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Commentary: What’s going on with China’s surprise military shake-up?

SINGAPORE: There has been much speculation over the reshuffle of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Rocket Force service, which controls China’s arsenal of nuclear and conventional missiles.

The announcement at the 96th founding anniversary of the PLA that its strategic missile forces are now helmed by officers outside this highly specialised service confirmed suspicions that the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is undergoing another major purge since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Earlier in June, some China watchers had speculated that the previous PLA Rocket Force chief, General Li Yuchao, was already under probe alongside his political commissar, Xu Zhongbo, and the deputy commander, Liu Guangbin.

With official confirmation that Wang Houbin, previously the PLA Navy deputy commander, and Xu Xisheng, a political officer with a background in the PLA Air Force and the Southern Theater Command, now head the Rocket Force, some questions have arisen over the combat readiness of China’s strategic missile forces and nuclear deterrent.

Meanwhile, those who are positing a new anti-corruption campaign within the Rocket Force have also criticised Mr Xi for failing to root out military malfeasance after more than a decade in office – and even made wild conjectures about how the missing generals had dared disobey their commander-in-chief’s wishes to “fight a war.”

While the exact circumstances behind these PLA elites may not be known until official information becomes available, there are a few plausible explanations behind their disappearance. Moreover, current evidence also suggests that the combat effectiveness of China’s rocket force has never been greater.

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