The recent unexplained absence of Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu has cast a spotlight on the often enigmatic workings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The incident underscores the intricacies surrounding China’s military apparatus.
Last Friday, Reuters revealed that Li Shangfu is under investigation for alleged corruption during his previous tenure, pertaining to military equipment procurement. Alongside him, eight other high-ranking officials are under the microscope. Yet, no official statement regarding his fate has been released.
Li’s Influence Within the PLA:
While the title might suggest immense power, the Minister of National Defence in China holds less clout than his American counterpart, the U.S. defence secretary. Instead of a command function, the role is largely diplomatic and ceremonial. However, Li’s position in the echelons of China’s political-military hierarchy is noteworthy. As one of the six military officials directly under the aegis of Commander-in-Chief and President Xi Jinping on the Central Military Commission (CMC), he’s significant. Additionally, he is one of the five State Councillors, ranking above a typical cabinet minister.
Li’s background as an aerospace engineer, with contributions to China’s satellite program, positioned him as a key technocrat. He was pivotal in translating Xi Jinping’s modernization goals for the PLA into reality, say military insiders.
Understanding the Chinese Military Structure:
The PLA, as the armed component of the ruling Communist Party, functions differently from most military systems. Rather than serving the state, the PLA operates directly under the party’s command. Throughout his ascent, Li would have undergone thorough scrutiny to ensure unwavering loyalty to both the party and President Xi.
Political commissars, a unique feature within traditional Communist militaries, remain active in the PLA. Their primary responsibility is to ensure loyalty, unity, and high morale alongside the command chain. The CMC stands atop the military decision-making hierarchy within the party.
Significantly, since Xi Jinping’s tenure as CMC Chairman, the PLA has seen multiple reforms. These changes, as the Pentagon’s 2022 report indicates, have diminished the PLA’s autonomy, cementing the party’s grip over military affairs. This dynamic introduces an additional layer of obscurity, intensifying the conventional veil of military secrecy.
Importance of Systemic Differences:
The systemic differences in China’s military operations cannot be downplayed. The ever-expanding and modernizing PLA is now the globe’s largest military force. With the integration of advanced weapons, structural changes are inevitable. The establishment of unified regional commands and the Strategic Support Force, responsible for space and cyber warfare capabilities, are testaments to this evolution.
Li’s association with this new body, as its deputy commander in 2016, further attests to his importance. As the PLA’s influence broadens, understanding its operations and leadership’s strategic goals becomes paramount for international militaries. This imperative drives military diplomacy.
Yet, Li’s vanishing act has sown seeds of doubt among international observers. Concerns mount that China’s military diplomacy could be overshadowed by tightening internal security measures.
Echoing this sentiment, U.S. defense leaders are keen on reestablishing regular interactions with their Chinese peers, especially amidst escalating regional tensions. Interestingly, Li, who faced U.S. sanctions in 2018 for procuring Russian weaponry, avoided engaging with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this year in Singapore. Hopes of thawing relations between the two military giants remain, especially after recent discussions between U.S. and Chinese officials. However, some opine that interactions with figures like CMC vice-chairman Zhang Youxia might prove more fruitful.
With these developments, all eyes are on an international security conference, initially slated to be hosted by Li, scheduled for next month.
What Lies Ahead?
The upcoming Xiangshan Forum, deemed Beijing’s prime defense diplomacy event, might offer clues about Li’s status. If he remains absent, it might indicate ongoing investigations.
Typically, by this time, invitations for the forum, scheduled for the latter half of next month, would be dispatched. This event, akin to the Shangri La Dialogue, serves as China’s platform to influence global defense and security dialogues. In its previous in-person iteration in 2019, the forum drew over 530 military and defense intellectuals, including 23 defense ministers.
The Chinese defence minister’s keynote speech is one of the event’s highlights, making Li’s participation, or the lack thereof, highly anticipated.
Li Shangfu’s mysterious disappearance underscores the complexities within China’s military-political landscape. As global powers eagerly await developments, the unfolding scenario reiterates the significance of understanding the nuances of China’s military operations in an increasingly interconnected world.