China has named former Navy Chief Dong Jun as its new defense minister, replacing Li Shangfu. He was dismissed earlier this year amid a series of unexplained leadership changes in the military and political spheres. The unexpected removal of Li Shangfu and Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July raised eyebrows, especially considering both were handpicked by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Dong Jun’s appointment comes at a pivotal moment as President Xi works to upgrade the Chinese army, aiming to solidify China’s position as a dominant global power. This move also aligns with China’s growing assertiveness in regions like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
The role of the Chinese defense minister involves serving as the public face of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in interactions with the media and other armed forces. Notably, one of the crucial responsibilities for the defense minister is to engage with the U.S. military to mitigate the risk of conflict over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Dong Jun, 62, brings significant experience to the position, having served as the People’s Liberation Army Navy chief and attained the rank of full general in 2021. His prior role as vice commander of the East Sea Fleet, a foundational pillar of the Eastern Theatre Command, underscores his familiarity with key flashpoints like Taiwan.
The Eastern Theatre Command plays a vital role in potential conflicts over Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China has expressed intentions to reunify with the mainland, even if it requires the use of force. Dong Jun’s past role as vice commander of the Southern Theatre Command, operating in the contested South China Sea, further positions him strategically.
Hu Zhongming has assumed the role of the new navy chief, succeeding Dong Jun.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, suggests that Dong’s appointment signifies China’s recognition of the South China Sea as a new priority area for geopolitical competition with the U.S. This move also follows the tradition of appointing non-Army generals to lead China’s military diplomacy.
As China continues to navigate complex geopolitical challenges, Dong Jun’s role as defense minister will play a crucial part in shaping the nation’s military strategy and international relations, particularly in regions of strategic importance like the South China Sea.