Hong Kong: Border tensions with India, as well as the recent American and allied pull out from Afghanistan, means the importance of the Western Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been growing in China’s strategic reckoning.
This was confirmed on September 6 when Chairman Xi Jinping in Beijing presided over a ceremony promoting five senior officers. The five lieutenant generals (two from the army, one from the navy and two from the air force) were promoted to general, the PLA’s highest rank. These generals and admiral have been given command of the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), National Defence University and two of five theatre commands.
Interestingly, this was the third three-star ceremony in less than nine months. Four figures were promoted on December 18, 2020 and another four on July 5, 2021. Traditionally, such promotion ceremonies occurred only annually in July.
One of these promotions saw an army general heading the Central Theatre Command, replacing a PLAAF general. This means all five theatre commands now have an army general in charge. For all the talk of joint warfare and the PLA becoming less ground-centric, it seems that “Big Army” thinking still dominates within the PLA. This could be seen as a retrograde step, even if the current situation is changed in the future.
In a report for the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), Kenneth W Allen, Dennis J Blasko and John F Corbett observed: “The recent promotions may reflect aspects of the announced goal to change the PLA’s hierarchical structure from a ‘grade-based’ to a ‘rank-based’ system.”
The Chinese military has a rather convoluted system of ten officer ranks (second lieutenant to general/admiral) and 15 grades (platoon leader to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission [CMC]). Establishing a “rank-based” system will require shortened times between promotions. More frequent three-star promotion ceremonies could be evidence that this is happening.
The three authors explained: “Previously, an officer’s grade was more important than rank. However, the details of this major change from ‘grade-based’ to ‘rank-based’ have not been revealed, but could involve the length of time in service between promotions/assignments, or which ranks are associated with specific grades. Every officer also is assigned to an organizational billet (or post) appropriate to both rank and grade. Promotion ceremonies like this one publicly acknowledge officers’ ranks and duty billets, but do not announce their grades, which can nonetheless be discerned by a ribbon worn on their uniforms.”
One of the newly minted generals was Wang Haijiang, Commander of the Western Theatre Command. Allen, Blasko and Corbett, observed: “The assignment of the third new commander to the Western Theatre Command in less than two years [is] an unexplained phenomenon during the period in which China and India have been engaged in a tense and deadly border confrontation in Aksai Chin.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Wang was first in protocol order during the ceremony. Born in October 1963, he received his second star in December 2019, less than two years ago. He was previously Commander, Xinjiang Military District (March-August 2021) and, before that, Commander, Tibet Military District (December 2019 to February 2021) and Deputy Commander, Tibet Military District (from 2016). Even further back he was Commander of Nanjiang (Southern Xinjiang) Military District and Commander of the 61st Division in the Lanzhou Military Region. General Wang has thus had all his command experience in the Western Theatre Command. Wang replaced General Xu Qiling, who was appointed head of the Western Theatre Command just two months ago in July. Prior to that, he had spent two months as Army Commander in the Western Theatre Command. That was his first assignment in China’s west, unlike the vastly greater regional experience of Wang.
Xu’s fate is not yet known, but it is possible he could be in line for a follow-on lateral assignment. The again, a great number of senior PLA officers have also been netted by Xi’s anti-graft campaign. With most of his career spent in the Eastern and Northern Theatre Commands, is it possible the CMC was unhappy with his performance?
At 59, he should have six more years at a theatre-level grade. Therefore, his next stage should be of great interest to ascertain whether he has been promoted or side lined. Xu had himself replaced General Zhang Xudong, who was in charge for just six months (December 2020 till June 2021). Similarly, Zhang had little experience in China’s west.
This rapid turnover stands in sharp contrast to General Zhao Zongqi, who was in command there for nearly five years prior to that. Perhaps this revolving door shows the CMC is unhappy with how events have played out along the Indian border.
Of the PLA’s 37 full generals/admirals, at least nine will reach retirement age of 65 before the 20th Party Congress in 2022. Thus, new members of the CMC will eventuate at that time. The CASI report noted, “2022 is likely to be turbulent as roughly two dozen theatre command leader-grade generals and admirals vie for promotion to these most senior leadership positions. It is unclear how the recent three-star promotions fit into that puzzle.”
Allen, Blasko and Corbett noted: “…Wang Haijiang has long experience in Xinjiang and Tibet…and would be familiar with the operational, geographic and cultural conditions in the Western Theatre Command. Wang’s background has prepared him for leading the theatre during the standoff with India in the Aksai Chin. Left unsaid by official Chinese sources is why there has been so much turnover in the Western Theatre Command commander over the past two years – is this an example of ‘ticket-punching’ for selected officers to groom them for higher responsibility, or did something go wrong that led to their early departure?”
The trio of CASI authors observed: “The exact methodology and criteria used in selecting officers for promotion to general/admiral rank and higher-level billets is not public information, but the subject of endless speculation and rumour. Thousands of officers have been investigated and removed for corruption over the past decade. Needless to say, allegations of corruption can be used for political purposes and to derail the careers of rivals.”
Of course, political loyalty to Xi plays an important role in high-level promotions. While Xi presumably plays a personal role in selecting senior officers, exact details are unknown. All senior PLA officers are senior communist party members and therefore “Xi’s men”.
Personal fealty to Xi will be part of the promotion package. The churn of PLA commanders in the Western theatre Command underscores the importance of the region. China is afraid of Islamic terrorism spilling over from Afghanistan into Xinjiang, and violence exploded last year in Eastern Ladakh along the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, the border has become a key flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific region, resulting in more Chinese and Indian troops being stationed near the border, as well as infrastructure construction to allow more rapid insertion of troops.
On 22 September, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report by Nathan Ruser and Baani Grewal. They summarized: “The Chinese military’s activities on the contested border have been one of the key drivers behind the shift in the Indian public’s and government’s assessments of India’s relationship with China. The result has been a faster convergence in regional security and strategic policy directions.” One example of this is the revival of the Quad security partnership.
The ASPI report featuring 3D satellite imagery focuses on Doklam. The authors described the current situation as a “stalemate” after the 73-day standoff in 2017. They presented five key findings. First was that China and India have both continued their infrastructure build-up along the border since 2017. This includes frontline observation towers and forward troop bases.
Indeed, China accelerated construction after the Doklam standoff, including more recently a rear road stretching 5km over treacherous mountain terrain.
“The road project is significant in both its scale and its importance for facilitating PLA operations in a key part of the contested border region by helping China bridge tactical gaps overlooking crucial Indian territory,” Ruser and Grewal explained. The road aims south towards the Jampheri Ridge, and many new installations are largely out of sight of Indian positions, giving the PLA the element of concealment and tactical surprise.
Chinese positions are generally fewer than those of India, and are placed farther back from the border. On the other hand, its barracks and transport infrastructure allow it to rapidly reinforce the border. Secondly, China has “exploited its de facto control of Bhutanese territory, allowing its military to continue building strategic road infrastructure towards Indian territory”. Thirdly, India maintains a surveillance advantage throughout the Doklam area with frontline positions abutting the border. Key to this is maintaining control of the Jampheri Ridge, for if China occupies this feature it would have clear sight over the Siliguri Corridor that gives India access to its north-eastern states.
Fourthly, about 50km2 of Bhutanese territory is now under Beijing’s control. This has had the net effect of shifting the Bhutan-China-India tri-border junction about 5km farther south. Chinese military positions and infrastructure is being built there, showing that China does not intend to cede it back to its rightful owner.
Finally, “The result is a highly crowded border with built-up infrastructure and thousands of Indian and Chinese posts continuing to compete for strategic territorial advantage. This increases the risk of escalation and potential military conflict,” the ASPI authors warned.
It can be observed that Doklam’s ad hoc disengagement agreements did not change the long-term conditions or strategic and territorial imperatives of China. It is likely the same will be true in Eastern Ladakh, where the two sides met in a bloody fight last year. Indeed, last year’s confrontation in Eastern Ladakh has increased scepticism on both sides, but perhaps more dramatically in India, that negotiations and the disengagement process is working properly. Certainly, China is adept at using negotiations to draw out tensions and to frustrate other sides, as seen in ASEAN negotiations for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
China and India may negotiate on tactical positions, but neither side will sacrifice their broader strategic advantages along the border. Troops remaining in close proximity, disagreement over where the border is, and Chinese assertiveness are all risk factors. Thus, should China continue to seek to change the status quo, then escalatory risks will grow. Are there any lessons that can be learned from Doklam, that could be applied to Eastern Ladakh or anywhere else China attempts to grab territory? Ruser and Grewal suggested that India’s incursion into disputed territory could provide a successful model to deter Chinese expansionism, and thus force China to reassess its goals.
Disengagement in Eastern Ladakh started in February. Nonetheless, the PLA has been augmenting its capabilities there, creating new barracks, heliports and other facilities, even through the bitter winter months. It has expanded its combat power and build permanent infrastructure to sustain and support a long-term presence as well as to surge forces.
Arzan Tarapore, also of ASPI, noted: “The Ladakh crisis between China and India seems to have settled into a stalemate, marked by somewhat reduced tactical tensions and continuing fruitless talks on disengagement – but its trajectory could again turn suddenly, even flaring into a limited conventional war. Despite a limited disengagement, both sides continue to make military preparations near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to increase their readiness for potential conflict. While China proved its revisionist intent with its 2020 incursions, its specific goals and plans remain opaque. The broader political context is marked by distrust and hostility, and bilateral relations are at their lowest ebb in decades. War remains unlikely – both sides can ill-afford the distraction from higher national priorities, and have demonstrated a recent keenness to step back from the brink.”
China’s strategy in the Himalayas is not that different from the South China Sea, where it attempts to achieve a fait accompli on the ground, often using “grey zone” tactics. For example, unidentified Chinese personnel in civilian clothing have come from PLA positions in Demchok to pressure Indian herders to vacate the area. By lodging forces quickly in disputed areas, the PLA could attempt to leave India few opportunities to reverse them.
With a dramatic turnover in the Western Theatre Command, perhaps Xi and the CMC are agitating for more decisive results along the Indian border. Future forays across the LAC may yet occur.