June 13, 2006:
While the Chinese Navy (formally the People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) scares pundits with its purchases of modern weapons and equipment, it is having less success in updating its leadership. Actually, there are three problems with the leadership. First, the senior admirals tend to be more concerned with protecting their little fiefdoms, than in training their sailors to the highest level of readiness for combat.
Second, major portions of the navy still, despite years of orders from above, tend to operate separately. Naval Aviation, the PLAN marines, and the major fleets tend to operate like they were independent of any centralized navy command. That is slowly changing, and that's because you still have too many senior officers, some of them who started out in the army, who are afraid to, well, rock the boat. These dinosaurs don't really understand modern naval warfare, and are afraid of speaking out, and risk letting their peers see that confirmed. Worse yet, the admirals have not really accepted the fact that in any future war, success would hinge on how closely the navy worked with the army and air force. The admirals accept this "joint operations" stuff in theory, but not so much in practice.
And then there's the problems they are having upgrading the quality of officers. Smart, ambitious and well educated Chinese college grads do not see the navy as a prime career choice. There are much better jobs available in the civilian sector. The navy is trying to attract grads with technical degrees, to at least insure that all the new equipment stays in working order. Bonuses and promises of rapid promotion are not doing the job. The navy still has a reputation as a place where promotions come first to those who are accomplished communists, not skilled sailors.
As a result of all these problems, the navy is heading for a future where it may have brilliantly designed ships, commanded by morons. That's nothing new in Chinese history, and there are commanders in the navy, and in more senior positions, that are trying to avoid this fate. So far, progress is more theoretical than real.