(‘Xi has no firm grip over PLA.’ ‘Xi is not responsible for the recent PLA incursion in Ladakh?’ – A Reality Check)
When the Chinese President Xi Jinping returned to Beijing from India this September, he addressed China’s top military officials at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) headquarters and demanded “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China”. This statement unleashed a floodgate of speculations. Questions were raised over Xi’s apparent failure in controlling the PLA, even as conjectures flew thick and fast that the Chinese border incursions in the Ladakh region of north India, during his visit, were PLA’s own adventurism without Xi’s approval.
Many defense analysts and strategists continue to describe Xi’s India visit as a success and assert that some “rogue” PLA generals, who oppose Xi’s effort to resolve the border crisis with India, carried out the border incursions. The apologists and China lobbyist have called the incursions ‘too insignificant to harm the bilateral relations’ while claiming that despite Xi’s sincere effort; he could not rein in those rogue PLA generals, thus causing one of the worst border standoffs in recent time. Certain reports further averred that Xi was embarrassed about the incursions and had assured Indian PM Modi of instructing the PLA to withdraw from LAC.
These reports, while brushing aside China’s notorious double standards, connive to conclude Xi’s innocence in the Chinese border incursions while mooting the theory that he still does not have complete control over the PLA.
However, many question the very rationale behind China’s state controlled media’s decision to publicize Xi’s ‘plea’ for PLA’s allegiance and consider it as a deliberate ploy by Beijing to mislead the world into believing that Xi has no complete control over PLA. This is indeed bizarre at a time when Xi is projecting an image of a powerful and absolute leader.
Ankit Panda, Associate Editor, of The Diplomat, in a report, “China’s Military May Have Gone ‘Rogue’ After All” wrote, “The one oddity in all this is why we’re hearing about this speech at all. If Xi is truly concerned by lapses in China’s chain of command and fears that his leadership over the military is not absolute, why broadcast it via a report in state media? For a state apparatus so concerned with saving face, it’s somewhat curious that Beijing would choose to willingly broadcast these sorts of lapses in leadership to the outside world”.
Panda thus opined, “One explanation might be that this speech and the report could be engineered specifically for consumption by the outside world. After all, given recent incidents involving Chinese troops in India, Southeast Asia, and the East China Sea, it may grant the leadership in Beijing some plausible deniability by suggesting that these actions were not sanctioned by the top leadership in Beijing.”
Xi Jinping: The most powerful Chinese military leader since Mao and Deng.
A thorough analysis of facts reveal a jarring truth that Xi Jinping, since his ascendency, has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
After his appointment to China’s three top positions – General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee, President of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — Xi Jinping spearheaded a massive campaign to consolidate more power in the Party and the army.
Retired Indian Air Marshal Ashok K Goel, in a recent analysis stated that Xi heads seven of the Central Leading Small Groups, the “most powerful bodies overseeing government and Party affairs” and now guides and supervises all affairs relating to the national economy, armed forces and military modernization, cyber security and domestic security.
Unlike his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi succeeded in consolidating his position as Commander-in-Chief of China’s Armed forces more smoothly and more swiftly. While Jiang became CMC Chair while Deng Xiaoping was still active in Chinese politics, Hu had to wait for two years before Jiang relinquished the top military post.
According to John Garnaut, China correspondent of Sydney Morning Herald, Xi’s meteoric rise in the military pecking order became possible because of his preparatory work in the PLA. Garnaut in his report, “Xi’s War Drums in Foreign policy” stated that, “Even before formally taking office, Xi launched a wide-ranging program of inspecting troops, cementing key military relationships, and muscling up against Japan”.
Xi is no stranger to the rank and file of the PLA. Even before he became the CMC Chairman in the fall of 2012, Xi served as its Vice Chairman for several years. Besides, he was once ‘an active’ PLA member who served as a Mishu/Personal Assistant to a former Defense Minister Geng Biao for nearly four years. Moreover, Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan, a popular revolutionary singer, is the Dean of People’s Liberation Army Art Academy and also a PLA civilian member, holding the rank of Major General.
As a ‘princeling’ of a powerful ‘Crown Prince Party’ and the most prominent member of a quasi-clique of Chinese political and military leaders who are descendants of early Communist revolutionaries, Xi enjoys considerable edge over his contemporaries.
Furthermore, China observers today concur of substantial increase in the number of top Chinese leaders hailing from Xi’s native province of Shaanxi, terming them the powerful ‘Shaanxi Gang’. In his detailed analysis titled, “Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle: The Shaanxi Gang”, Cheng Li, the Director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a Senior Fellow at Brookings revealed that “the members of the Shaanxi Gang now occupy a significant portion of the top leadership of the party and military. The gang constitutes three out of seven seats (43 percent) on the PSC, eight out of 25 members (32 percent) in the Politburo, and four out of 11 members (36 percent) on the CMC”.
It is now an open secret that when Hu was the Chairman of CMC, he failed to wield complete control over the PLA as the real power laid with General Xu Caihao, the then Vice-Chairman of CMC. Today, Xi has successfully evicted General Xu in a graft case. Besides, Xi is said to be “very close” with the current Vice Chairman of CMC, Xu Qiliang,, who is also a princeling. Speculations are also rife that Xi will be awarding Xu with a promotion during the next PLA Plenum. Xi further consolidated his power in the PLA during the Third Plenum, by establishing the controversial National Security Council (NSC) which supersedes the PLA on security matters. Analysts have spoken about the PLA’s opposition the new Council for the fear of losing its role in the formulation and implementation of security and defense policy matters.
On October 16, Chinese Defense Ministry, following Xi’s order, introduced tougher auditing of the PLA in a bid to target older and senior military officers involved in corruption cases. Xi also announced a high-profile austerity campaign, attacking the military’s culture of throwing grand banquets and its indulgence in ceremonial show and pomp.
Therefore, it can be safely established that Xi has succeeded where his predecessors Jiang and Hu failed – in wresting complete control over the PLA.
Xi’s massive anti-graft drive to consolidate power
Since his rise to power in 2012, Xi Jinping had spearheaded a massive anti-graft drive to purge his rivals and their protégés. Reuters in a report quoted a CCP insider as saying that the anti-corruption drive is a “means to an end.” “The goal is to promote and install generals loyal to him (Xi) so that he can tighten his grip on the army and push through reforms,” the insider said.
The most prominent among those investigated, indicted, or convicted by Xi in the early anti-graft campaign includes former Vice-Chairman of CMC, Xu Caihou, Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, former Deputy Head of the General Logistics Department, PLA, former Politburo member and former Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo Xilai, former Politburo Standing Committee member and former Internal Security Chief, Zhou Yongkang, former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Su Rong, a former senior aide and right hand man of retired President Hu Jintao and Head
of the United Front Work Department, Li Ling, He Jintao, elder son of ex-Politburo and a powerful former head of Anti-Graft Commission, He Guoqiang, Ling Zhengce, Vice-Chairman of the Shanxi CPPCC and brother of disgraced and demoted Ling Jihua, Li’s bro-in-law Wang Jiankang who was Deputy Mayor of Yuncheng in Shanxi province and Li’s elder sister Ling Luxian etc.
During the recently concluded Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee, several prominent military generals were expelled from the CPC amid graft allegations including Lt. General Yang Jinshan, Deputy Commander of the Chengdu Military Region and a former Commander of the Tibet Military District. General Jinshan’s family members, his secretary and his subordinates Deputy Commisar Wei Jin of Tibet Military Area and retired Commissar Ye Wanyong of Sichuan Military Area were earlier detained.
The plenum also decided to expel from the party five other Zhou Yongkang’s protégés – Li Dongsheng, a former Deputy Public Security Minister, Jiang Jiemin, Chief of China Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Wang Yongchun, a Deputy General Manager of CNPC, Li Chuncheng, a former Deputy Party Chief of Sichuan and former Guangzhou Party Chief Wan Qinliang. In what is being described as the biggest purge since Mao’s era, more than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, proteges and staff have been taken into custody or questioned.
To further consolidate his power, there are reports that Xi is planning to promote 200 “progressive officials” from Zhejiang province, his former power base in addition to the widely anticipated promotions of two other princelings in the CMC – General Liu Yuan, the Political Commissar of the PLA, General Logistics Department and General Zhang Youxia, Head of the General Armaments Department of PLA.
The Bloomberg briefs October edition titled, “China’s Transition-The Third Plenum- One Year on,” referring to the anti-graft drive, reported that the anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan handled 172,000 corruption cases and investigated 182,000 officials, the highest
annual number of cases in 30 years. By October 2014, the Xi leadership had purged a total of 55 ministerial and provincial level leaders on corruption charges, including seven members of the newly formed 18th Central Committee of the CCP and one member of CCDI, the report further noted.
Xi disbands an entire Government Ministry
Xi’s complete and overarching control could be elicited from the fact that he disbanded an entire government ministry, the Railway Ministry, following a corruption case. The then Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was awarded a suspended death sentence in 2013. Xinhua on October 17 reported that the Railway’s former deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang was given a suspended death sentence and his deputy Su Shunhu was jailed for life.
PLA reaffirms allegiance to Commander in Chief, Xi Jinping
Since Xi’s ascendancy, the PLA on numerous occasions have reaffirmed its allegiance to its Commander-in-Chief. The official PLA Daily in April published two full pages of speeches by 17 PLA Generals vowing allegiance to Xi. This was preceded by similar allegiance decrees made by more than 50 top Military Generals and commands of Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post, on 31 July, 2014, reported that following the announcement of corruption probe against former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, the army restated its allegiance to President Xi Jinping The report quoted a Shanghai-based military affairs commentator Ni Lexiong as stating: “It seems that things are under control and running according to Xi’s plan”.
Western media have also characterized Xi as a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police. The Wall Street Journal, for example, described Xi Jinping as “as a strong military leader at home..” Similarly, the New York Times described Xi “as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.”
Xi is aware of and responsible for PLA’s incursions in Ladakh
Indian strategist Jayadeva Ranade, who is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, in a recent article titled, “China Test India in Ladakh” described Chinese incursions in LACs as Beijing’s planned strategy and stated that President Xi was fully
aware of and responsible for these actions. Referring to the Chinese incursions in Ladakh during Premier Li Keqiang’s last April visit to India, Ranade revealed: “Some senior officials in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi confirmed to interlocutors during private conversations that the intrusion was a deliberate, planned action. They said the PLA’s plan had been approved by the Politburo which had also considered the likely impact of the action on Li Keqiang’s impending visit and assessed that India wouldn’t cancel his visit. In conversations with foreign diplomats in Delhi, Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese diplomats and officials dismissed description of the PLA’s action as “intrusion” or “incursion” and asserted that PLA troops were “well inside” Chinese territory”.
Prof. Roderick Macfarquhar, a China specialist from Harvard University, in an interview published in the Indian Express on 27 September, “suspected that Xi knew what was happening” referring to the border incursions. “He is, of course, the Chairman of the Military Affairs Commission. He has emphasized Party leadership of the military time and again. Making excessive concessions to India would not be in keeping with the profile Xi has established with the Chinese public, which is as a strong nationalist leader,” Prof. Macfarquhar said. “If my reading is right, Xi was basically telling Modi that you might be a tough political leader, but I am telling you that we have got the advantage of terrain on the border and we can exploit it.”
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his recently published memoir, ‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’, wrote about the changing power balances and said, “Before, when the Chinese did something aggressive or risky, you could say, ‘That’s the PLA acting on their own, Now it can be assumed that Chinese army does not make unilateral decisions but acts with Xi’s approval and support.”
Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research believes that despite PLA’s increasing clout and autonomy, it is “possible that the latest Himalayan incursions were deliberately timed, with Xi’s knowledge, to reinforce his message to India that
China will not compromise on territorial disputes and that the onus is on New Delhi to settle Chinese claims”.
PLA Generals leading the incursions are Xi’s protégés
Reports in the Indian media have signaled that the Chinese incursions in Ladakh were planned months before Xi’s visit to India and that the Commanders manning the Military Regions responsible for these incursions are close associates of Xi with some even owing their promotions to him.
In his article, “Chinese Say in Territorial Claims” published on 14 August, Ranade stated that in late July, General Xu Qiliang, Vice-Chairman of CMC visited PLA posts in Pangong Lake, Khurnak Fort, opposite Chushul, and Shenwenxian in Karakoram in Ngari (Ali) Military Sub-District subordinate to the Lanzhou Military Region which exercises operational jurisdiction over the areas across India’s Ladakh. According to the report, the purpose of General Qiliang’s visit was to boost the morale of the soldiers following their previous incursions and to further plan PLA incursions during the Xi’s India visit. General Qiliang was accompanied by Admiral Sun Jianguo, PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff and General Miao Hua, Political Commissar of the Lanzhou Military Region. General Qiliang, himself a “princeling” and close associate of Xi is slated for promotion. Lt General Hua’s affiliation to Xi dates back to August 1999, when he served under him in Nanjing MR. General Hua too owes his promotion to Xi.
Furthermore, the Lanzhou MR commander, 60-year-old Lieutenant General Liu Yuejun, who was promoted to the present post in October 2012, by Xi, is also a princeling.
The commander of the Ngari (Ali) MSD, General Liu Geping, who has direct operational responsibility for the Ladakh region, has been depicted by the official state media as a soldier with sound communist and political credentials. Ranade in his article affirmed that “none of these officers will disobey Xi Jinping or the CCP” thus dismissing speculations that the border incursions were the adventurism at play of rogue military officials.
Although in an effort to revive good relations with China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went the extra mile to befriend Xi, declaring that China and India are “two bodies and one spirit.” He further defined India’s renewed efforts for bilateral relations as INCH to MILES (“INCH -‘India-China’; MILES — ‘Millennium of Exceptional Synergy’). And Xi, at least in rhetoric, joined the euphoria by reciprocating with an unusual write-up titled “Towards an Asian Century of Prosperity” in The Hindu daily, claiming that “China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral relations in the 21st century”.
However, even before Xi left Delhi, the display of Xi-Modi bonhomie projecting signs of thaw in Sino-India relations proved to be a damp squib. China continues to maintain its past record of incursions and expansionism against India despite signing of much hyped trade deals and exchange of pleasantries.
A stark reality of China’s dubious campaign to undermine India’s territorial sovereignty, which often skips major attention, is that China, besides continuing to occupy large tracts of Indian territory following the 1962 war, continues to steadily occupy hundreds of kilometers of Indian territories in Ladakh, Uttaranchal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh etc over the last several decades (more detail in ‘Sizing up Xi’s ‘Friendly Overture’-Part-II’). Each year, China lays outrageous territorial claims and intrudes into fresh Indian areas.
China’s nasty record of indulging in anti-India rhetoric, repeated border incursions and cartographic aggressions before every major bilateral exchange has become a strategic ritual driven by multiple objectives. For example, China conducted a strategically timed nuclear test when Indian President R Venkataraman visited China in May 1992, when Indian PM Vajpayee was in Beijing in 2003, PLA forces intruded into Arunachal Pradesh and abducted 10 Indian soldiers, during Hu Jintao’s India visit in 2006, China claimed Arunachal Pradesh.
Similarly, in 2010, when Wen Jiabao visited India, China questioned India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, Later, when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India last year, PLA troops encroached into Depsang in Ladakh and Chaglagam area in Arunachal Pradesh. More recently, when Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari visited China in June this year, China came out with a map showing all of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory.
Strategist Claude Arpi, in his recent article, “Plotting to keep the pot boiling forever” published in the Pioneer on 25 September, while analyzing Chinese intrusion in Chumar region wondered that: “It is a totally new claim with no serious basis. The intrusions in Chumar are pure land-grabbing by China — ‘expansionism’ “.
According to experts, China’s frequent and unprompted border incursions are aimed at 1) demonstrating the PLA’s superiority and try and dent the confidence of the Indian army 2) keeping India on a defensive mode 3) to signal that the border issue will drag on for eternity 4) to maintain the status quo, if not, change it to their advantage 5) warning India against drawing closer to the US or Japan 6) to discourage India against building strategic infrastructure in the Himalayan borders 7) to discourage India against playing the Tibet Card 8) to humiliate India in the eyes of neighboring Asian countries and 9) to test Modi’s leadership and if possible destroy his popularity in India and the world.
A serious analysis of Sino-India relations for the past half a century would reveal China’s multi-prong vicious anti-India containment campaigns in the field of politics, diplomacy, economy and territorial sovereignty etc. China has always endeavored to keep India bogged down in multiple crises, preventing it from emerging as a strong and powerful nation, thus depriving it a rightful place in the comity of nations.
It can be prudently concluded that the Chinese border incursions during President Xi’s visit to India were no random kite-flying by some PLA generals but in fact were strategically planned and carried out under the explicit supervision of Xi himself. Therefore any claims and speculations that Xi still does not have complete control over PLA and that he is innocent of the Chinese incursions against India, is a wishful thinking, devoid of any truth.
Thus Xi’s lofty rhetoric about friendship, assuring India that “As two important forces in a world that moves towards multi-polarity, we need to become global partners having strategic coordination….(and that).. We need to work together to carry forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (the Panchsheel)” has failed to match with genuine actions, as always.
* Lobsang Yeshi, is an independent researcher and a member of Tibetan Parliament. He can be contacted at: [email protected]