China’s Defense Minister, Li Shangfu, has been absent from Beijing’s officialdom for two weeks, as reported by The Financial Times, citing sources. Li’s absence follows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force leadership purge in July and the government's sudden removal of Qin Gang from his position as Foreign Minister in June, indicating another likely dismissal of a top-tier figure under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Political analysts from Taiwan told The News Lens that Li’s disappearance reflects Xi’s heightened authority over the military and the ongoing, unstable personnel restructuring within the force.

Three sources from the U.S. government told The Financial Times that Li is under investigation by Beijing, and the U.S. believes he has been removed, while another two sources verified his absence from political scene, after his abrupt pull out of a bilateral meeting with Vietnam’s defense leaders last week.

A few days ago, China officials explained to Vietnam that the meeting was delayed due to Li’s “health issues”, but the U.S. government maintained that Li has been removed and are being investigated for “corruption.” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador in Japan, speculated on Twitter that Li had been placed under “house arrest.”

The last time Li spoke publicly, was in the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing on August 29th, and he went missing after Xi Jinping purged two leaders of the PLA Rocket Force in late July, denoting China’s greatest reshuffle of the military force in recent ten years. However, Beijing never gives clear account of its personnel shift and the only announcement made was the Rocket Force’s reappointment of the two leaders.

Before Li ascended to the seat of defense minister in Beijing, Li was previously appointed as the head of PLA Equipment Development Department, an important unit in the military responsible for procuring weapons.

In July, China’s Ministry of Commerce issued an announcement on its website, stating alleged violations in the weapons procurement process since October July, which coincidentally matched with Li’s term as head of the department. The announcement listed eight violations, including “actively leaking secrets,” “unfair handling of matters” and “lack of supervision.”

Lin Ying-Yu, the assistant professor specializing in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, analyzed to The News Lens that Li’s disappearance again, emphasized the internal personnel restructuring within China’s military force, meanwhile marking another act of Xi Jinping to centralize his authority within the force.

Lin said that Li Shangfu has been sanctioned by the U.S. for spearheading significant arms deals between China and Russia, which has also led to a strained U.S-China relation. Lin analyzed that if Li Shangfu is replaced, interaction between the U.S and China will increase possibly, but the U.S. will also question why China replaces its defense minister in less than half a year, which may lead to lingering suspicions regarding the reliability of the new appointee.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, director of the Asia Policy Program at the University of Texas, told The Washington Post that the constant reshuffle of Xi Jinping’s cabinet, makes the whole system more “opague”, which indicates the more personalized leadership of Xi.

Li Shangfu's recent disappearance has also led to speculation that a similar event to Qin Gang's may be unfolding.  Qin disappeared from the public eye on June 25th, and nearly over a month later, Beijing re-appointed his predecessor Wang Y as the Foreign Minster.

Li Shangfu, 65 years old, was appointed as China's defense minister in March this year and is one of the five State Councilors appointed by Xi Jinping this year. If he is verified to be dismissed and replaced, it will be the second State Councilor to lose the minster position within three months following the axe of Qin Gang.

When asked about the impact of changing the defense minister on the Taiwan Strait, Lin replied to The News Lens that it is not significant. The primary role of defense minister is to foreign relations regrading military-related exchanges. If Li is removed, it might affect the morale of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) but so far, not likely to have a major impact on the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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