On Friday, China’s President Xi Jinping has appointed former Navy Chief Dong Jun as the country’s next defence minister, succeeding General Li Shangfu, who vanished from public view four months ago.
President Xi Jinping’s appointment strengthens China’s military as part of his ambition to make China a prominent world force, a goal that has unnerved many neighbours, particularly its aggression toward self-ruled Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.
China’s defence minister must represent the People’s Liberation Army in its interactions with the media and other military forces.
One critical aspect of his role is to work with the US military to reduce the possibility of violence over Taiwan and the South China Sea, two flashpoints with which Dong, 62, is familiar.
He was vice commander of the East Sea Fleet before becoming the People’s Liberation Army Navy leader and a full general in 2021, the backbone of the Eastern Theatre Command – the major force responsible for fighting over Taiwan, a self-ruled island China deems its own.
He was also vice commander of the Southern Theatre Command, which operates in the South China Sea, the majority of which China claims.
“Dong would be familiar with managing close encounters between Chinese and US military forces.” This would come in handy when he has to manage crises between both military,” said Li Mingjiang, an international relations scholar at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
According to Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, Dong’s nomination could indicate that purges are taking place in the Rocket Force and Equipment Development Department.
The previous two defence ministers originated from these two forces and have since vanished from public view.
Dong takes over for General Li Shangfu, who led the department in charge of equipment procurement and research before joining the defence ministry in March. Since August 25, Li has yet to be seen in public.
According to Reuters, Li is under investigation for wrongdoing in procuring and developing equipment.
According to Xinhua, nine senior military officers were expelled from China’s main legislative body, citing a separate Friday announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Former PLA Rocket Force chief Li Yuchao, who was abruptly replaced in July, his predecessor Zhou Yaning, two other Rocket Force officials, two PLA Equipment Development Department officials, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department Zhang Zhenzhong, and ex-Air Force Commander Ding Laihang are among them.
Zhou led the Rocket Force from 2017 until 2022. Between 2016 and March 2022, Zhang served as deputy commander of the PLA Rocket Force, working alongside Li Yuchao. He previously served as commander or deputy at two satellite launch facilities and one space launch facility.
On Wednesday, three officials from state-owned missile defence enterprises were removed from a ceremonial political advisory group.
When asked about the whereabouts of Li’s predecessor, Wei Fenghe, China’s defence ministry vowed in August to “crackdown on every corrupt official” – its first reference to corruption probes among top military leaders following a major shake-up of the armed force overseeing China’s nuclear and conventional missile arsenal.
Beijing has not explained Li’s disappearance but stripped him of his positions as defence minister and state councillor in October.
Li did not meet his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, throughout his brief stint as minister. The ministry added that Washington would first have to lift the sanctions imposed on Li in 2018 for his role in purchasing Russian planes and equipment.
Dong would face no such restrictions because he is not known to be subject to US sanctions.
When President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi met in San Francisco last month, they resumed senior military talks that had been halted during then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s travel to Taiwan in August 2022.
The Pentagon has been in contact with China at the working level regarding a series of planned engagements, Pentagon spokesperson John Supple said on Friday, adding that the two sides are working to put what Biden and Xi announced in November into action.
“These kinds of engagements take time to schedule and prepare for on both sides so that defense and military leaders from our two countries – including at the senior-most levels – can have substantive conversations with their appropriate counterparts,” he said.
He also mentioned that Defense Policy Coordination Talks in January and Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks in early 2024 are underway.