Li Shangfu: US-sanctioned aerospace expert becomes China’s new defence minister

China has named a US-sanctioned general as its new defence minister in a decision that could spell more difficulties for already strained US-China ties.

Li Shangfu, an aerospace expert, was voted unanimously by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, on Sunday to replace outgoing defence chief Wei Fenghe.

Mr Li, 65, was sanctioned by the US State Department in 2018 for purchasing Russian weapons, including 10 Su-35 combat aircraft and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

He took charge amid a stark warning by foreign minister Qin Gang in which he said there “will surely be conflict” with the US unless it changes course.

The latest appointment is part of a major cabinet reshuffle by Xi Jinping, who was formally given an unprecedented third term as president.

Experts said the sanctions slapped on the new defence minister are not a deal breaker for future meetings, but add a potential complication that could provide China‘s military leadership with leverage.

While China’s defence minister wields little power and the post is viewed as largely diplomatic and ceremonial, his actions will be closely watched by the US and its allies because of his past history with Washington.

An aerospace engineer by profession, Mr Li has worked on China‘s satellite programme. His credentials include the modernisation effort of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and accelerating the development of China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities.

James Char, a security scholar at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Reuters he could play a key role in president Xi Jinping’s goals to become “a world-class military”.

“The operational and technological background of the next Chinese defence minister is especially pertinent given that the PLA aims to become a world-class military by 2049,” Mr Char said.

In 2016, he was named deputy commander of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, an elite body tasked with the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. He was later appointed head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, China‘s governing defence body headed by Mr Xi.

Speaking about Mr Li’s rise to the top defence post, Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Marty Meiners said the US military could not comment on media reports of changes in China’s leadership.

He said the US had been clear in wanting to maintain communications with the PLA. “Open lines of communication can help us manage risk, avoid miscalculation, and responsibly manage competition,” Mr Meiners said.

Other senior appointments included the induction of four new vice premiers: Ding Xuexiang, He Lifeng, Zhang Guoqing and Liu Guozhong.

The vice premiers were appointed on the nomination of new premier Li Qiang and will serve on the State Council, the body tasked with reviving of the Chinese economy.

In another major reshuffle, China unexpectedly retained its central bank governor and finance minister.

Mr Xi broke with convention to retain Yi Gang, 65, as governor of the People’s Bank of China and Liu Kun, 66, as finance minister.

Both men have reached the official retirement age of 65.

Additional reporting by agencies