© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Russia, on April 16, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
By Greg Torode and Martin Quin Pollard
BEIJING (Reuters) – The disappearance of China’s defense minister, the latest in a series of unrest in the country’s highest ranks, is fueling uncertainty over President Xi Jinping’s rule as a crackdown on domestic security is more important than international engagement.
The growing unpredictability could hurt other countries’ confidence in the leadership of the world’s second-largest economy, diplomats and analysts say.
Reuters reported on Friday that Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has missed meetings with at least one foreign counterpart since his last meeting in late August, is being investigated as part of a military procurement corruption probe.
Newly installed Foreign Minister Qin Gang disappeared without explanation in July, the same month as there was an abrupt reorganization of the elite military Rocket Force, which oversees China’s nuclear arsenal.
As Xi, China’s commander-in-chief, turns inward-focused, he sparked concern among foreign diplomats this month by missing a Group of 20 summit in India. This was the first time he had missed the meeting of global leaders in his decade in power.
Amid growing uncertainty, some diplomats and analysts are calling for a closer look at the true nature of the Xi regime.
“Clear assessments are needed – it’s not just about whether China is a partner or a competitor, it is a source of economic, political and military risk,” said Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a researcher at the National University of Singapore.
Due to a lack of transparency surrounding the changes, various explanations are plausible, “and this is fueling the crisis of confidence that is brewing in China,” Thompson said.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
PROXIMITY IS NOT patronage
Regarding Defense Minister Li’s disappearance and investigation, a ministry spokeswoman told reporters on Friday that she was not aware of the situation. The State Council and the Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Since his appointment in March, Li has been the public face of China’s growing military diplomacy, voicing concerns about U.S. military operations during a high-profile security conference in June and visiting Russia and Belarus in August.
He was expected to host an international security meeting in Beijing in October and represent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at a meeting of regional defense chiefs in Jakarta in November.
Because corruption has long permeated China’s military and state institutions, some analysts and diplomats believe Xi’s anti-corruption measures are a sign of political purges across the Communist Party.
“No matter the reason … the feeling that this could continue to happen could impact the confidence of foreign actors in working with their Chinese counterparts,” said Helena Legarda, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
The Li upheaval is unusual because of its speed and influence over Xi’s hand-picked elites.
“It all comes so suddenly and opaquely. One thing we can see now is that in Xi’s world, proximity does not equate to favoritism,” said Singapore-based security analyst Alexander Neill, an associate fellow at the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.
Although Li does not hold a direct leadership position, he is a member of Xi’s seven-member Central Military Commission and one of China’s five State Councilors, a Cabinet position superior to regular ministers. Some scholars believe he is close to General Zhang Youxia, who sits above him on the commission and is Xi’s closest ally in the PLA.
Li, who was sanctioned by Washington in 2018 over an arms deal with Russia, avoided a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-la Dialogue security conference in Singapore in June, where a handshake marked their closest interaction.
Austin and other U.S. officials are interested in resuming high-level talks between the two militaries. Regional tensions are fluctuating. But Beijing counters that it wants Washington to be less assertive in the Asia-Pacific region.
Regional envoys say deepened Chinese military diplomacy is crucial, particularly with the US but also with other powers as China increasingly deploys forces around Taiwan – the democratically ruled island it claims – and in disputed parts of the East and South China Seas stationed.
If Li’s fate “reflects Xi’s increasing inward focus, that is not good for those of us who want more openness and lines of communication with China’s military,” an Asian diplomat said.
As the PLA engages in unprecedented levels of military clashes with Southeast Asian forces this year, “recent rapid changes in Beijing are spurring speculation and some concerns about policy continuity,” said political scientist Ja Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore.
“Restructuring the military at this time is likely to attract attention given the PLA’s increased activity near Taiwan and the East China Sea (NYSE:) as well as increased paramilitary activity in the South China Sea. “As such measures bring with them a potential risk of accidents, escalations and crises,” Chong said.
Source : www.investing.com