China has announced the appointment of a new defence minister, two months after the previous office holder Li Shangfu was stripped from his position without explanation.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress – China’s de facto legislature – announced on Friday that Dong Jun, 62, would be the new defence minister. Dong was most recently the chief of China’s navy.
The announcement comes days after three senior executives from the aerospace defence industry were removed from a top advisory body to the Chinese Communist party (CCP) as part of a shake-up of the military that is thought to be linked to an anti-graft campaign that may have ensnared Li.
Li was formally removed as defence minister in late October, but he has not been seen in public since 25 August. He is thought to be under investigation for corruption related to the procurement of military equipment. He was head of the military equipment procurement department of the central military commission between 2017 and 2022.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australian National University, wrote on X that the appointment of a navy chief as defence minister “is a sign of China seeing South China Sea as a new priority area of geopolitical contestation between China and the US”.
In August, two senior rocket force commanders were replaced in a shake-up of what is considered to be one of the People’s Liberation Army’s most important divisions. The new rocket force commander is Wang Houbin, who came from the navy.
Li also lost his position as state councillor in October. Dong has not been appointed to fill that role, nor will he fill the vacancy left by Li on the central military commission. As defence minister, Dong’s job is to be a public representative of the military and engage in diplomacy, but he does not have control over the armed forces. That power is held by China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is the chairperson of the central military commission, as well as the general secretary of the CCP.
Unlike Li, Dong is not thought to be subject to US sanctions, which may ease his ability to engage in military diplomacy with the US. During his seven months as defence minister, Li did not meet his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, in protest at the sanctions from Washington.
Dialogue between Washington and Beijing is seen as important in lowering the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. When Xi Jinping and Joe Biden met in San Francisco in November, they agreed to resume senior-level military talks.