China has named a new air force chief and reshuffled other top military positions ahead of next month's appointment of new Communist Party leaders, state media reported Tuesday.
The newly named air force head, former deputy chief of staff Ma Xiaotian, is well known as a frequent participant in the Chinese military's overseas exchanges.
Ma will be replaced as deputy chief of staff by Wang Guanzhong, former head of the general office of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the armed forces, state broadcaster CCTV said. Tian Xiusi was named air force political commissar, while Zhu Fuxi is the new commissar of the Chengdu Military Region, which includes much of southwestern China and Tibet, CCTV said.
The 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army is an influential force in Chinese politics and is expected to play a significant role in decisions made at the Communist Party's once-in-five-years congress, which begins Nov. 8. Soldiers make up a major proportion of party delegates, and top officers have pushed for ever-bigger defense budgets and a more assertive approach to handling conflicts with the United States, Japan and other foreign rivals.
Other new military appointments are expected as Vice President Xi Jinping moves to assume the party leadership from Hu Jintao, who will also step down as president next spring. It's unclear whether Hu will also relinquish his office of head of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the armed forces.
China's air force has attracted growing attention with the introduction in recent years of cutting edge imported Russian and domestically designed planes. Chinese military aircraft makers are working on a pair of prototype stealth fighters, although their true capabilities remain unknown. The air force also is expanding its fleet of heavy lift aircraft to extend China's ability to deploy troops and equipment far from its borders.
Last year, the air force dispatched transport planes to Libya to rescue Chinese citizens trapped there by fighting, the first time the Chinese military had flown such a mission.