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Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech as he reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech as he reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Picture taken April 12, 2018. Li Gang/Xinhua via REUTERS

Elevating Naval Priorities: China Appoints Admiral as Defense Minister

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December 30, 2023

(Bloomberg) China named navy veteran Dong Jun as its new defense minister, a move that will help resume top-level military talks with the US that are seen as crucial to steadying ties between the nuclear-armed powers. 

Dong’s appointment was announced by the country’s top legislator on Friday, ending months of speculation over who would occupy the role Li Shangfu was ousted from in October, without explanation. China’s new defense minister is the first to come from a naval background.

Also Read: gCaptain 2023 Naval Book Of The Year: Mao’s Army Goes To Sea

That departure from precedent comes as China’s military has been rocked by a volley of unexplained personnel purges this year. Two top leaders were abruptly removed this summer from the secretive rocket force, from which some of the nation’s defense ministers have previously been picked. 

Three senior executives at Chinese defense suppliers that manufacture missiles were exiled from a top Communist Party advisory body this week, with no details provided. The purges continued Friday, as China ousted nine military deputies from the legislature, including former ex-Air Force Commander Ding Laihang — the first time that area of the military had been implicated in the shake-ups. 

Dong’s promotion suggested purges were ongoing in the rocket force, as well as the military procurement department that Li used to run, and which is under investigation, according to Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

It was also “a sign of China designating the South China Sea as a new priority area of geopolitical contestation between China and the US,” he added.

Dong’s appointment will help smooth the path for the resumption of top-level military talks between Beijing and Washington, which were suspended after then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. A Pentagon spokesman on Friday said the US is communicating with China at the working level about “a sequence” of upcoming engagements, including a resumption of defence policy coordination talks in January and maritime consultations in early 2024.

China PLA defense minister Admiral Dong
China’s new Defense Minister Dong Jun – Image via PLAN

Former defense minister Li had been unable to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, because he was subject to US sanctions. President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden pledged to resume high-level military talks during their meeting in California last month. 

Unlike China’s recent top military diplomats, Dong doesn’t yet sit on the Central Military Commission, meaning Xi skipped members of the nation’s top military body to promote him. General Liu Zhenli, chief of the commission’s joint staff department, for example, was touted as a contender.

Dong does, however, have extensive experience in China’s navy, which has been projecting its force in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait this year. He has worked in both of those areas, which are two of the biggest flashpoints in Beijing’s fragile relationship with Washington.

He most recently served as head of the world’s largest navy by number of vessels, a role now occupied by General Hu Zhongming, state media revealed earlier this week. 

Prior to that, Dong was a deputy commander of the Southern Military Command, which looks after the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with neighboring nations including the Philippines and Vietnam. The US conducts freedom of navigation operations in those waters, frustrating Beijing.

Dong was also a deputy commander of Eastern Military Command’s navy force. That fleet is in charge of the East China Sea, including waters around the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. The force conducted drills around the island after Pelosi’s visit last year.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

Also Read: gCaptain 2023 Naval Book Of The Year: Mao’s Army Goes To Sea

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