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REPURCUSSIONS OF STAND-OFF WITH INDIA: IS THE PLA SOLIDLY WITH XI JINPING?

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :

The events in Eastern Ladakh, from Galwan Valley to Panggong Tso and Kailash Range, have literally thrown up a major question – is the PLA on the same page with its Generals and Xi? The ferocious India Army counterattack at Galwan appears to have shaken the PLA rank and file to the core. The false narrative of their superiority over the ‘barbarians’ came crashing down around them. The tentative response to Indian pre-emptive actions in securing the Kailash Ridge lends credence to the conclusion that the PLA is not on the same page with its Generals and Xi Jinping.

This rationale can be arrived at by analysing the PLA GF for the following (and then extrapolating to the rest):

  • Generals: Loyalty / Fealty versus Merit.
  • Battle hardening.
  • Conscription versus Volunteer force.
  • PLA GF – loss of importance.
  • Galwan Martyrs – lack of recognition.
  • Morale.
  • Voices of Hawks, in NDU against Xi.
  • Way Ahead for Xi.

Generals: Loyalty / Fealty Versus Merit

Ever since his anointment as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Nov 2012, Xi Jinping has moved to ensure his stranglehold on the Party and the PLA. His purges were covered in the garb of the anti-corruption drive, and more than a 100 Generals have been sacked since 2012.[1] As such, most generals are tenanting their posts only due to their loyalty / fealty to Xi, and not merit. The generals, thus, are fearful of taking any steps without Xi’s directives, and continue to look over their shoulders even during the crisis.

Xi does not seem to have learnt any lesson from Stalin’s purges just before WW II and the disastrous results that ensued in the initial years of the campaigns against the Nazi Germany. At present, by lacking any initiative of their own, and reporting only what their Supreme Commander wanted to hear, they missed the strategic importance of two roads – the DSDBO road[2], and the Lipulekh Road[3], which brings the G 219 (Western highway from Xinjiang to Tibet) within striking distance of the Indian military. This axis is also the main logistics route for the PLA in Aksai Chin / Eastern Ladakh. The current reactions (of both China, and, at its behest, of Nepal), also factor in these aspects, apart from the geo-political concerns and internal dynamics within China.

Battle Hardening

The last war that the PLA fought was in 1979, against the Vietnamese Army. It was a disaster for the PLA wherein the Vietnamese Army destroyed the Chinese forces using guerrilla warfare – the same tactics used to defeat the USA four years earlier. It seems that it hit the morale of the PLA quite badly that they are made to remember only their victory over India in the Border War of 1962, and not the defeat in the skirmish in 1967 at Nathu La[4],  the Vietnam war and the Sumdorong Chu incident of 1986-87[5]. Thus, fed on a false perception of own capabilities, the PLA and Xi find it hard to swallow the bitter Galwan and the Kailash Range pill.

While suppressing a passive population, with the might of the state behind them, is easy, but fighting or facing a determined enemy is a different challenge. Here the man behind the weapon counts for more than the weapon itself. In the instant case, not only were they at the receiving end in Galwan but were surprised at the pre-emptive action by India, a first against China, in securing the Kailash Range[6]. This has now placed Indian military in such a dominating position that the Rutog logistic base on G 219 is also now within striking range. Thus, the Indian military can now choke this main artery with long range vectors, SF[7] / SFF[8], and IAF at three locations. The PLA generals and Xi need to grasp that, unlike the PLA, they are dealing with a battle-hardened Indian Military and no amount of fire-power demonstrations and ‘Battle-inoculations in firing ranges by the PLA can substitute for it.

Conscription and Contracts versus a Volunteer Force

Most of the PLA rank and file are either conscripts (40% in the two-year cycle)[9], with just basic soldierly skills, or short-term contract Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO), and this remains its weakest link in its push for force modernisation. These troops lack the fervour of a volunteer force when faced with challenges. With the conscription cycle commencing in September, indicates a likely loss in combat potential for the PLA from September to December, with the PLA GF being most affected. The PLA usually is at its peak strength in the period May-Aug[10], precisely the time the current standoffs commenced and is now in the delayed demobilisation period for the conscripts.

Most conscripts and short-term NCOs are from low-middle income groups and join the PLA for the discounts that they would get for college education, ease of joining the CPC to get better jobs, and other such perks. Fighting in such remote corners of China are far from their concerns, which is more to get back to his / her life on the civil street. Being a single child, not only does he / she need to go back to be able to look after his / her family / in-laws but are also looked upon as a pampered lot – ‘little emperors’. Thus they do not seem to relish facing a determined enemy.

Such a structure is not in synch with Xi’s grandiose plans for the PLA, as given out in the 2013[11], 2015[12] and 2019[13]  Defence White Papers. The modern Military needs a directive style of command, as against the autocratic style that Xi Jinping prefers.

PLA GF – Loss of Importance

            After decades of ruling the roost within the PLA, the restructuring and reorganisation drive by Xi since December 2015 has seen the GFs losing their pre-eminence. To force the issue, Xi has purged more Generals from the GF than any other service. Yet in this critical frontier, the LAC, the importance of the GF than other combat and support service is an irony that is not lost on them.

Further, the restructuring of the CMC in 2015 has removed the Theatre Commanders from this key decision-making body, Commanders who would be able to give correct advice on operational issues. Similarly, by removing the Service Heads, he has none to keep him abreast of the administrative challenges.

Thus, the GF, which needs more boots for mountain warfare, do not have the same since the entire infantry has either been mechanised or motorised, thereby reducing its bayonet strength. In mountains, where the attacking troops need a force ratio of 1:9 to 1:12 over the enemy for success, the GF with less bayonet strength would be found wanting. This limits Xi’s options in the escalatory matrix and would need to depend on other hybrid and asymmetric resources, further relegating the importance of the GF. While these other means can shape the overall battlespace, Xi does need boots on the ground for any vision of victory. By relegating its importance, can he depend on the GFs? If the military strategy was to gain strength in other Services at the expense of GF, then the diplomatic strategy should have aimed at improving relations with India.

Galwan Martyrs – Lack of Recognition

There appears to be a concerted push by Xi and CMC to hide its casualties by denying their martyrs a ceremonial send-off[14], unlike the state funerals accorded to the Indian martyrs. This appears to have hurt the sentiments of the veterans, family members and, of course, the unit(s) involved. Respecting those who lay down their lives for the nation is the least that is expected of the leaders, by the rank and file. Denial of the same affects the morale and the fighting spirit.

Morale

            The above incidents reflect a growing fall in the morale of the troops. Afterall, September is also the month that the conscripts would have been turned over, which appears to have been delayed. Further, there are unconfirmed reports that the CMC and the Western Theatre Command, unconcerned by the events on ground had ordered the Brigade Commander to evict the Indians from the Heights in South Panggong Tso. Other than some probing actions and firing in the air, it seems that the local commander overruled his seniors, rather than face a crushing defeat.

There seems to be a growing disconnect between Xi and his Generals with the lower ranks of the PLA. Some reports are emanating of Chinese Militia Squads being deployed in the sector[15]. This has major ramifications,

  • Has Xi lost faith in the troops deployed in the sector, or the Xinjiang Military District from where most of the troops have come? Are they deployed to ensure there are no desertions of conscripts who need to be demobilised, come winter?
  • Is it to enable the discharge of conscripts, and build up the unit strength? The militias are essentially reserves for combat support to the PLA.
  • Or would they be deployed in less critical areas to release regular troops for a transgression elsewhere?

Voices of Hawks, in NDU against Xi

            Even the hawks in the PLA National Defence University (NDU) are voicing concerns about Xi opening many fronts, none of which further the overall aim of national rejuvenation and achieving the China Dream. Maj Gen Qiao Liang (Retd), Professor at NDU (of URW Fame) has warned Xi against the actions on Taiwan, as early as in May, which could result in a show down with the US[16].  Another hawk, PLA general in a recent article on 29 May 2020, titled “Four Unexpected Things and Ten New Understandings About the United States,” has advocated that China should take stock of its relative weaknesses compared to the U.S. and behave accordingly[17]. He further cautioned that despite all the loans and investments in many countries, the present strategy is winning China no friends.

There are other voices, within CPC and intelligentsia, that have queried the rationale for antagonising India at a stage when China was facing a rising threat from USA. If Xi was keen that India does not join with the US against it, this is what has been achieved by the misadventure in Eastern Ladakh plus the Wolf Diplomacy and warmongering articles in the Global Times.

Way Ahead for Xi.

This misadventure has pushed Xi into a corner. His tactics of a face-saving action on the border against India seems to have backfired and seems to have pushed the lower ranks of the PLA away from him and his generals. However, Xi would need to orchestrate some success or face saver before the 5th Plenum in October, to ensure that the PLA stays with him, he can retain full control of the CPC, and he gets his third term as the General Secretary of the Party in 2022. He may have to resort to more purges, which is already proving counterproductive, but the bringing the State Police under himself and targeting the judiciary is an indicator towards it.

Where will he attempt his next military push? Having tasted India military’s fervour, he could opt for the Maritime Domain – East China Sea against Japan, where there is a flux now that a new PM is coming. If against India, will the PLA go back to masses attacks? Seems incongruent to their present structures – Combined Arms Brigades with Armour, and Mechanised / Motorised Infantry, reduces boots on ground.

Will he raise the escalatory matrix and go for assault by long range vectors, and a major border war?? Is China and CPC ready for it?? Is his conscript and contractual military ready for a fight?? Seems low but cannot be ruled out. Xi seems a desperate man, who needs to show something positive before the 5th Plenum in Oct. However, the continued use of asymmetric and disruptive means, both kinetic and non-kinetic with use of 5th Columnists, against India cannot ruled out.

Conclusion: Points to Ponder.

On the face of it, the PLA GF lower ranks do not appear to be on the same page with Xi and his Generals. The same could be extrapolated to the rest of the PLA – the news network of the military carries such misgivings very quickly. At the same time, distance from the sector does tend to reduce the impact a bit.

Is Gen Zhao Zongqi, Commander Western Theatre Command, responsible for this fiasco? Was he angling for a post in CMC when retires later this year? After all, given the internal pressures on Xi, he would need a few good men from the PLA on his side. Is Lt Gen Xu Qiling’s appointment as the PLA GF Cdr in WTC any indicator? He has never served in this region and is more of an Amphibious Force man having served mostly on the eastern Seaboard!! But he is Xi’s man.

What about CPC and the Party Elders themselves? Will Xi be purged to save the Party? Not that it will change their overall strategy – may cut their losses, pull back, apologise, and make Xi the scapegoat. Afterall the Party is more important than any individual. This seems a viable option if the push comes to shove. He may not be purged, per se, but not be granted extension for a third term that he so desperately is angling for and may also be made to step down as the President.

Not that the new incumbent would change the overall strategy, but could readopt Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘hide your claws and bide your time’, revitalise their CNP, further expand their geo-political and geo-strategic space in the region, and a decade or two down the line – the world may find a similar aggressive China that we see today with a difference. The China then would be more resilient, strong and control a far larger geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic space. Unless the Communist Party is disrupted, no change in their leadership will come in the way of the manner in which they would want to secure their place in the World – a China Centric world order.

 

End Notes 

[1] Jun Mai, ‘Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive brings down more generals than 20th century warfare’, South China Morning Post, 17 November 2017

[2] DSDBO: Darbuk – Shyok – Daulat Beg Oldie

[3] Dharchula – Lipulekh Road in Uttarakhand; this newly built 80-km strategically crucial stretch connects the Lipulekh pass at a height of 17,000 feet along the border with China in Uttarakhand with Dharchula

[4] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, ‘China should stop ratcheting up 1962, remember 1967 Nathu La battle’, Economic Times, 12 July 2018

[5] Claude Arpi, ‘The Sumdorong Chu Incident: a strong Indian stand’, Indian Defence Review, 04 May 2013

[6] The Print Team,’ Why Indian troops secured Kailash Range crestline, and the importance of Chushul Bowl’, The Print, 10 September 2020

[7] SF – Special Forces

[8] SFF – Special Frontier Force, has a number of Tibetan refugee wards.

[9] Zachary L. Morris, ‘China’s Conscription Cycle: Challenges, Vulnerabilities and Opportunities’, Small Wars Journal, 29 January 2018

[10] ibid

[11] The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, April 2013, http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2014/08/23/content_281474982986506.htm

[12] China’s Military Strategy, May 2015, http://www.china.org.cn/china/2015-05/26/content_35661433.htm

[13] China’s National Defence in the New Era, July 2019, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/news/2019-07/24/content_4846443.htm

[14] ANI, ‘China denies burial to its soldiers killed in Galwan clash to cover up its blunder: Report”, Economic times, 14 July 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/china-denies-burial-to-its-soldiers-killed-in-galwan-clash-to-cover-up-its-blunder-report/articleshow/76951964.cms?from=mdr

[15] IANS, ‘India, China troops within shooting range at Spanggur Gap’, Economic times, 12 September 2020

[16] Minnie Chan, ‘Too costly’: Chinese military strategist warns now is not the time to take back Taiwan by force, South China Morning Post, 04 May 2020

[17] Richard McGregor, ‘Beijing Hard-Liners Kick Against Xi Jinping’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’, Commentary, Lowy Institute (first published in Nikkei Asian review), 28 July 2020.     

 

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is the Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI of India. His areas of interest include China, Indo-Pacific Region, Emerging World Order and Regional Multilateralism. He has spoken on these issues in India and abroad and has written a number of articles, papers, and monographs on these themes. He has also curated and edited three books.

Article uploaded on 16-09-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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