Admiral Sun Jianguo of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has served as Deputy Chief of Staff for the PLA General Staff Department since 2009, a position with status equal to a Chinese military region commander.
Born in 1952 in Hebei province, he joined the PLA in 1968 in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, the military was de-professionalized and extremely ideological in focus. He previously served as captain of both conventional and nuclear submarines.
His assumption of a leadership role reflects the trending ascendance of powerful figures’ former mishu (secretaries, personal assistants, or chiefs of staff). Sun is the former mishu of General Chen Bingde, former chief of the General Staff. Some had predicted in 2012 that Sun would take over command of the PLA Navy, but Admiral Wu Shengli has so far remained as commander.
Why is he in the news?
Sun will be China’s 2015 representative to the Shangri-La Dialogue, where Wang Guanzhong made headlines in 2014 for “launching a rhetorical fusillade” at Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and former U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, both of whom had spoken in harsh tones about China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea.
Sun echoed Wang’s fiery language against Japan and the United States last June at the Third World Peace Forum. He has also asserted that military tensions with the United States have been good for China’s military development and served to establish an equal footing between the two nations.
What can we expect from him?
Sun leads a large Chinese delegation to this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, which reflects China’s increasing desire to take on additional responsibility for regional security. However, China is the only major nation that is not sending its defense minister, and has only done so once, in 2011. Speakers like U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter are expected to focus again on China’s behavior in the South China Sea, where China will likely come under fire for its artificial island-building and generally assertive posture.
Sun has expressed support for bilateral ties in U.S.-China relations, calling them “an important part of the new pattern of the relationship between great powers.” A Chinese defense ministry spokesman has said his speech will focus on collaboration, dialogue, and joint defense in the region. Despite this, there are several indications of underlying tensions, including recent military reports released from both China and the United States.
China’s newly released white paper, “China’s Military Strategy” is expected to animate discussion at the Shangri-La Dialogue. The document is a preview of China’s key talking points and future strategy, emphasizing a shift toward maritime threats and an expansion of focus from offshore defense to defense of international waters. Sun’s remarks will be delivered against the backdrop of this new strategy white paper, which pushes the idea that a stronger PLA will contribute to stability in the Asia Pacific.