A dramatic purge and reshuffle of the top leadership of China's military increased this week, with the ruling Communist Party sacking top officials and appointing a navy commander as defense minister.
A year into his third term, Xi Jinping – China's most powerful leader in decades – is once again trying to rein in deep-rooted graft that threatens his ambition to transform the People's Liberation Army into a “world-class” fighting force. Go toe-to-toe with America.
The promotion of Admiral Dong Jun, the 62-year-old former head of the Chinese Navy, on Friday came with announcements that a dozen generals and senior executives from state-run military enterprises had been removed from the country's legislature and top political advisory council.
What is the chaos at the top of the Chinese military?
The scale of this week's personnel changes, announced at meetings of senior Chinese Communist Party officials in Beijing, signaled the intensification of an investigation into military corruption in recent months that has targeted arms procurement and the rocket force responsible for the country's missile defense system. Nuclear weapons.
China has not said why the previous defense minister, Li Shangfu, was removed from office in October after two months out of public view.
But U.S. officials say Lee may be embroiled in an investigation into bid rigging and negligence during his five years in charge of the Equipment Development Department, which is tasked with advancing China's military technology. Top officials overseeing China's nuclear-armed missile force were also transferred without warning in August.
Of the nine senior military officers expelled from the National People's Congress on Friday, all appeared to have direct or indirect ties to Li.
Some worked in the equipment development department under Li from 2017 to 2022; Others were in the rocket force or the space program.
“Something big must have happened to precipitate this kind of purge,” said Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, most likely a major corruption scandal or an intel leak. wrote At X, formerly Twitter.
What does this mean for China's military strategy?
The change and Dong's appointment are unlikely to significantly alter China's ambitious military modernization program or its approach to relations with the United States, Chinese military experts say.
In China, the position of defense minister is largely ceremonial and focuses mainly on military diplomacy and international engagement. High-level strategy and key decisions instead come from top members of the Xi-led Central Military Commission.
Unlike his predecessor, Dong is not yet a member of the commission.
The naval officer's unusual choice coincides with a long-term shift to prioritize maritime power, which China sees as essential to achieving military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific and asserting its sovereign rights over Taiwan, an island democracy Beijing considers its territory.
Having spent his entire career in the Navy, Dong has experience commanding the rapidly expanding fleets that China uses to support competing claims in the South and East China Seas. He is also engaged in joint naval exercises with Russia, which China views as a key partner in its efforts to dominate the region.
Military analysts say Dong, as the new public face of the People's Liberation Army, is expected to lead the latest renewal of military-to-military dialogue between China and the United States, which was agreed upon when President Biden met with Xi. November.
But the fundamentals of the relationship are unlikely to change significantly, and with naval promotions, China is increasingly focused on the South China Sea as an arena for military competition with the United States and its allies, the Eurasia Group wrote in a research note.
Efforts to defuse tensions remain precarious, and analysts warn they could easily be derailed if China's aggressive military tactics spark a new round of hostilities.
Restoring ties has been complicated by Beijing's tense standoff with the Philippines over contested islands, escalating skirmishes around Taiwan and frequent, dangerous interceptions of Chinese ships and warplanes targeting the United States and its allies.