US-sanctioned aerospace expert becomes China’s new defence minister

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China has named a US-sanctioned general as its new defense minister in a move that could spell more difficulties for the already strained US-China relations.

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Aerospace expert Li Shangfu was voted unanimously on Sunday by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, to replace outgoing defense chief Wei Fenghe.

Mr Li, 65, was approved by the US State Department in 2018 to buy Russian arms, including 10 Su-35 fighter jets and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

He took office amid a stern warning from Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who said there would be “certain conflict” with the US unless it changed course.

The latest appointment is part of a major cabinet reshuffle by Xi Jinping, who was formally given an unprecedented third term as president.

Experts said the sanctions imposed on the new defense minister are not a compromise for future meetings, but add a potential complication that could provide an advantage to China’s military leadership.

While China’s defense minister has little power and the post is seen as largely diplomatic and ceremonial, his actions will be closely watched by the US and its allies because of his past history with Washington.

An aerospace engineer by profession, Mr. Li has worked on China’s satellite programme. His credits include spearheading the modernization effort of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and accelerating the development of China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities.

James Char, a security scholar at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he could play a key role in Xi Jinping’s goals of becoming a “world-class military”.

“The operational and technical background of the next Chinese Defense Minister is particularly relevant as the PLA aims to become a world-class military by 2049,” Mr Char said.

In 2016, he was named deputy commander of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, a specialized organization tasked with developing space and cyber warfare capabilities. He was later appointed head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, China’s governing defense body headed by Mr. Xi.

Speaking about Mr. Li’s elevation to the top defense post, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Martin Meiners said the US military could not comment on media reports of a change in China’s leadership. He said that the US is clear about maintaining contact with the PLA. “Open lines of communication can help us manage risk, avoid miscalculations, and manage competition responsibly,” Meiners said.

Other senior appointments include four new vice premiers: Ding Xuxiang, He Lifeng, Zhang Guoqing and Liu Guozhong. The vice premiers were appointed upon the nomination of the new premier Li Keqiang and will serve on the State Council, which is tasked with reviving the Chinese economy.

In another major reshuffle, China unexpectedly retained its central bank governor and finance minister. Mr. Xi broke with tradition to retain Yi Gang, 65, as governor of the People’s Bank of China and Liu Kun, 66, as finance minister. Both men have reached the official retirement age of 65.

US-sanctioned aerospace expert becomes China’s new defence minister

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