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Xi Jinping Sacks the Chinese Defense Minister: Cautions for Japan and India

The dismissal of the Chinese defense minister adds to speculation that a major reorganization of the CCP power structure is taking place under Xi Jinping.



Then-Chinese State Councillor and Defense Minister Li Shangfu spoke at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore on June 4, 2023. (©Kyodo)

The recent sacking of the Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu points to some apparent bitter power struggles within the Chinese government. At the same time, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. It comes within months of the sacking of former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

Li Shangfu, an aerospace engineer by training, began his career at a satellite and rocket launch center. He was infamously sanctioned by the United States government in 2018. At the time, he headed the equipment development arm of the Chinese military. That division's purchases of Russian combat aircraft and arms led to the sanctions. 

Earlier in 2023, Li refused to meet his US counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, at a Singapore defense summit in early June 2023. He traveled outside China again in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus. Li's last public appearance, however, was on August 29 in Beijing at a security forum with African nations.  

Earlier in 2023, two top generals overseeing the country's nuclear and missile arsenal were replaced. With his sacking, Li Shangfu now has the dubious distinction of being the country's shortest-serving defense minister ever.  

Adding to the ignominy, Li was also removed from the nation's top legislative body. Besides, he was stripped of his state councillor title and membership in the government's highest national defense body. What is even more significant is that, as of this writing, there has been no announcement of Li's replacement.

Members of Xi Jinping's new leadership team appear in front of the press after the first plenary session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 23, 2022. (©Kyodo)

What's Gone Wrong?

Li Shangfu's sacking certainly tells us that not everything is well inside the political setup of the People's Republic of China.

First, it seems that President Xi Jinping is trying to establish an entirely new power structure in the country.  At the same time, the former Premier, Li Keqiang has passed away. Some observers in China and elsewhere are also suggesting that there could be more to Li Keqiang's death than what meets the eye. There has been an unprecedented spontaneous outpouring of public grief after his demise, something not very common in China.

Second, on the economic or foreign policy fronts, what is true is that President Xi is on a sticky wicket. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown that China is not going to have it easy, just in case it were to attempt an invasion of Taiwan. In addition, one must remember that while the Russian armed forces have seen action in Syria in the past decade, the Chinese have had no such experience in a long time.

Third, according to recent reports, Beijing also sacked its Finance Minister and Science and Technology minister. This suggests that President Xi Jinping is acquiring powers like no predecessor did, with the sole exception of Mao Zedong.

Fourth, another factor could be that US-China military-to-military talks could restart and Li Shangfu has been a sticking point. Peace on the military front with the United States could allow China to devote more time to its economy.

A group of naval vessels from China and Russia sails during joint military drills in the Sea of Japan. (©Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

What India and Japan Need to Watch Out For

China seems to be on a very slippery wicket, both within the country and outside. Hence the propensity of a limited attack on Taiwan cannot be ruled out, although a full-scale invasion is unlikely. China will also be going out all guns blazing against smaller nations like the Philippines. 

In addition, since currently the US is occupied in the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping could use this occasion to strengthen ties with Russia and other countries like Iran. There are already reports emerging that the Chinese have been supplying weapons to the Russians, who are facing a shortfall due to the prolonged fighting in Ukraine.

On the other hand, New Delhi also needs to be careful. In the past, China has attacked India when the major powers have been busy elsewhere. One example is China's 1962 invasion of India when the then-USSR and the US were busy with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In addition, China launched an attack on Indian territory as recently as June 2020. India successfully repulsed that attack. However, it led to the first casualties between the two sides in almost 45 years. 

China could also open a front against Japan in the Sea of Japan since is claiming the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands.  Hence, Japan will also have to coordinate its response with countries like the US. 

Another possibility is that North Korea may take advantage of this bedlam and indulge in some kind of provocative behavior.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the third Belt and Road summit in Beijing on October 18. (©Kyodo)

Xi Jinping is Consolidating His Power

Xi Jinping has been "elected" for an unprecedented third term as the President of the People's Republic of China. This itself shows how much power he holds. He has also set three goals for the People's Liberation Army's, or PLA, modernization by the middle of this century (2049 or 2050) as part of China's greater ambition to become a "strong country with a strong military."  

While whatever is happening inside China points to some tumultuous times, Japan and India should not let their guard down at any moment. They should collaborate with like-minded countries, such as the US, to share intelligence on China's military movements. As they say, eternal vigilance is the price of peace.


Author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Security Studies. The views expressed here are personal.

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