(CNSNews.com) – China has appointed as its next defense minister a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for his role in buying weapons from Russia.
The appointment of General Li Shangfu as the 13th defense minister since the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Over the past year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has held two face-to-face meetings and had phone conversations with Li’s predecessor, Gen. Wei Fenghe, emphasizing each time the importance of keeping lines of communication open to prevent conflict.
Austin’s new counterpart, however, is subject to a U.S. visa ban, asset freeze, and a prohibition on any transactions involving the U.S. financial system.
The sanctions were implemented under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which sought to punish Russia for a range of malign actions ranging from the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to interference in U.S. elections.
The Trump administration sanctioned Li in his capacity as director of the Equipment Development Department (EDD), for “significant transactions” involving Russian weaponry, including the purchase of Sukhoi-35 fighter jets in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018.
The EDD, which falls under the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC) is itself also similarly sanctioned.
Military experts said at the time that the purchase of the extended-range-capable Su-35s boosted China’s bid to enforce its contested claims across the sizeable South China Sea, while the S-400s deployed in southeast China across the strait from Taiwan boast a range that could effectively target Taiwanese jets immediately upon takeoff.
China’s threats to Taiwan and its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea – where the U.S. seeks to uphold “freedom of navigation” – are perennial irritants in U.S.-China relations. More recently ties have become further strained over the Chinese spy balloon episode, and U.S. concerns about China’s stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Xi Jinping’s third five-year term as president was formalized by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) on Friday – the rubber stamp legislation backed him in a 2952-to-0 vote –days after he publicly accused the U.S. in unusually direct language of a campaign of “containment and suppression” of China.
Foreign Minister Qin Gang followed up with a warning that if the U.S. does not change course, “no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
Since Biden used the term in a video conference call with Xi in November 2021, the administration has spoken frequently of the need for “guardrails” to ensure that the competition between the U.S. and China does not veer out of control and into conflict.
When Austin held his first meeting with Wei, in Singapore last June, defense officials briefing on background again referred to guardrails in the context of keeping such channels of communication open.
Austin at the time used the term himself in a speech at a security forum in Singapore.
“We’re working closely with both our competitors and our friends to strengthen the guardrails against conflict,” he said. “That includes fully open lines of communication with China’s defense leaders to ensure that we can avoid any miscalculations. These are deeply, deeply important conversations. And the United States is fully committed to doing our part.”
The situation worsened after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and when Austin and Wei met again in November, on the sidelines of a conference in Cambodia, China said Wei had made clear that the U.S., not China, bore responsibility for the tensions in the relationship.
The November conversation was their last, according to the Pentagon.
When the U.S. Air Force in February shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast after it had traversed U.S. airspace for almost a week, Austin sought a phone conversation with Wei. Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder said Beijing had “declined” to take the call.
The CCP daily Global Times on Sunday accused Western media of “hyping” the fact the China’s new defense minister is under U.S. sanctions.
It cited a China Foreign Affairs University professor, Li Haidong, as saying the issue could “add fuel to fire and lead to additional and unnecessary troubles that could have been avoided in defense communications between the two countries.”
Over a military career spanning more than four decades, Gen. Li Shangfu reportedly headed the country’s main satellite launch facility in southwestern China – including at the time when it launched a ballistic missile to destroy a Chinese weather satellite in orbit, some 500 miles above the Earth, making China just the third country, after the U.S. and Soviet Union, to shoot down an object in space.
Later, Li served as deputy commander of the PLA’s Strategic Support Command, a branch created as part of a significant military restructure in 2015 to oversee space and cyber warfare.
He is now also a State Councilor, one of five top-ranking members of China’s State Council, the supreme executive body in the one-party state.
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