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Former Defense Chiefs’ Fall Likely Cripples China’s War Aims

PLA invasion exercise. Photo from the Chinese Defense Ministry

The downfall of successive Chinese defense ministers, Li Shangfu and Wei Fenghe, and indications of a huge scandal in the defense ministry have likely crippled Beijing’s ambitions to invade Taiwan or go to war with the US and the Philippines at least in the near term, analysts say, despite rising military tensions over Taiwan and islets in the South China Sea with Chinese troops boarding a Filipino ship on June 17. That is probably a relief to the US, which finds itself bogged down with aiding Ukraine and Israel in their own military struggles and unlikely to be able to counter any adventurism in Asia.

The Chinese government announced on July 27 the prosecution and expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of Li and Wei, the first time since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 that the fall from grace of the country’s two senior defense officials was announced on the same day. Wei was defense minister from March 2018 to March 2023, followed by Li, who occupied this post from March 2023 till October 2023.

On June 27, the ministry announced that Li had been expelled from the party and is due to be prosecuted following an investigation initiated last August 31 by the Central Military Commission’s disciplinary and supervisory agency. The Central Military Commission (CMC) is China’s highest military institution which oversees the PLA. On the same day, the ministry announced that Wei had been expelled from the party and is due to be prosecuted following a probe launched last September 21.

“Many Chinese generals do not want to wage a war against Taiwan because of the sorry state of Chinese weaponry. They fear China may lose. A wrongfooted invasion means not only loss of life but also loss of the generals’ salaries and privileges,” Willy Lam, senior China fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, told Asia Sentinel. “Recent events showing the lack of sophistication of Chinese submarines, naval vessels, fighters and aircraft carriers shocked Chinese President Xi Jinping and now he lacks the guts for a full-scale confrontation with the US military.” 

Dozens of senior officers with the rank of colonel and general have been arrested since Li’s dismissal last October, Lam said. The bulk of China’s Rocket Force is corrupt, Lam alleged. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force is China’s missile force, which includes long-range nuclear missiles capable of striking the US. Wei was stripped of his rank as rocket general, China’s official anti-corruption website announced on June 27.

“Dozens of senior officers in the equipment/procurement apparatus also under investigation or arrested: this shows that PLA weapons may not be up to scratch and no match for the Americans or even the Japanese in terms of equipment efficacy; this is one factor forcing Xi to postpone the invasion of Taiwan,” Lam added.

Xi told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that Washington is trying to bait Beijing into attacking Taiwan, the Financial Times reported on June 16.

In the wake of Li and Wei’s expulsion from the party, revised audit regulations and further anti-corruption investigations will sweep the PLA, an analyst of Cercius Group, a Canadian geopolitical consulting firm, told Asia Sentinel. “Audits and investigations will not only delay any form of military actions in the South China Sea but also lead to more reorganization and reshuffling. This will also cause severe setbacks to Xi’s Taiwan agenda.”

Earlier in June, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of US Indo-Pacific fleet, told the Washington Post that the US has plans to employ thousands of drones if Chinese forces attack Taiwan. The US strategy, which Paparo described as “Hellscape,” is that as Chinese forces cross the Taiwan Strait towards Taiwan, the US would deploy unmanned submarines, unmanned surface ships, and aerial drones.

Commenting on Admiral Paparo’s hellscape remarks, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman, said at the ministry’s press conference on June 27, “Those who clamor for turning others’ homeland into hell should get ready for burning in hell themselves.”

Treason suspected

This is a distressing development as the two defense ministers were picked by Xi himself,” said a source who declined to be named. “That both of them failed shows that systemic corruption persists in the ministry of defense.”

According to the June 27 announcement on Li and Wei, both were accused of taking “a huge amount” of bribes. The ministry also accused Li of offering bribes to seek “undue benefits.” In addition, the defense ministry hinted that Li and Wei were suspected of treason.

“Li offered bribes to his boss. So who is the boss?” said an analyst who declined to be named.

China’s military buildup over the last decade has given rise to ample opportunities for those in charge of military equipment and procurement to enrich themselves, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs

“As a high-ranking official of the Party and the military, Wei lost his faith and loyalty. His actions failed the trust of the Party Central Committee and the CMC, and severely contaminated the political environment of the military, bringing enormous damage to the Party’s cause, the development of national defense and the armed forces, as well as the image of senior officials. Wei’s violations are extremely serious in nature,” the ministry alleged.

The ministry said likewise of Li.

Xi created China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), which was in charge of high-tech warfare including space warfare, in December 2015, which was then headed by Li whom Xi personally handpicked, said Andy Wong, a UK-based defense analyst. In April 2024, Xi dissolved the SSF, Wong pointed out.

“Li’s purge lends credence to theories that the SSF’s dissolution had less to do with its operational failings, and more to do with Xi’s desire to destroy a potentially rebellious power base threatening his personal grip on the CCP, the PLA, and China as a whole,” Wong said.

Lam said, “There is quite a big purge going on in the upper echelons of the PLA, particularly among senior officers handling missiles and procurement. Xi is paranoid about generals professing 100 percent loyalty to himself and he doubts even generals promoted by himself.”

The Chinese authorities have been investigating the Rocket Force and arrested over 70 people in the process, Asia Sentinel reported on December 14, 2023. Some of the rocket generals as well as former Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang have been suspected of leaking China’s missile secrets to the US, according to this Asia Sentinel article. There has been no official announcement from Qin since he was sacked as foreign minister in July last year.

Minnie Chan, a South China Morning Post defense reporter, has been missing since she reported on a defense forum in Beijing in October last year, around the time that Li was sacked, Asia Sentinel reported on December 5, 2023. So far, there has been no news of her release. The Chinese authorities probably want to know who the sources of her reporting on Chinese military matters are, said a consultant who declined to be named.

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