BEIJING — China on Friday said it had appointed a new defense minister after months of uncertainty following the firing of his predecessor for reasons still unexplained.
The official Xinhua News Agency announced former naval commander Dong Jun would serve in the largely ceremonial role, but offered no comment on the reasons for the switch or the current circumstances of previous minister Li Shangfu, who has not been seen or heard from since August.
The uncertainty surrounding the leadership of the world’s largest standing military comes as Washington and its Asian allies are offering stronger resistance to China’s bid to assert itself as the dominant military power in the region.
Dong’s naval background is significant in that China has largely asserted its territorial claims using its massive force of warships, Coast Guard cutters and fishing boats acting as a maritime militia in the South China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also expanded its range to the Mediterranean Sea, South Africa and beyond, while adding three aircraft carriers and a plethora of destroyers, nuclear-powered submarines and other latest-generation craft to its fleet.
Along with challenging the Philippines and other nations that hold maritime claims in the South China Sea, China challenges Japan for control of an uninhabited island group in the East China Sea and has engaged in deadly clashes with India along their contested border high in the Himalayan Mountains.
Li’s disappearance came amid what analysts have called a purge of officials in the highly influential military hierarchy, as well as those in the financial and diplomatic sectors, including former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, whose fate also remains unknown.
Speculation over the reason for the removals has ranged from corruption allegations to spying suspicions.
However, they also point to challenges facing the leader of the ruling Communist Party, head of state and supreme military commander Xi Jinping, who has made himself a long-term leader and waged a relentless campaign against all real or perceived threats to his hold on power, even as China’s economy stalls and its foreign relations have become more contentious over its support for Russia and other authoritarian regimes.