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China Instates Former Navy Chief Dong Jun as New Defence Minister Amidst Military Reforms

Published December 29, 2023
7 months ago

Beijing has ushered in a new chapter in its military narrative with the appointment of former Navy Chief Dong Jun as China's defence minister. He takes over from his predecessor, Li Shangfu, who vanished from the public realm last August. A change in leadership comes at a critical moment, with President Xi Jinping's vision of cementing China as a dominant global force, a prospect that has stirred unease among neighboring countries.


The 62-year-old Dong Jun brings to the table a wealth of experience, especially in areas pivotal to China's regional aspirations – the South China Sea and Taiwan. His prior roles as vice commander of the East Sea Fleet, a key segment of the Eastern Theatre Command overseeing Taiwan-related affairs, and vice commander of the Southern Theatre Command involved in the South China Sea command, offer him unique insights into two of the most volatile points of international contention.


In his capacity as China's new defence head, Dong will become the chief liaison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), forming strategies for external military engagements and media interactions. Of particular note will be his mandate to navigate the delicate military relations with the United States, with missions to de-escalate tensions and avoid conflicts. His familiarity with managing close calls between the two superpowers' militaries could prove invaluable as he assumes a crisis management role.


Experts like Li Mingjiang from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore highlight Dong's crisis management abilities. Meanwhile, Wen-Ti Sung from the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub sees Dong's selection hinting at possible ongoing purges within China's Rocket Force and Equipment Development Department. Notably, Dong's predecessors, hailing from these branches, have since faded away from public engagements.


The ostensible cause for Li Shangfu's abrupt departure and subsequent disappearance after a short-lived tenure as defence minister was a corruption probe related to procurement and development of military equipment. His absence, unaddressed by Beijing, and the purge of his title in October, indicate a larger narrative of internal cleansing. Unlike Li, who faced sanctions from the US inhibiting interactions with his defense counterparts due to his involvement in purchasing Russian military gear, Dong is not restrained by such sanctions.


The backdrop of these changes is President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping's commitment to reconvene high-level military discussions, a development that arose from their meeting in San Francisco last month. This promising turn, aimed at easing tensions exacerbated by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious visit to Taiwan, illuminates a possible thaw and presents new channels for diplomatic engagement.


The selection of Dong, a figure accustomed to the South China Sea and Taiwan theatres of operation, is a prescient move by China as it calibrates its military strategy with broader global ambitions. How Dong navigates the intricate web of regional geopolitics and his effectiveness in promoting stability while asserting China's military objectives will be critical in shaping the regional balance of power in the coming years.


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