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The US government believes Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has been placed under investigation in the latest sign of turmoil among elite members of Beijing’s military and foreign policy establishment.
Three US officials and two people briefed on the intelligence said the US had concluded that Li, who has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, had been stripped of his responsibilities as defence minister.
The move comes two months after China’s president Xi Jinping removed the two top generals at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which oversees China’s rapidly expanding arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
The investigation into Li also follows the disappearance of Qin Gang, who was ousted as Chinese foreign minister in July.
People briefed on the intelligence did not say what had led the Biden administration to conclude that Li was being probed. The White House did not comment. The Chinese embassy in the US declined to comment.
Reuters on Thursday cited Vietnamese officials saying that Li abruptly cancelled a meeting last week because of a “health condition”. At one point in the run-up to the ousting of Qin, the Chinese foreign ministry explained his mysterious absence from official events as being health-related.
The Trump administration in 2018 imposed sanctions on Li in connection with China’s purchase of Russian weapons when he headed the PLA’s main department for procuring and developing weapons.
China has refused to arrange any meeting between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Li while Washington kept sanctions on the general, a situation that worsened already dismal bilateral military-to-military relations.
Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, last week stoked speculation about Li when he posted on X, formerly Twitter, that China’s government was “now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None”.
“First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defence Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks,” he wrote with the hashtag #MysteryInBeijingBuilding.
The probe into Li raises questions about the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign that Xi, who serves as chair of China’s Central Military Commission, had pursued against the Chinese armed forces.
“If the removal of the defence minister and the Rocket Force leaders was because of corruption, it indicates that Xi’s vetting process for selecting top officials is deeply flawed and suggests corruption is commonplace within the system despite Xi’s decade-long campaign against it,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA expert on the PLA.
Wilder added that the equipment department, formerly called the general armaments department, had a long history of having the “worst corruption” inside the Chinese military.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Li’s removal could help US-China military relations by removing the obstacle that China insisted would prevent any meeting with Austin.
“I don’t think it calls into question Xi Jinping’s control of the military, but it should be a reminder about how much corruption exists in the system,” Glaser added.
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