Xi’s Missing Defense Chief Opens a Window for US Military Talks

Over the summer, Beijing limited Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to a single handshake with sanctioned Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu at a top military forum. Now, Li’s drop from public view could help reboot senior-level military talks between the superpowers.

(Bloomberg) — Over the summer, Beijing limited Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to a single handshake with sanctioned Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu at a top military forum. Now, Li’s drop from public view could help reboot senior-level military talks between the superpowers.

The Chinese defense chief is reported to be under probe, after not being seen in public since Aug. 29 and missing engagements, fueling speculation he’s set to be replaced. That would remove one major roadblock for military talks with the US, after Beijing made their resumption conditional on the removal of Li’s sanctions. 

US officials have intelligence that suggests Li, 65, has already been removed from his post, according to a US official familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive issue. Neither Beijing nor Chinese state media has provided information about Li’s status. China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.

China’s relationship with the US has stabilized over the past few months. President Joe Biden has sent four cabinet-level officials to Beijing to improve communication lines, as the two powers spar on everything from Taiwan to human rights issues and trade curbs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to travel to the San Francisco in November to meet with Biden. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi met this weekend to discuss that possible meeting, according to people familiar with China’s preparations for the meeting. 

As tensions still simmer, Li’s removal would be no guarantee that Beijing would resume military talks it paused in August 2022 — before Li was minister. That action was a retaliation for then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the self-ruled island China considers its territory.

“Beijing had stated they do not accept military-to-military engagement if it enables the US to find some easy way of de-escalating,” said Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

The revival of top-level military talks come as concerns grow that an accident between the US and China in the South China Sea or around Taiwan could spill over into a broader conflict that would be catastrophic for the region and global economy.

With Li in place, the resumption of such talks had reached a deadlock, with China citing the sanctions as an obstacle that “should be removed before any exchange and cooperation could take place.” The US said in May it had no plans to lift curbs on the defense chief, appearing to walk back Biden’s earlier comment that such a move was “under negotiation.” 

Lower level ties had, however, remained in place with Admiral John Aquilino, who leads the US Indo-Pacific Command, meeting General Xu Qiling, deputy joint chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, in Fiji last month.

Now China appears to have made the conditions for talks favorable for top-level talks to resume, even if that wasn’t the intension. That removes the need for Biden to make an awkward choice between military stability and giving in to a demand from its key rival, Beijing.

Any removal of Li – whose main role is the Chinese military’s top diplomat – raises other questions about tensions within the Chinese government. Li would be the second minister to be abruptly removed from his role less than a year into Xi’s third term, after then foreign minister Qin Gang’s abrupt ouster in July. Two rocket force generals were also purged this summer, without explanation.

While there are no signs the Chinese leader’s rule faces any major challenge, such moves fan concerns among investors and governments that Beijing is being increasingly hard to read.

The disappearances of Li and Qin didn’t come up during the discussion between Wang and Sullivan this weekend, and the US official didn’t raise the matter, a senior administration official said. 

The people said both sides had an interest in stabilizing ties. China’s leaders are focused on the country’s economic downturn, while US leaders may hope for better relations before the 2024 presidential election. They added that the chance for any fundamental improvement in the relationship is slim given the overall state of US-China ties remains tense.

Unanswered Questions

With Li’s status unclear, theories are swirling about his absence, after he reportedly skipped an annual meeting with Vietnamese defense leaders earlier this month on short notice.

The defense chief is under investigation for corruption related to the procurement of military equipment, Reuters has reported, citing a regional security official and three people in direct contact with the Chinese military.

That comes after the People’s Liberation Army in July announced it was launching a corruption probe into hardware procurement going back to October 2017 — the month after Li took over the equipment department.

The speculation around Li, and the state of China’s military, could raise awkward questions for Xi as he heads into his first possible talks with Biden since last November. 

Already likely to be on the agenda is an alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew over the US at the beginning of the year. That episode derailed bilateral ties for a time, with Biden subsequently saying Xi wasn’t aware of the balloon’s location — implying he didn’t have full control of his military.

Any purge of Li so soon after being installed in March might also suggest that Xi’s decade-long efforts to clean up corruption in the PLA hadn’t been successful. 

Bates Gill, executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, wrote in a note: “In that sense, we have to question Xi’s ability to fully exert his authority over the vast empire that is the PLA.”

–With assistance from Fran Wang, Colum Murphy and Kari Lindberg.

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