seven Military Regions into five Theater Commands and establishing 15 organs directly subordinate to the CMC. Yi would lead the PLAAF through the next phase of reforms and would likely also be called upon to further institutionalize the new PLA organizational construct, which calls for service chiefs to focus primarily on training and equipping the force, empowering theater commanders to focus on wartime missions. Importantly, Yi would have the opportunity to shape the PLAAF’s organizational culture and further solidify the PLAAF’s vision of itself as an independent warfighting service, capable of playing a decisive role in protecting China’s national interests as a “Strategic Air Force”.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.
Editor: Edward White