Xi Jinping moves in the Western Theatre Command: Internal Dynamics and Focus on India

General Zhang Xudong, who served as Theatre Commander of China’s
Western Theatre Command (WTC) in December 2020 died due to serious
illness on 1 October 2021. Gen. Zudong was removed from his post by the
CMC precisely because of his illness and inability to carry on operational
duties in June 2021 and was replaced by Lt. Gen. Xu Qiling. At that time,
Gen. Xudong was made a full-time member of the Strategic Planning
Committee of the CMC. On 6 September 2021, President Xi Jinping presided
over the CMC and announced five new appointments in the Peoples Liberation
Army (PLA), Five Lt. Gens. were promoted to full generals, in effect making
them Theatre Commanders. The objective here is to analyse these changes
and highlight its implications for India.
Since last year, China has made several aggressive military deployments
against India. Each of them followed a pattern set in the past, but with far
greater precision of motives and intentions. These moves continue till date
right across the LAC and will play on till China feels it has achieved its goals.
The issue of changes in the WTC fit into game in an indirect manner. This is
because the changes that have taken place are not because the incumbent
commander failed to deliver on action against India, but for other reasons,
which we shall see shortly.
Let us begin the analysis by looking at the new generals who were promoted
in September 2021. First of the block was a new Commander for the Western
Theatre Command, looking after India. This was General Wang Haijiang, who
had earlier been heading Xinjiang Military District. Prior to that Wang was
Deputy Commander and then Commander of the Tibet Military District.
Others who were promoted include, General Lin Xiangyang, Commander of
the Central Theatre Command and Don Jun, Commander of the PLA Navy.
The PLA Air Force has a new commander in Chang Dingqiu and Xu Xuexiang
who has been appointed as the President of the PLA National Defence
Since the middle of 2020, there have been four commanders of WTC. General
Wang is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war and promoted to Lt. Gen. in
2019 is obviously a confidant to President Xi and therefore has been entrusted
with the border with India. The record of changes in the WTC in 2020-2021
begins with General Zhao Zongqi was replaced as he had reached retirement
age. In fact, he was retained for some months beyond retirement before his
replacement, Zhang Xudong, was posted. Gen. Zhao was appointed in
February 2016 as WTC Commander and served for four years. General Zhang
Xudong took over WTC on promotion, from Gen. Zhao Zongqi in December

  1. Though he was only 59 years old, he had to be moved soon because he
    developed health issues.
    He was replaced in June 2021 by Gen. Xu Qiling, who was till then WTC
    Deputy Commander and Commander of the Army (Ground Forces) in the rank
    of Lt. Gen. from June 2020 till June 2021. Xu Qiling was promoted to General
    when he took over as Commander, WTC in June 2021. General Xu Qiling is
    just three months younger than General Zhang Xudong. Given his
    outstanding career record, it is anticipated that Xu Qiling may be appointed
    Chief of the PLA Ground Forces or to head the CMC Joint Staff Department.
    On September 6, 2021, Lt. Gen. Wang Haijiang was promoted to the rank of
    General and appointed Commander of the WTC.
    A few months prior to the 6 September 2021 CMC meeting, President Xi had
    met (23 July 2021) with officers of the PLA at a ‘special’ meeting in Lhasa. On
    that occasion, Xi Jinping had complimented the military officers for bravely
    facing the harsh conditions, their good defence of the borders and asked them
    to “prepare for future wars”. Nearly 400 PLA and PLAAF officers attended the
    restricted meeting. Designations of officers identified seated in the conference
    hall is interesting notes Jayadeva Ranade, a well-known China analyst. He
    observes that seated in the front row with President Xi Jinping are: General
    Zhang Youxia, CMC Vice Chairman; General Ju Qiansheng, who had just that
    month been promoted and appointed PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF)
    Commander; General Xu Qiling, then WTC Commander; Lt. Gen. Wang Kai,
    Commander of the Tibet Military Region; Lt. Gen. Zhong Shaojun, Director of
    the CMC General Office; and Lt. Gen. Zhang Xuejie, Political Commissar of
    the Tibet Military Region. (Jayadeva Ranade, implications of
    recent developments in PLA’s Western Theatre Command, 20 September
    2021, accessed at: https://ccasindia.org/IMPLICATIONS-OF-RECENTCHANGES-IN-WTC.pdf).
    The presence of the SSF Commander is significant as, among its other roles
    like combat support, it is the space-, cyber-, and electronic warfare force of
    the PLA. The presence of the senior officers of the Tibet Military Region may
    suggest plans to activate other sections along the LAC. The July visit by Xi
    Jinping was followed by the visit of several high CPC dignitaries to Tibet
    signalling the renewed focus on WTC. On 13 September 2021, President Xi
    wrote a letter to Unit No. 77656 stationed at the “northern foot of the
    Himalayas” (Gangba County, Chumbi Valley, near the Siliguri corridor) and
    complimented them for guarding the “sacred territory of the motherland with
    youth and blood”. Notably, this “model plateau battalion” (Infantry) was
    awarded in 2016 was awarded for its outstanding performance “in
    safeguarding borders, ensuring stability and helping disaster relief”.
    It is thus clear that the WTC is of importance to President Xi and the CMC,
    both domestically and in terms of relations with India. This assertion is
    further reinforced by the number of military exercises conducted by the PLA.
    According to Jayadeva Ranade, a total of 108 military exercises were held in
    WTC between May 2019 and May 2020. Similarly, 98 major exercises were
    conducted between June 2020 and June 2021. The point of note is that since
    2019-2020 the Chinese PLA has created points of contact along the LAC to all
    its border outposts making it easier for them to send troops. Roads leading
    off the main highway today connect all the Chinese posts on the LAC from
    Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. If this is not a military threat to India, then
    what is?
    So why is all this happening now? Clearly, straws in the wind point to the
    CPC Party Congress in 2022 and the need for President Xi to have loyalists at
    the upper echelons of the PLA. As Major General G.G. Dwivedi (The Indian
    Express, 31 September 2020) aptly notes, President Xi has the roadmap for
    the PLA to be on par with the US Army by 2027. Next, the CPC will be
    celebrating its centenary, followed by the 20th Party Congress. As General
    Secretary, CPC and Chairman CMC, Xi Jinping has made it clear to the PLA
    that he requires something to showcase his achievements in 2022.
    Pertinently, since 2012, President Xi has promoted 66 Lt. Gens. to full
    Generals as CMC Chairman. While loyalty to Xi personally and the CPC is the
    norm for a soldier to be promoted, reports of PLA officers not “falling in line”
    could well mean that some in the PLA have expressed their views openly on
    some aspects of the military reform initiated by President Xi.
    The flip side of the picture of a strong PLA painted by China, can be found in
    low-troop morale pervading the PLA troops. As observed by Tetsuro Kosaka,
    (NikkiAsia, 19 September 2021) this is attributable to China’s one child policy,
    which has resulted in over 70 per cent of the soldiers being very young
    recruits. Serving in high altitudes in Tibet and Xinjiang must be quite a
    challenge for these “children” and that is precisely why President Xi has
    resorted to writing letters commending certain units for their bravery along
    the LAC. That is also why the CMC has undertaken to improve PLA salaries
    and pensions.
    While the internal dynamics of Xi’s campaign to build absolute loyalty by the
    PLA to the CPC remain, the focus on WTC indicates a clear line of progression
    of aggression towards India. The nature of the Chinese beast here is pushing
    along the LAC at points of least resistance and favouring talks where India
    has been aggressive. Thus, the agreement on Pangong Tso was suitable to
    China as it meant India giving up possession of Kailash Hill.Brinkmanship is
    in China’s blood, and they will continue to do it with India, all along the LAC.
    The focus as of now remains in two areas, Depsang in Eastern Ladakh and in
    northern Sikkim. In all likelihood one foresees action being undertaken by the
    PLA in Arunachal Pradesh in the near future. India should be ready to
    respond in kind.

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