US Believes Chinese Defense Minister Under Inquiry, FT Says

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(Bloomberg) — The US believes Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu is under investigation and has been relieved of command, the Financial Times reports, a sign of potential further upheaval in President Xi Jinping’s government less than a year into his third term.

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The report cited three US officials and two people briefed on the intelligence as saying the US has concluded Li had been stripped of his responsibilities. It didn’t describe the nature of the probe.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning before business hours.

See: Xi Stresses Military Unity After Purging Rocket Force Chiefs

Last week, Xi called for a “a high degree of unity” in the People’s Liberation Army, as rumors swirled about the defense minister in diplomatic circles. China’s military in July launched a corruption probe into hardware procurement going back to October 2017, without saying why that date was significant.

Li headed the equipment department from September 2017 to 2022, though the government has given no indication he is suspected of wrongdoing.

Speculation over Li’s absence follows a series of abrupt personnel moves in the upper echelons of Chinese power. Last month, Xi abruptly purged two generals leading the secretive rocket force, which manages the country’s nuclear arsenal, without explanation. That came weeks after the Chinese leader stunned the world by ousting Qin Gang from the role of foreign minister, just seven months into that job.

More: Ouster of Xi’s Handpicked Foreign Minister Halts Rising Career

Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, recently linked Li to those unexplained moves, saying in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the Communist Party official hadn’t been seen in public for two weeks. When asked about Emanuel’s post, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she was “not aware of the situation.”

Li last made a public appearance on Aug. 29, when he delivered a keynote speech at the 3rd China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing. He also traveled to Russia and Belarus in mid-August. He called China’s military relationship with Russia a “model for cooperation” during a security conference in Moscow.

Li was schedule to attend an annual meeting with Vietnamese defence leaders last week, but canceled at short notice, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing three officials with direct knowledge of the matter. Beijing cited a “health condition” for the minister’s absence, two Vietnamese officials said.

The defense minister’s removal could be a boon for the US: Li is the subject of sanctions the Trump administration imposed in 2018, after he oversaw an arms purchase from Russia. That’s impeded US efforts to restart top-level military contact severed after then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August last year. The lack of communication has raised concern about an accident potentially setting off a conflict.

Unlike China’s foreign minister, who makes public appearances roughly once a week, the defense minister typically has a less public profile.

(Updates with more context throughout.)

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