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China appoints new defense minister after a months-long vacancy


And we turn to China now, where a new defense minister took over the post on Friday. And the news brought to an end a month-long period of intrigue after the former defense chief went missing and then was removed from his post without explanation. NPR's John Ruwitch has this report.



JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: News of the appointment of Admiral Dong Jun as defense minister was tucked near the end of state TV's prime-time broadcast, and there were few details.



RUWITCH: But the fact that China now has a defense minister after months without one is positive, analysts say. Dong's predecessor, Li Shangfu, dropped out of the public eye late in the summer and was removed in October amid speculation of corruption. Li was also under U.S. sanctions, which was one of the reasons Beijing rejected invitations for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. But bilateral dialogue is just getting back on track after a frosty period. Taylor Fravel is director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TAYLOR FRAVEL: It is not inconceivable that within the next few weeks - right? - there could be a phone call between Austin and Admiral Dong. And that would be positive, right? Because given the growing competition and rivalry between the two countries, maintaining real communication between the two militaries is important.

RUWITCH: Dong is a career naval officer who joined the force in the late 1970s. Before becoming head of the navy, he spent time in the eastern fleet and Southern Command. Both are major theaters where Beijing is caught up in territorial disputes, including over Taiwan, the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea. Still, as the first defense secretary in China to come from the navy, it's a choice that Fravel says may make sense. The navy has gained prominence in China's military modernization drive, and navies tend to be the most outward-facing branch.

FRAVEL: And so for this reason, I think he's probably particularly well suited to the job because of his experience with the East Sea Fleet and then, I think, later with the Southern Command.

RUWITCH: Even so, analysts say, Chinese defense ministers don't command troops, and it's the ruling Communist Party that ultimately calls the shots. Meanwhile, the fate of the former defense minister, Li Shangfu, remains unknown, and an ongoing purge in the military appears to still be underway. On Friday, nine officers were removed from their roles in China's legislature. John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASSIVE ATTACK SONG, "EXCHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.