Chinese defence minister under investigation by Beijing, US believes
The Manila Times
THE US government believes China’s defence minister Li Shangfu has been placed under investigation, as turmoil deepens within Beijing’s military and foreign policy establishment. Three US officials and two people briefed on the intelligence said Washington 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. One official said the probe into Li, who headed the People’s Liberation Army’s main department for procuring and developing weapons from September 2017 until last October, was corruption-related. The investigation comes two months after China’s president Xi Jinping removed the two top generals at the PLA Rocket Force, which oversees the country’s rapidly expanding arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. China’s former foreign minister Qin Gang also disappeared from public view for a month before he was removed from his position in July. The investigation 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 armed forces. Dennis Wilder, a former CIA expert on the PLA, said that the equipment department formerly headed by Li had a long history of having the “worst corruption” inside the Chinese military. In July, the department published a notice calling for tips from the public about corruption inside its ranks dating from October 2017 — a month after Li took over. But one US official said it remained unclear whether the general was under investigation for corruption connected to his time leading the equipment department or for something else. People briefed on the intelligence did not say what had led the Biden administration to conclude that Li was being investigated. 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 Qin’s ousting, the Chinese foreign ministry explained his absence from official events as being health-related. 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. On Friday, Emanuel added in another post: “He’s absent from his scheduled meeting with the Singaporean Chief of Navy because he was placed on house arrest???” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Li’s removal could help US-China military relations. China has refused to arrange any meeting between Li and defence secretary Lloyd Austin while US sanctions on the Chinese minister remained in place. The Trump administration imposed the sanctions on Li in 2018 in connection with China’s purchase of Russian weapons. “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 said of the probe. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Friday that Washington remained “fully prepared . . . to engage with the Chinese government, whoever happens to be holding the positions of responsibility at a given time”. But he said he had no knowledge of Li’s current status.