China has named a general who is under US sanctions as its new defence minister, creating an additional hurdle for military dialogue as the two countries fret that geopolitical tensions could boil over into conflict.
Li Shangfu, an aerospace engineer with little previous international exposure, was confirmed as the top military official on Sunday. His appointment was expected after the Chinese Communist party made him a member of the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military body, last October.
His promotion follows a warning by foreign minister Qin Gang that there “will surely be conflict” with the US unless Washington changes course.
In 2018, the US added Li to a sanctions list for engaging in transactions with individuals affiliated with Russia’s defence or intelligence sectors. Li at the time was director of an agency that planned, developed and procured weapons for the People’s Liberation Army, and was targeted for his role in acquiring SU-35 fighter aircraft and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.
While China’s defence minister wields relatively little power, he will be in the limelight as tensions with the US over Taiwan — and most recently their spat over a Chinese balloon that Washington shot down after it traversed US airspace — have disrupted communication between the two military rivals.
“The fact that he is under sanctions is awkward for China and for the US — I think the US needs to make an exception, which could be politically difficult at home,” said Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former country director for China at the US defence secretary’s office.
“Li is going to have a lot on his plate. US-China [military-to-military communication] is in a very bad shape, one of the worst ever. He is going to have to tread a very fine line between signalling resolve to the US and establishing relationships and some kind of rapport with his counterparts.”
While a bilateral defence hotline for crises was used during the balloon incident, other channels have been cut. Communication at the level of the US deputy assistant secretary of defence has been paused since China held unprecedented military manoeuvres around Taiwan in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit there last August.
Some observers said it was hard to imagine Li becoming as confident a military diplomat as his predecessor Wei Fenghe. “Wei had grown into the role and seemed to enjoy it, even cracking the occasional joke,” said Meia Nouwens, an expert on the Chinese military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who dealt with China’s delegation led by Wei at the institute’s Shangri-La Dialogue of senior defence officials.
Other analysts said Li’s technocratic profile was in line with the PLA’s preference to have the defence ministry, a purely symbolic role, led by someone not involved in operational leadership, which should be concentrated in the hands of the commission’s two vice-chairs.
Experts also point to Li’s dealings with Russia as one likely reason for his promotion.
“The relationship with Russia is another of China’s key defence relationships,” said Joel Wuthnow, an expert on the PLA at the National Defense University. “China’s defence white papers almost always talk about the US and about Russia. They have to manage both of these relationships as they want stability with the US and solidarity with Russia.”
Li’s family background may have also played a role. His father Li Shaozhu was a field commander of the Northwest Field Army during the Chinese civil war and belonged to the same faction as President Xi Jinping’s father and the father of Zhang Youxia, the commission vice-chair whom Xi kept on beyond usual age limits.
“His professional abilities, fatherly relationships and reputation will earn him Xi Jinping’s trust,” said Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies think-tank in Taipei.