China's Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu salutes the audience before delivering a speech during the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 4, 2023. He has been replaced by navy veteran Dong Jun.

China's Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu salutes the audience before delivering a speech during the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 4, 2023. He has been replaced by navy veteran Dong Jun. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — China named navy veteran Dong Jun as its new defense minister, a move that will help resume top-level military talks with the U.S. that are seen as crucial to steadying ties between the nuclear-armed powers.

Dong’s appointment was announced by the country’s top legislator on Friday, ending weeks of speculation over who would occupy the role Li Shangfu was ousted from in October, without explanation. China’s new defense minister is the first to come from a naval background.

That departure from precedent comes as China’s military has been rocked by a volley of unexplained personnel purges this year. Two top leaders were abruptly removed this summer from the secretive rocket force, from which the nation’s defense ministers have previously been picked.

Three senior executives at Chinese defense suppliers that manufacture missiles were exiled from a top Communist Party advisory body this week, with no details provided. The purges continued Friday, as China ousted nine military deputies from the legislature, including former ex-Air Force Commander Ding Laihang — the first time that area of the military had been implicated in the shake-ups.

Dong’s promotion suggested purges were ongoing in the rocket force, as well as the military procurement department that Li used to run, and which is under investigation, according to Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

It was also “a sign of China designating the South China Sea as a new priority area of geopolitical contestation between China and the U.S.,” he added.

Dong’s appointment will help smooth the path for the resumption of top-level military talks between Beijing and Washington, which were suspended after then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. A senior U.S. military official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said such talks would resume in January.

Former defense minister Li had been unable to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, because he was subject to U.S. sanctions. President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden pledged to resume high-level military talks during their meeting in California last month.

Unlike China’s recent top military diplomats, Dong doesn’t yet sit on the Central Military Commission, meaning Xi skipped members of the nation’s top military body to promote him. General Liu Zhenli, chief of the commission’s joint staff department, for example, was touted a top contender.

Dong does, however, have extensive experience in China’s navy, which has been projecting its force in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait this year, attracting criticism from the U.S. He has also worked in the Taiwan Strait, one of the biggest flashpoints in Beijing’s fragile relationship with the Washington.

He was appointed head of the world’s largest navy by number of vessels in 2021, a role now occupied by General Hu Zhongming, state media revealed earlier this week.

The new defense minister was also previously a deputy commander of the Southern Military Command, which looks after the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with neighboring nations including the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. conducts freedom of navigation operations in those waters, frustrating Beijing.

Dong was also a deputy commander of Eastern Military Command’s navy force. The fleet is in charge of the East China Sea, including the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. The force conducted drills around the island after Pelosi’s visit last year.

With assistance from Lucille Liu.

©2023 Bloomberg News.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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