Just four months ago, China’s defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, was at a forum for regional officials in Singapore, serving as the face of his country’s bold vision for reshaping Asia’s balance of power. He cast China as a force for stability and accused the United States of stirring trouble in the region, suggesting that its leaders should “mind your own business.”
Now, General Li has been dismissed after nearly two months out of public view — the latest example of the capriciousness of high-level politics in China under Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader.
General Li, who had been appointed defense minister in March, is the second senior official to be purged this year without explanation and under a cloud of suspicion.
The foreign minister, Qin Gang, was dismissed in July, amid speculation about a potentially compromising affair while he was an ambassador in the United States. The removal of the defense minister also followed an abrupt shake-up in August in the leadership of China’s nuclear force, the highest-level upheaval in China’s military in recent years.
The announcement on Tuesday ended some uncertainty about General Li’s professional fate but leaves open questions about whether he is being investigated for any offenses. Officials in the United States said last month that the Chinese authorities had placed him under investigation for corruption.
By dismissing General Li, Mr. Xi is seeking to “send a message to everyone that he is strictly in control of the military,” said Andrew Yang, a former defense minister of Taiwan and now a scholar of the Chinese military. “He also wants to stress that he has zero tolerance for corruption.”
Mr. Xi is still regarded by experts as politically unassailable, with his authority buttressed by the loyalists he packed into the Communist Party’s leadership, the military’s top brass and the security services. But the abrupt downfall of such high-ranking officials has raised questions about Mr. Xi’s judgment, especially because the officials under scrutiny had been promoted by him.
General Li’s ouster was announced by Chinese state media in brief reports that noted other official appointments and dismissals. The reports said the decision was made on Tuesday at the end of a meeting of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress — a council in the country’s Communist Party-controlled legislature that formally appoints senior government officials.
There was no word on who would replace General Li as defense minister, a position that serves as the military’s chief diplomat. Unlike the United States’ defense secretary, the Chinese minister of defense does not have a major say over the military. The party controls the military through the Central Military Commission, which is headed by is Mr. Xi.
The next defense minister will likely play a major role in talks with the United States, if the two sides restart high-level military contacts. U.S. officials have pushed to restart lines of military communication with China, a topic that may be discussed when the country’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, visits Washington later this week. Mr. Wang is expected to meet with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other officials.
Pentagon officials have argued the two militaries need to communicate often and promptly to avoid or defuse potential crises, especially as the two countries’ militaries regularly patrol disputed areas including the South China Sea, heightening the risk of an unintended conflict.
But the Chinese military has been unwilling to engage at senior levels. China rebuffed invitations from the United States for talks between General Li and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, including at the regional security forum in Singapore, in June.
Beijing had said that the Biden administration should first lift sanctions imposed on General Li in 2018, for purchases of Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles, before the two defense officials could meet.
Mr. Li is departing just before China holds the Xiangshan Forum, an annual gathering in Beijing of Chinese and foreign military officials and experts, and China’s defense minister usually gives a keynote speech at the event. The forum is set to.
General Li was last seen in public in late August, when heattended by officials from African nations. That month, he had also traveled to Russia, where, speaking at a Moscow security conference, he warned against “playing with fire” when it came to Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its own and that the United States has expressed support for.
He added that any effort to “use Taiwan to contain China” would “surely end in failure.” In July, he met with Henry Kissinger during a visit to Beijing by the 100-year-old former secretary of state.
For much of his career, General Li was involved in China’s space and rocket programs, developing missiles and other advanced weapons — a part of his résumé that has been the subject of scrutiny since the reports emerged about the potential corruption probe.
In late July, Mr. Xi abruptly replaced the two top commanders of the Rocket Force, the arm of the Chinese military that oversees its nuclear missiles and much larger array of conventional missiles. The Chinese government gave no explanation for their ousting, buthave linked the upheaval to a probe into corruption or other misconduct in the Rocket Force, which Mr. Xi created in late 2015.
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.