China appointed a former missile unit commander as its new defence minister today, whose first guest of honour could be his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman. Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe, 63, a close confidant of President Xi Jinping, was the last commander of China’s missile unit, the Second Artillery Corps, before it was split into two — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force — making them a potent force. He was appointed as the Defence Minister by the rubber-stamp Parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
Sitharaman recently announced that she would visit China next month, the first visit by a top Indian official since last year’s 73-day long standoff at Dokalam in Sikkim section. The visit was announced amid diplomatic efforts by both the countries to reset the relations on a positive mode with high-level visits including the expected visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held in June at the Chinese city of Qingdao. In China, the military functioned under the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by Xi.
Yesterday, the NPC appointed Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia, the two Generals close to Xi, as vice chairmen of the CMC. Gen Wei had backed Xi’s unprecedented overhaul of the country’s 2.3-million strong military which has now been downsized to two million after laying off three lakh troops. After taking over power in 2013, Xi completely overhauled the command structure of the PLA, the world’s largest army.
This year, China has increased its military budget to USD 175 billion, three times larger than that of India, an increase of 8.1 per cent compared to last year. Xi also carried out a massive anti-graft campaign in the military in which over 50 top generals and officials besides 3,000 personnel from other ranks reported to have been punished.
“Wei was the first PLA department head to not only promise to support President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented military overhaul from the very beginning, but also to proactively meet Xi, who is also the CMC chairman,” Hong Kong- based South China Morning Post reported recently. Wei joined the Second Artillery Corps in 1970 when he was just 16. He was sent to learn rocket engineering at a missile school under the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
He went on to train as a strategic missile commander at the Second Artillery Corps’ college in Wuhan in Central China. Wei was among the first of a number of senior military officers to pledge their loyalty to Xi even before the president announced his ambitious reform programme, an official told the Post. “Wei actually provided Xi with the plan to reorganise the Second Artillery Corps in an innovative way, even though it wasn’t in his personal interests,” the official added.