US sanctions on future Chinese defence minister pose ‘awkward challenge’ for resuming military talks

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of the G-20 leaders' summit on Nov 14, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING – This week’s meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden has broken the ice between the two superpowers, but existing US sanctions on a senior Chinese military officer could pose a challenge to the resumption of high-level military talks.

Speaking to reporters in Bali on Monday after his meeting with Mr Xi, Mr Biden hinted that military talks could soon begin. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will soon be “engaging with their counterparts in China”, he said.

But China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe is set to retire when the Chinese legislature convenes its annual meeting in March, and the officer widely expected to replace him, General Li Shangfu, was sanctioned by the US in 2018.

The US had imposed sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department and its director, Gen Li, for buying Russian fighter jets and missiles in what was an effort to punish Moscow for interfering with the 2016 US presidential election.

This means Gen Li is banned from holding a US visa, which would make him unable to travel to the US for an exchange or dialogue.

The senior military officer was promoted to the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) during the recent party congress in October. He ranks No. 4 in the CMC behind the two vice-chairmen Zhang Youxia and He Weidong, and chairman Xi.

This makes him likely to be the next defence minister, noted Dr James Char, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Gen Li, who is a former aerospace engineer and deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force, is “widely seen to have been picked in order to drive the PLA’s modernisation drive”, said Dr Char.

His impending promotion to defence minister “could prove to be awkward for the US, since Washington might have to row back on its sanctions against Li Shangfu if the defence ministers of both countries do meet”, he added.

Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, said the sanctions pose an “interesting test” for the two superpowers.

“When Li Shangfu was sanctioned, it was to fulfil a political objective on the part of the US, but you can’t now let this impact dialogue between the two defence ministries,” he said.

As tensions rise between the US and China, particularly over the issue of Taiwan, such high-level military dialogue is more important than ever, say analysts.

Beijing suspended some military dialogue channels with Washington following US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. While direct hotlines between the defence ministers still exist, calls from the Pentagon have reportedly gone unanswered since Mrs Pelosi’s visit.

Chinese experts say they expect Washington to lift the sanctions on Gen Li.

Taiwan will likely be a key issue that Washington will want to discuss, said international relations expert Shi Yinhong from Renmin University of China, pointing out that the Americans want an “absolute assurance” from Beijing against the launching of any conflict over the Taiwan Strait.

But if talks do begin, the Chinese will be wary of providing such a guarantee, he added.

“This is not something that China has accepted, because China knows if it does something like this it will give the US the assurance it needs to further support Taiwan,” said Prof Shi.

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