By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - China reshuffled its top military ranks on Tuesday, weeks before a once-in-a-decade generational leadership change which sources said would see the outgoing air force commander promoted to vice-chairman of the military's top decision-making body.
General Ma Xiaotian, 63, was named air force commander, replacing General Xu Qiliang, 62, state broadcaster CCTV said.
Ma has been one of the secretive military's most visible faces, speaking at forums overseas and leading talks with U.S. defence officials aimed at building trust between the world's two largest economies.
The report did not say what would happen to Xu.
But three independent sources with ties to the top leadership and the People's Liberation Army said Xu was tipped to be named one of two vice-chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission.
The government generally does not comment on elite politics and personnel changes before the official announcement.
Xu's air force background means he can be expected to champion their interests at the center of power, including the development of China's first indigenous stealth fighter.
Xu is one of eight members of the military commission, which is headed by President Hu Jintao, also the ruling Communist Party's top official.
Hu is widely expected to step down as party chief during a congress which opens on November 8 and as president during the annual session of parliament next March. Anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping will almost certainly take over both posts.
But sources and analysts are divided over whether Hu will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who hung on to the military chairmanship for two years after stepping down as party chief.
Hu, 69, has not made public his plans for retirement but, unlike in the West where former presidents and prime ministers tend to fade from the public eye, Chinese leaders seek to maintain influence to avoid possible adverse political repercussions down the road and preserve their legacy.
Hu's most noticeable legacy was mending fences with self-ruled democratic Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, after bilateral ties plunged as a result of menacing Chinese war games in the run-up to the island's landmark direct presidential elections in 1996.
Still, the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army, the world's biggest armed forces, has rattled the region with an ambitious build-up overseen by Hu, including the launch of the country's first aircraft carrier.
There has also been tension between China and Japan over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, as well as between China and various Southeast Asian claimants over the South China Sea.
(The story corrects age of Xu to 62, paragraph 2, fixes garbled sentence paragraph 10.)
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)