China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu is reportedly under investigation by the US government as turmoil deepens within Beijing’s military and foreign policy establishment. Three US officials and two individuals familiar with the intelligence have stated that Washington believes Li has been stripped of his responsibilities as defence minister. The probe into Li, who previously headed the People’s Liberation Army’s main department for procurement and development of weapons, is believed to be corruption-related. This investigation follows the removal of the two top generals at the PLA Rocket Force two months ago. Li’s disappearance raises questions about the effectiveness of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign within the armed forces.
Dennis Wilder, a former CIA expert on the PLA, has highlighted the long history of corruption within the equipment department previously headed by Li. In July, the department called for public tips regarding corruption within its ranks. However, it remains unclear whether Li is being investigated for corruption related to his time leading the equipment department or for some other reason. The reasons behind the US government’s conclusion that Li is under investigation have not been disclosed. The Chinese embassy in the US has declined to comment on the matter.
Reports from Vietnamese officials suggest that Li cancelled a meeting last week due to a “health condition.” However, such explanations have been used in the past to account for the absence of officials before their removal from positions. The US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, has raised speculations about Li’s situation, comparing it to a mystery novel. The removal of Li may have implications for US-China military relations, as China had refused to arrange a meeting between Li and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin due to US sanctions on the Chinese minister. The sanctions were imposed in 2018 in connection with China’s purchase of Russian weapons.
China expert Bonnie Glaser believes that Li’s removal could provide an opportunity to improve US-China military relations. She also suggests that it serves as a reminder of the extent of corruption within the system. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed readiness to engage with the Chinese government, regardless of who holds positions of responsibility, but stated that he had no knowledge of Li’s current status. The White House has not commented on the matter.