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Is there a US factor in China’s decision to sack top leaders of its Rocket Forces?

Wang Houbin will now head PLA's rocket forces following a leadership purge in the organisation

China has replaced the top leadership of its rocket forces, which is at the heart of its nuclear arsenal.

Wang Houbin, the navy’s former deputy commander will now head the PLA’s missile arm, while Xu Xisheng formerly of the Southern Theatre Command will become new political commissar. Neither of the two have any experience with the rocket forces in the past.

Though officially the political commissar serves as second in command, his role is primarily political and ideological, rather than operational. In fact, he is the eyes and ears of the Communist Party of China (CPC), who steers ideological training of the forces.
The replacement of the top two leaders has come as a big surprise. Wang has replaced 60-year-old General Li Yuchao, who became a General of the Rocket Army only in January 2022. Xu Zhongbo, the previous political commissar of the Rocket Army had attained the rank of General in July 2020. Both had been appointed as full members of the Central Committee of the CPC at the 20th Party Congress of the CPC, which had convened in October 2022.

The sacking of the two also follows the removal of Qin Gang who had also been appointed as the foreign minister following the 20th Party Congress. He had earlier served as China’s ambassador to the United States. Significantly, Qin has not been removed from his other post of State Coucillor, signalling that he could be under investigation and likely to be removed from that position if the probe finds him guilty.

So, is there a running thread that explains why Chinese President Xi Jinping has pinched some critical nodes within the Chinese establishment?

While hard information is not available so far, and perhaps never will be, the change of guard at pivotal posts follows the mega statement on China by the US CIA chief William Burns. Last week Burns, said that his agency has been rebuilding its networks after the Chinese government caught and executed some of its agents a decade ago.

“We’ve made progress and we’re working very hard over recent years to ensure that we have strong human intelligence capability to complement what we can acquire through other methods,” he told the Aspen Security Forum. Burns’ statement may have spooked the Chinese, who are fully aware of the CIA’s work in bringing about the downfall of the former Soviet Union.

Besides, it is conceivable that XI ordered a change of guard as he would need people of highest competence and reliability manning the PLA rocket forces, as these would be central to the launch of conventional strikes on Taiwan in case of war.

It is therefore instructive that Burns during his Aspen interview spoke about the likelihood of a 360-degree Chinese rethink over their military tactics in Taiwan, drawing lessons from Russia’s experience in Ukraine.

Asked whether Xi had made up his mind one way or the other regarding invading Taiwan, Burns said:

“ I’m not sure that he has. I think what it means is that today President Xi and the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army, leadership have doubts about whether they could pull off a successful full-scale invasion of Taiwan at acceptable cost to them. You know, no foreign leader I think has paid more careful attention to Putin’s experience in Ukraine than President Xi has as he thinks about Taiwan. I think that is probably reinforced some of those doubts, too, not only in the way in which an objectively smaller military has had incredible success in fighting back with a great deal of motivation against a bigger military but also some of the flaws in Russian weapons systems.”

It is likely that both the sacked officials of the PLA rocket forces are being investigated for corruption, espionage, or both.

The South China Morning Post is reporting that the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption unit is currently investigating the force’s two top officials as well as Liu Guangbin. Yet, there have been rumours that Li Yuchao’s son is in the US and has revealed information about his father’s work to the US government.

Also Read: China appoints Wang Houbin as chief to clean up PLA Rocket Forces