Xi Jinping names new generals to oversee China's nuclear arsenal

Xi Jinping names new generals to oversee China’s nuclear arsenal

China’s ruling Communist Party has appointed new leadership for the defense body that controls the country’s fast-growing nuclear arsenal, in the biggest shake-up of Beijing’s military leadership in years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has replaced two leaders of the elite People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force unit, which oversees a nuclear weapons arsenal that U.S. officials say is slated to expand dramatically over the coming decade.

The abrupt shift in leadership of the Rocket Force has triggered speculation of a purge by the Xi government. Mr. Xi chairs the Communist Party’s top defense command — the Central Military Commission — and is seeking to consolidate his control over the PLA.

The development comes just weeks after the still-unexplained ouster of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi after going suddenly absent from public view for a month. The Xi government has not stated why it replaced Mr. Qin.

The official People’s Daily Online reported Monday that Wang Houbin, the Chinese navy’s former deputy commander, will become the new head of the Rocket Force, and that Xu Xisheng, formerly of the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, will become the force’s new political commissar. The report, included a picture of Mr. Xi and the two newly promoted generals in a group photo, did not mention the military officials who had been replaced.

The South China Morning Post said military sources speaking on background said the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption unit is investigating former Rocket Force commander Li Yuchao, as well as his current and former deputies Zhang Zhenzhong and Liu Guangbin.

Asia Society Policy Institute fellow Lyle Morris told the BBC that “purge” of the Rocket Force Unit leadership comes as China “is undertaking one of the most profound changes in nuclear strategy in decades.”

Mr. Xi “has consolidated control of the PLA in unprecedented ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s complete. Xi is still worried about corruption in the ranks and has signaled that absolute loyalty to the [party] has not yet been achieved,” he said.

A U.S. military report last year said China is expanding its nuclear force and is on pace to nearly quadruple the number of warheads it has over the coming 12 years.

The Pentagon report said China has about 400 nuclear warheads, and that number could grow to 1,500 by 2035, on pace to enable Beijing to match or surpass U.S. global military power by mid-century.

The United States has 3,750 active nuclear warheads, according to The Associated Press. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have pressed Beijing to join in arms limitation talks with the U.S. and Russia, but to date China has refused the offer.