The Uncertain Fate of China’s Defense Minister

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Over the summer, a single handshake between Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin and sanctioned Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu signaled the strained relations between the United States and China. However, Li’s sudden disappearance from public view has ignited speculation about his potential removal from office, which could have significant implications for the future of senior-level military talks between these superpowers.

Since August 29, Li Shangfu has not been seen in public and has missed several official engagements, leading to speculation about his potential replacement. Some US officials have even suggested that Li, aged 65, has already been removed from his position. However, there has been no official confirmation from Beijing or Chinese state media regarding his status.

Recent months have stabilized US-China relations following a rocky summer of 2022. President Joe Biden’s administration has made efforts to rebuild communication channels, and the next opportunity for leader-level talks is expected to occur when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits San Francisco in November. However, the resumption of military talks has remained conditional on the US lifting sanctions on Li Shangfu.

The potential removal of Li Shangfu from his position as Chinese Defense Minister could pave the way for a thaw in military relations between the US and China. However, experts caution that it may not solve all the underlying issues in the strained relationship. Even with Li’s removal, the US-China relationship faces multiple challenges, including lingering tensions related to issues such as Taiwan and broader geopolitical rivalries. The lack of military communication raised concerns about the risk of accidents in the South China Sea, which could have catastrophic consequences for the region and the global economy.

Before Li’s disappearance, China had insisted that the US lift its sanctions on him as a precondition for resuming military exchanges and cooperation. The US had initially suggested that such sanctions might be lifted, but there was no clear commitment.

Despite the deadlock at the senior level, lower-level military exchanges had resumed in recent months, allowing for some communication between the two nations.

Li Shangfu’s potential removal raises questions about tensions within the Chinese government and its impact on Xi Jinping’s leadership. He would be the second minister to be abruptly removed within a year of Xi’s third term, following Qin Gang’s removal from the foreign minister post in July. The recent purges have fueled concerns about the stability and predictability of China’s governance. It remains to be seen who might replace Li if he is indeed removed from his position. Experts emphasize that it is too early to speculate about his successor.