BEIJING (Reuters) – Suspicions over Chinese Defense Minister Li Changfu’s unexplained absence for weeks grew on Friday after leading Western newspapers reported he was under investigation and a senior U.S. diplomat asked whether he was under house arrest.
Lee, 65, has missed meetings with Vietnamese and Singaporean defense chiefs in recent weeks, according to sources with direct knowledge of the engagements. He was last seen in Beijing on August 29, giving a keynote speech at a security forum with African countries.
The Washington Post, citing US officials, reported that Lee was being investigated for corruption and would likely be removed from his post. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Lee had been removed from his position while the Financial Times earlier said the US government believed Lee was under investigation.
“First: Defense Minister Li Changfu has not been seen or heard from in 3 weeks,” Rahm Emanuel, Washington’s outspoken ambassador to Japan, wrote in a post on X. “Second: He did not attend his trip to Vietnam. Now: He is absent from his scheduled meeting with The chief of the Singapore Navy because he was placed under house arrest???”
The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The US Embassy in Tokyo said it had no immediate additional comment.
Asked whether Li was under investigation, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Naing told reporters at a daily press conference that she was “not aware of the relevant information.”
Li’s absence follows China’s unexplained replacement of its Foreign Minister Chen Gang in July after a prolonged period out of public view and a change in command of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force in recent months.
Like Li, Chen is one of China’s five members of the State Council, a cabinet position higher than that of an ordinary minister.
These moves raised questions from analysts and diplomats about the lack of transparency in China’s leadership at a time when its economy is slowing and its relations with the rival superpower, the United States, have been strained over a range of issues.
The lack of clarity surrounding Lee further highlights the uncertainty over China’s decision-making process, said Ja Ian Chung, a researcher at the National University of Singapore.
“The scope of speculation shows the great uncertainty about the PRC regime at present,” he said.
Emanuel, a social diplomat who served as a top aide to former US President Barack Obama, has made headlines for a series of incendiary posts directed against China in recent weeks.
The ambassador first broke news of Lee’s public absence last Friday, sparking speculation about his whereabouts. In response to a question about why Emanuel intervened in this case, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the ambassador “throughout his career spoke in a dramatic manner.”
The Singapore meeting that Emanuel referred to in his last post appears to have been a visit to China by Singapore Navy Rear Admiral Sean Watt.
The Singapore Ministry of Defense said on its website that during the visit that took place on September 4-9, Watt met with Chinese Navy Commander Dong Jun and other naval leaders. Two sources familiar with the matter said Watt was expected to meet Lee.
One of the sources, an official with direct knowledge of the plans, said Watt was scheduled to meet Li on September 5 in Beijing but “that did not happen,” without elaborating.
The Singapore Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reuters reported exclusively on Thursday that Ly also abruptly withdrew from a meeting with Vietnamese defense leaders that was scheduled for September 7-8.
Military and diplomatic observers are closely watching whether China will go ahead with its plans to hold the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing – an annual international security summit usually hosted by China’s defense minister – in late October.
Before Lee was appointed to his post in March, he headed the military procurement unit.
In a rare notice in July, the unit said it was looking to “clean up” the bidding process and called on the public to report irregularities dating back to 2017. The potential outcomes were not updated.
Lee’s absence is being closely watched by the United States, which has not dropped sanctions imposed on him in 2018 for purchasing weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s largest arms exporter.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said they want to drop those sanctions to facilitate better discussions between the militaries of both sides. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attempted to hold talks with Lee during a defense conference hosted by Singapore last June, but he did not go beyond a handshake.
Wen Tee Song, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said that although Li had been a “bump in the road” in US-China military relations, his unexplained absence was problematic for China’s international relations in other ways.
He added: “Other countries will ask about something as basic as which number to call when they want to have a military dialogue with China.”
(Reporting by Yu Lun Tian, Laurie Chen and Martin Pollard in Beijing, Yukiko Toyoda in Tokyo and Xinghui Kwok in Singapore; Preparing by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin; Preparing by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin) Writing by John Geddy. Edited by Neil Volek, Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle and Simon Cameron-Moore
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