The promotion of Adm. Dong Jun may calm uncertainty after the unexplained disappearance of the previous minister, Gen. Li Shangfu.
China on Friday appointed a naval commander with experience in the South China Sea as its minister of defense, filling a monthslong vacancy created by the unexplained disappearance of the previous minister, who appeared to have fallen in an investigation into possible corruption or other misdeeds.
The appointment of the commander, Adm. Dong Jun, as defense minister was finalized by China’s Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, after formal approval by lawmakers, the Xinhua news agency reported. Speculation spread earlier in the week that Admiral Dong would be named to that post after another admiral took his position as head of the Chinese navy.
The promotion of Admiral Dong may calm the uncertainty that has festered around the high ranks of the Chinese military after the disappearance and removal of the previous defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, as well as the top two commanders of the Rocket Force, which controls China’s nuclear missiles.
General Li had not been seen in public for about two months before he was officially removed as minister in late October. The Chinese government still has not given an explanation for his removal, but many experts believe he was probably entangled in an inquiry into taking bribes or other misconduct that also took down the Rocket Force commanders.
In China’s military hierarchy, which is controlled by the Communist Party, defense minister is not one of the most powerful posts. Instead, the minister serves as the People’s Liberation Army’s chief foreign liaison officer, meeting visiting military delegations and giving China’s views at forums such as the annual Shangri-La Dialogue defense forum in Singapore.
Admiral Dong, who is in his early 60s, is not a member of the Central Military Commission, the party council overseen by Mr. Xi that controls the People’s Liberation Army. But a later party leaders’ meeting may promote him onto that commission.
“The minister of defense in the Chinese government system is not a decision maker or commander of forces or resources,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore who formerly served as a Pentagon official dealing with the Chinese military.
“That makes the defense minister a poor interlocutor for his U.S. counterpart,” Mr. Thompson said. “But the defense minister is a primary channel for engaging with the Central Military Commission, led by Xi Jinping, which is where decisions get made.”
One of Admiral Dong’s most important and tricky tasks may be dealing with talks with the U.S. military. Beijing and Washington are locked in tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea and other issues, and the Pentagon has accused People’s Liberation Army planes of recklessly buzzing U.S. planes that fly in international skies off China.
At a summit in November, Mr. Xi and President Biden agreed to restart dialogue between their two militaries, which Beijing suspended last year to protest a visit by Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker at the time, to Taiwan, the democratically governed island that China claims as its territory. The two sides held military talks earlier this month. China has insisted that the U.S. secretary of defense talk with its defense minister, but the Pentagon would like China to be represented by a more senior commander.
Admiral Dong may claim some experience in one of the most volatile issues for China’s military. He was previously a deputy commander in China’s southern command, which covers the South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in long-running territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries that also claim islands and territorial waters there. Admiral Dong is China’s first defense minister to emerge from a naval background.
But Mr. Thompson said that Admiral Dong appeared to have risen as more a bureaucratic overseer than a frontline officer.
“That has upsides and downsides, because it means he knows how to work his system,” Mr. Thompson said, “but he is more of a politician than a soldier.”