China replaces missing head of nuclear missile force in major military shake-up

Two new leaders have been appointed in the military

Two new leaders have been appointed in the military – AFP

China has replaced the missing head of its nuclear missile force as president Xi Jinping carries out his first major military shake-up in years.

‌Wang Houbin has taken over from General Li Yuchao as the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), state media announced on Monday, a day before the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

‌Mr Wang had been deputy commander of the Navy since 2020 and had previously served as its deputy chief of staff.

‌Meanwhile, Xu Xisheng, an air force officer and party central committee member, was named the force’s political commissar, replacing General Liu Guangbin.

Mr Yuchao and Mr Guangbin have been missing for several months amid what intelligence sources claim is part of an investigation into the alleged leaking of military secrets.

‌It comes during an anti-corruption drive in the armed forces and a push by Beijing to ensure the PLA’s complete loyalty to the party and Mr Xi himself.

‌Overseeing the Rocket Force is a crucial role with far-reaching responsibilities as it is in charge of land-based nuclear deterrents and conventional ballistic missiles.

‌The overhaul is the first sudden shake-up of its kind since Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, former deputy chairs of the Central Military Commission (CMC), were removed from their posts and subsequently prosecuted on corruption charges in 2014.

Those changes were part of a push by Beijing to reassert its control over the armed forces.

‌Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society think tank, described the latest changes as “very unusual”.

“This all but confirms a purge in the PLA Rocket Force,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

‘Low political trust’

“Rocket Force New commander Wang Houbin is from the Navy, new political commissar Xu Xisheng is from the Air Force, appointing two outsiders is very unusual, suggesting low political trust and hinting at the scale of corruption in nuke/ICBM programs.”

‌Mr Thomas added the moves could “possibly be connected” to the death of ex-PLARF deputy Wu Guohua on July 4.

He said there had been no mention of Mr Guohua’s death until July 27, leading to speculation about his circumstances.

“Cited illness, but widely rumored to be suicide due to corruption probe. All raises questions about the true state of China’s nuclear arsenal & missile programs,” Mr Thomas said.

‌Mr Xi has repeatedly urged the military to deepen war and combat planning to increase the chances of victory in actual combat to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territory.

‌China says it will also not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states or nuclear weapon free zones.

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