At the forum, Li warned that conflict with the US would be an “unbearable disaster” but that China sought dialogue over confrontation.
In mid-August, he met high-ranking officials in Russia and Belarus, a show of support for countries diplomatically isolated by the West in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Li was last seen in Beijing on Aug 29 delivering a keynote address at a security forum with African nations.
Li’s history as a technocrat – he is an aerospace engineer who worked on China’s satellite programme – was helpful in trying to meet Xi’s goals for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), experts say.
“The operational and technological background of the next Chinese defence minister is especially pertinent given that the PLA aims to become a world-class military by 2049,” said James Char, a security scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
In 2016, Li was named deputy commander of the PLA’s fledgling Strategic Support Force, an elite group tasked with accelerating the development of China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities.
He was then appointed head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission. Li was sanctioned over the purchase of 10 Russian Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
In July, the department took the highly unusual step of issuing a notice that it was looking to “clean up” its bidding process. It invited the public to report irregularities dating back to October 2017, when Li was at its helm. He ran the unit until October 2022.
Li’s term at the Central Military Commission highlighted his ties to Xi, who has strengthened his grip across the military. Some scholars believe Li has close ties to Zhang Youxia, a close military ally of Xi, whom Li replaced as head of the department.
Zhang was promoted to first vice chairman of the military commission during the Communist Party Congress last year, with Li following him onto the commission’s seven-person governing group.
Despite the uncertainty of Li’s absence, analysts say there is probably no shortage of senior military officials who could step into the figurehead role of defence minister.
A bigger question is what priority Beijing will continue to place on China’s military diplomacy amid ongoing regional tensions.