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US-sanctioned general set to become public face of China’s burgeoning military

HONG KONG — General Li Shangfu, who was named China’s new defense minister on Sunday, is a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization efforts — an initiative that prompted the United States to sanction him for acquiring arms from Russia.

Although his new post is seen as largely diplomatic and ceremonial within the Chinese system, Li’s appointment will be closely watched given his background, regional diplomats say.

His tenure begins as Washington pushes to restore military dialogue and communications, which deteriorated when Beijing reacted angrily to then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.

Li’s history as a technocrat — he’s an aerospace engineer who worked in China’s satellite program — will help him play a key role in achieving intermediate goals of President Xi Jinping’s goals for the PLA, experts say.

“The operational and technological background of China’s next defense minister is particularly relevant given that the PLA aims to become a world-class military by 2049,” said James Char, a security researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies .

In 2016, Li was appointed deputy commander of the PLA’s then-new Strategic Support Force — an elite organization tasked with accelerating the development of China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities.

He was then appointed head of the equipment development department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s ruling defense agency, headed by President Xi Jinping.

Russian purchases

As a director, he was named in sanctions imposed by the US State Department in September 2018 over the 2017 purchase of 10 Su-35 fighter jets and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia’s top arms exporter, Rosoboron export.

Some security scholars note that while the sanctions are not a deal-breaker for future meetings, they add a potential complication and leverage on China’s military leadership.

When asked last week about Li’s imminent rise, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Marty Meiners said the US military cannot comment on media reports of China’s leadership change but has made it clear that it wants to maintain communications with the PLA .

“Open communication channels can help us to manage risks, avoid misjudgments and manage competition responsibly,” said Meiners.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said China is likely to use the momentum for diplomatic purposes — either by presenting the sanctions as immaterial if they are overlooked, or by suggesting that Washington and not Beijing is not willing to interfere. “Engagement has always been a priority for the US, and China sees it as a concession,” Mastro said.

Li’s tenure at the Central Military Commission has highlighted his ties to Xi, who have strengthened his influence in the military.

Some scholars believe that Li has close ties to Zhang Youxia, a close military ally of Xi, whom Li replaced as head of the department.

Zhang was promoted to first vice chairman of the CMC during the October Communist Party Congress, and Li succeeded him in the ruling seven-member group of the commission.

As defense minister, Li is also likely to be closely involved in military relations in Asia, attending events such as meetings of Asian defense leaders and the informal Shangri-La dialogue on security in Singapore.

“I think he was promoted to this position because he has delivered for Xi Jinping on key areas of modernization,” said Singapore-based security analyst Alexander Neill, an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.

“This is someone who has to hold his own in front of an international audience.”

Source: Crypto News Deutsch

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