General Chang Wanquan will become the public face of the People's Liberation Army and lead its diplomatic efforts after he was named a state councillor and Minister of National Defence yesterday.
Chang, 64, who succeeds the retiring General Liang Guanglie, is the sole general in the new cabinet headed by Premier Li Keqiang.
He was named a member of the Central Military Commission in the 17th national party congress six years ago and retained the position at the 18th congress last November. He given the same title in the parallel state CMC last week.
Chang will enjoy limited military power despite being the third-ranked of 10 military officers on the CMC behind vice-chairmen General Fan Changlong and General Xu Qiliang.
"The function of the Chinese defence minister is very different from Western counterparts. Our defence minister only handles ceremonial affairs for external relations and there is no concrete political task," said Xu Guangyu , a former general and senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
As the CMC's second youngest member before the reshuffle at the 18th national congress, Chang had long been seen as a front runner to become a CMC vice-chairman and secure membership of the party's Politburo. But he failed to obtain either position.
Chang has been perceived as an ally of former president Hu Jintao, who promoted him commander of the Shenyang military command in December 2004, three months after Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin as CMC chairman.
Some analysts suspect Chang ended up with the less powerful defence minister post because he was perceived as being too close to Hu, the biggest loser in the power transition game. Others suggested that Chang had been implicated in the downfall of the corrupt deputy head of PLA's general logistics department, Lieutenant General Gu Junshan , early last year.
In his new role, Chang will represent the PLA in its increasingly important external affairs, notably rising tension between China and its neighbours in the East and South China seas.
"Chang's major tasks include modernisation of China's defence, and contributing to the handling of external affairs to protect China's territorial sovereignty," Xu Guangyu said yesterday.
Xu Guangyu described Chang as knowledgable and calm, but said it was hard to compare Chang with his predecessor Liang.
"Liang began his career as a military officer and a war veteran," Xu said. "He has a very distinctive personality. Chang was born in a time of peace and has no first-hand experience of war."