An Indian soldier guards the Zoji La Pass road (Photo: AP)
On a routine July day in 2019, an innocuous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) press release may have been taken as just another handout from Beijing. On the other hand, it may not have been assumed unexceptional. If it was, or even if it wasn’t regarded as standard, the press release suggested actions that reverberate well into September 2020. ‘Last year, for the first time, the army under the PLA Western Theatre Command and its subordinate group armies set the battle command post on the plateau at the altitude of above 4000 meters. This year, the ground force of the PLA Western Theatre Command sent a permanent training instruction team to station at the high altitude region and all its subordinate group armies moved their headquarters to the high altitude region in complete unit,’ it said (‘PLA Army Conducts Drills Regularly in West China’s Plateau Area’, China Military, July 23rd, 2019). Innocuous enough, except that there is a deep message about thinking, planning, training and implementing by field exercises, something which is not ordinarily conducted by a military force. Setting up a battle command post above 4,000 metres suggests there is an operation in mind, sometime in the future, and when ‘all subordinate group armies’ shifted headquarters ‘in complete unit’, a battle plan was made fairly obvious.
Professional militaries war-game scenarios—in classrooms, on paper—and then exercise in the likely terrain and operational area. In this case, PLA Western Theatre Command was clearly conducting an exercise that required battle command post in high altitudes, and with the headquarters of all combat and support elements present as well. In simple language, the purpose was to demonstrate an ability to coordinate all elements into a single operational battle plan, which required holding and fighting in a high-altitude area. The only foe the People’s Republic of China has at a high altitude is India.
IN HINDSIGHT, it is possible to visualise India, its priorities and thinking, on that late July 2019 day when the PLA shared its operational thoughts and plans. Duty officers in the various intelligence agencies in New Delhi would have ‘noted’ the handout, Directorate of Military Intelligence (China section) would have made some remarks alongside, and somebody in Directorate General Military Operations would have added it to the files dealing with Ex/Op reports for, as the handout said, something was conducted the year earlier as well.
Which is the truest reflection of the vast differences in the culture, ethos and functioning of the two militaries that today confront each other on that ‘plateau at the altitude of above 4000 meters’. While India’s military was born of the ethos of the 19th century professionalisation of the arms and functions under strict politico-bureaucratic controls, the PLA was birthed in a highly politicised peasant uprising with a Marxist veneer. It remains strictly under the control of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the professionalism of its officers and soldiers notwithstanding. Coupled with that communist birthing is a historical sensibility that goes back deep into Chinese memory—events and lessons to be learnt. The language of the PLA handout of July 23rd, 2019 could well have been influenced by lessons imbibed from the ‘Warring States Period’ of 475 BCE to 221 BCE.
The ‘humiliation’ of 19th century Western imperialism and the Warring States Period has had the most profound impact on Chinese thinking, politics and policy. In essence, the Warring States Period is about the long bouts of internecine warfare within China—and the ultimate triumph of a single unifying dynasty. Any resemblance to the CPC and Mao Zedong is purely coincidental. Events, episodes and lessons from the Warring States Period form a compilation that has become essential reading in, and about, China. And none more so than the famous anonymously authored 36 Stratagems.
Strategy #7 is labelled ‘Create Something from Nothing’ and seems as innocuous as its title. ‘Use the same feint twice. Having reacted to the first and often the second feint as well, the enemy will be hesitant to react to a third feint. Therefore, the third feint is the actual attack catching your enemy with his guard down’ (The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China by Stefan H Verstappen, originally published in 1999). Repeated exercises conducted by PLA Western Theatre Command, and yet another similarly anodyne press handout, over years lulled 2020 India into believing it was a routine drill, conducted annually, innocent of all other intent. Coupled with Strategy #10—‘Hide Your Dagger Behind a Smile’—China’s political and military strategy becomes fairly obvious—and explicit. And garnished with the most famous of Chinese proverbs—‘(Never ask the) weight of the emperor’s cauldrons’—Beijing’s thought process displays a brazenness that is apparent.
The ‘cauldrons’ proverb is rooted in a belief that prohibits any display of intent and capability before the opportune moment—and is routinely used in terms of the global competition with Washington. But its Indian application is apparent as well now, with more than two divisions worth of troops almost eyeball-to-eyeball from both armies on that ‘plateau at the altitude of above 4000 meters’. Aviation assets have been mobilised and the enormous chain of military logistics activated to support the combat troops. The scale of the mobilisation being what it is, the efforts to sustain the soldiers are a challenge not for the fainthearted. And true to their proclivity, the PLA cannot resist highlighting the efforts it makes to care for the deployed troops.
Drones are being used to provide hot meals to soldiers, highest on the scale for morale measurement (‘PLA Tibet Military Command Adopts Drones for Logistics Support in Drills amid China-India Border Clash’, Global Times, September 11th).
While India’s military was born of the ethos of the 19th century professionalisation of the arms under strict politico-bureaucratic controls, the PLA was birthed in a highly politicised peasant uprising with a Marxist veneer. It remains strictly under the control of the Communist Party of China, the professionalism of its officers and soldiers notwithstanding
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Even if grossly exaggerated, this drone delivery capability is a reflection of complex logistics capacity coupled with combat formations. All of which is an outcome of deep changes in the PLA structures and size that have been implemented over the years, particularly in the last decade. Which is also a reflection of the vast differences that exist between India’s armed forces and the PLA.
In December 2016, General Zhao Zongqi, head of the recently raised PLA Western Theatre Command, visited India as a guest of the Indian army. The visit lasted from December 8th to 10th and he met the then Chief of Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh, the then Vice Chief and current Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, and then Eastern Army Commander, Lt General P Bakshi. ‘The two sides agreed to jointly implement the important consensus reached by leaders of the two countries and the relevant agreements between the two countries and militaries, promote mutual understanding, enhance pragmatic cooperation, safeguard peace and stability in border areas, and try best to make positive contributions to the healthy and stable development of the relations between the two countries and two militaries’, the official handout said (‘PLA Delegation Visits India’, China Military, December 10th, 2016). General Zongqi remains the theatre commander till date, despite almost 50 years of service and having reached the retirement age of 65. A continuity that is impossible in the Indian armed forces, for the governing culture in Delhi precludes selectivity to such an extent. It also does not promote military changes to the degree that has been possible in China, and especially with regard to the size and structure of the PLA.
A year after assuming office as General Secretary of the CPC in 2012, Xi Jinping made a far-reaching vision statement at the 18th Central Committee’s Third Plenum about military reforms—both leadership and structures. In 2015, the changes came to be actualised with the raising of new theatre commands and additional elements—Strategic Support Force (cyber and digital warfare) and Joint Logistic Support Force—under the PLA. The India-oriented Western Theatre Command came to be raised on February 1st, 2016. And later that year its commander was a guest in Delhi.
After years of endless discussion, debate and committee reports, India announced General Bipin Rawat as the first CDS. In effect beginning the reform process from the top of the pyramid rather than strengthening the basic structure. The appointment has created more loops within the civil-military bureaucratic structure than can be easily understood from the outside. Theatre commands remain a far-off aspiration while the low-hanging joint logistics structure has not been achieved as yet. And it cannot be until India’s armed forces are rationalised for size, deployment and long-term security challenges. Something the PLA has been pushed to implement in rather drastic, and dramatic, fashion over the years.
Since the first manpower downsizing in 1950, the PLA has been involved in about 10 such episodes. From its peak of about 6.3 million uniformed personnel during the Korean War, 1950-1953, the PLA now numbers about two million. Half being the army and the rest divided among the air force, navy, etcetera. General Zongqi, commander of the Western Theatre, is from the army and has PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Lt General Wang Qiang as his head of aviation assets. Adam Ni, a China watcher at the Australian National University, highlighted the military logic for this rationalisation: ‘a rebalancing of resources away from the Army to the Navy, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force will allow China to better tackle emerging security challenges…such as the need to safeguard sea lanes, enforce maritime claims, conduct overseas operations, and secure information infrastructures. Second, the reduction will cut fat from the ground forces in the form of non-combat, non-essential personnel, which makes sense from a fiscal point of view. Third, by reducing the organisational mass of the PLA, China is hoping to make its military more versatile, integrated, and effective… In sum, the current round of rebalancing is another deliberate step in the long process of making the PLA a leaner and more professional fighting force that can fulfil its growing mission and win modern wars’ (‘Why China Is Trimming Its Army’, The Diplomat, July 15th, 2017).
Such synergy is only possible because of firm political decisions based on solid military rationale, something Xi Jinping has managed remarkably well as he echoes the PLA’s Ying Pai hawks.
Michael Pillsbury, amongst the foremost China watchers, wrote: ‘President Xi had picked up a slogan from the hawks, fuxing zhi lu, which roughly means ‘the road to renewal’. An expression confined to the nationalistic fringe had become the new president’s signature issue’ (‘The China Syndrome’, The Economic Times, September 30th, 2019). The physical evidence of this expression can be seen from an episode soon after the tragic June 15th-16th clash in Ladakh’s Galwan valley. Lt General Wang Haijiang, the overall PLA commander in Tibet, was photographed inscribing ‘China’ in Mandarin between Fingers 4 and 5 on the north bank of Pangong Tso. Alongside the symbol was a map of China, both large enough to be picked up by passing satellites. The messaging could not have been more artless (‘Chinese Inscribe Huge Symbol, Map onto Disputed Territory in Pangong’, Ndtv.com, June 30th). Little wonder that despite endless rounds of military and diplomatic parleys the India-China face-off appears no closer to resolution than what it was in early May 2020.
In December 2016, General Zhao Zongqi, head of the PLA Western Theatre Command, visited India. General Zongqi remains the theatre commander till date, a continuity that is impossible in the Indian armed forces. Nor can Delhi promote military changes to the degree that has been possible in China
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Since the Sumdorong Chu Valley incident in 1986, there have been several protocols initiated and initialled between India and China. Beginning with the ‘Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas’ in 1993 and the 2005 protocol on ‘Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas’ to the latest five-point agreement signed in Moscow. These have all come to naught as the PLA has shifted the LAC by altering facts on the ground, not through negotiations and CBMs.
So the Indian army and supporting troops took dominating heights along the south bank of Pangong Tso at the end of August, much to China’s chagrin. As winter approaches, it would be prudent to prepare well—and nothing better than going back into China’s history and Strategy #28 from the famous treatise ‘Lure Your Enemy onto the Roof, Then Take Away the Ladder’: ‘With baits and deceptions, lure your enemy into treacherous terrain. Then cut off his lines of communication and avenue of escape. To save himself he must fight both your own forces and the elements of nature’ (Verstappen’s The Thirty-Six Strategies). Where it is now placed, India should not be lulled into believing all is well. It should prepare for every new challenge China and the PLA are certain to throw at it.