At the Indian Council of World Affairs, the Chinese President hoped that China and India would be the ‘express trains’ driving regional development as well as the ‘twin anchors’ of regional peace. “When China and India join hands for cooperation, it will benefit not only the two countries but also the entire Asia and the world at large,” he said adding, “Nothing is more imperative than to deliver a more comfortable, more secure and happier life to the people.” Once again, the President’s words do not tally with the situation on the ground.
India and China wanted to show the world that the two most populated countries of the planet can work together harmoniously…
All started well when President Xi Jinping of China landed at the Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport at Ahmedabad on September 17. He and Peng Liyuan, his beautiful wife (and renowned former Opera singer) had a taste of Modiland. They seemed to enjoy the dynamism and culture of Gujarat as well as its delicacies on the banks of a clean Sabarmati river.
Both India and China wanted to show the world that the two most populated countries of the planet can work together harmoniously. Modi Sarkar had done its homework by sending National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval to Beijing. After meeting President Xi, Doval told the Indian media that the bilateral relations were poised for an ‘orbital jump’. A good sound bite indeed!
The day he arrived, President Xi wrote an op-ed in The Hindu: “As the two engines of the Asian economy, we need to become cooperation partners spearheading growth. I believe that the combination of China’s energy plus India’s wisdom will release massive potential.”
The bar seemed to have been placed very high.
Was Ambassador Wei Wei sacked?
In Ahmedabad, everything went as scripted, though nobody noticed an extraordinary event which occurred a few days before the President’s arrival. Wei Wei, the Chinese Ambassador to India was suddenly transferred (or sacked?) and replaced by Le Yucheng from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Chumar intrusions were all the more surprising after Xi had gone around selling “The China Dream”.
To replace the chief emissary a few days before his Head of State arrives for such a crucial visit must be a first in the annals of diplomatic history. What was behind this abrupt move? Although it may never be known, this happened at a time when speculations were rife about the fate of the Chinese Ambassador to Iceland who ‘disappeared’ somewhere in China. He was apparently too close to the Japanese. There is probably no link between the two but Wei Wei’s sudden ‘departure’ is rather strange.
The Border Issue
The second issue which did not go according to the planned programme was the sudden deterioration of the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Chumar in Southern Ladakh. Differences in ‘perception’ about where the LAC lay were known to exist, particularly in this area but as Xi arrived in Ahmedabad, more than one thousand five hundred Chinese troops belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) crossed the LAC and stood a few metres away from the Indian jawans. The situation has never been so tense for years. Why this show of force at a time Xi Jinping, who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), was trying to instill trust in the bilateral relations? Was there a better way to sabotage the Presidential visit?
Selling the Chinese Dream
President Xi’s visit to India was the last leg of a four-nation journey. The visit to Pakistani was called off due to internal turmoil there. The Chumar intrusions were all the more surprising after Xi had gone around selling “The China Dream”.
The senior most Chinese generals are aware of the situation on the Indian front…
He had announced the tenor of visit in his The Hindu op-ed, when he wrote, “As two important forces in a world that moves towards multi-polarity, we need to become global partners having strategic coordination. According to Prime Minister Modi, China and India are ‘two bodies, one spirit’. I appreciate this comment. Despite their distinctive features, the ‘Chinese Dragon’ and the ‘Indian Elephant’ both cherish peace, equity and justice. We need to work together to carry forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel) and make the international order more fair and reasonable.” He concluded, “I look forward to an in-depth exchange of views with Indian leaders…and to injecting new vitality to our strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity.” It is also clear that President Xi was keen to sell the ‘China Dream’, an important component of which appears to be that China is a peaceful and reliable neighbour.
If this was the case, then why to blatantly cross the LAC on the second day of the visit? This has remained unexplained in the unfolding of the events. In Sri Lanka too, Xi spoke of “The Dream” and in an article in The Daily News, Xi affirmed, “Let Us Become Partners in Pursuit of Our Dreams.” In the recent months, whenever he got a chance, Xi spoke of “The Dream”. For example, at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), he said, “The Chinese people, in their pursuit of the Chinese dream of great national renewal, stand ready to support and help other people in Asia to realise their own great dreams.” So, why send 1,500 soldiers across the LAC in Southern Ladakh?
The Border Issue
Many observers said that Xi wanted to press some ‘acupuncture’ points on the border, to make his Indian interlocutors aware that the issue is still pending. The border issue is indeed not a new one, it is ‘left-over from history’, as Chinese leaders say. In The Hindu, President Xi had however asserted, “Progress has been made in the negotiations on the boundary question, and the two sides have worked together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border area.” It is true that there is a historical background.
‘Exchange of maps’ of the contentious LAC was also not mentioned in the Joint Statement…
The Chumar operation was clearly a failure, as India could react quickly and amass more than 1,000 jawans in a few hours…
In April 1960, the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai had spent a week in Delhi to discuss with Prime Minister Nehru “certain differences relating to the border areas which have arisen.” The Joint Communique issued on April 26, 1960, had stated, “The two Prime Ministers had several long frank and friendly talks between themselves.”
It was decided that Chinese and Indian officials would “meet and examine, check and study all historical documents, records, accounts, maps and other material relevant to the boundary question, on which each side relied in support of its stand, and draw up a report for submission to the two Governments.” Five rounds of extensive discussions took place during the following months, with no progress. For the past 54 years, nothing seems to have changed, though as Xi arrived, the situation suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Did Something Go Wrong?
Last year, at the time of the Depsang incident, it was believed that Chinese intrusions could be due to the unfortunate initiatives of some local PLA commanders. I was then told, “It cannot be. PLA generals are a disciplined lot and Chairman Xi is fully in command.”
This time, the same thought again came to my mind. Were some very senior PLA generals unhappy about the thaw between India and China? Or perhaps disturbed about Xi’s fight against corruption? And does it mean that Xi Jinping, the Chairman of the CMC, does not have full control over his Generals? Is it possible that China was speaking with different voices?
China is slowly but surely tightening her grip on Tibet…
An indication that everything may not be rosy for Xi is General Fan Changlong’s visit to Tibet. The General is the Senior Vice Chairman of the CMC and a Member of the Politburo of Communist Party of China. On August 17, The Tibet Daily carried an article saying that General Fan had come for an investigation tour to Qinghai and Tibet. The newspaper reported that Fan “emphasized that the entire army and the armed police must further implement the spirit of the series of important talks by Xi Jinping, must stick to the goal of strengthening the army in this new situation, concentrate on developing skills of war…”
However the main emphasis of his visit (only very briefly reported in the Chinese press in English) was that, “the entire army and the armed police must resolutely implement the strategic deployment by the Central Party and Xi Jinping, staunchly endorse the investigation of the case filed against Zhou Yongkang and the right decision made by the Central Party after carrying out investigation on Xu Caihou.”
Why come to Tibet, just to tell the officers posted on the Plateau to, “…be in unanimity with the Central Party in your thoughts and actions and obey the orders given by the Central Party and the CMC?” while opposing Zhou Yongkang.
The unusual part of the semi-clandestine visit was that Fan was accompanied by no less than three Military Region (MR) Commanders, Lt. General Liu Yuejun, Lanzhou MR, Lt. Gen. Zhao Zongqi, Jinan MR and General Li Shiming, Chengdu MR. What the Commander of Jinan MR was doing there is not clear, though having been earlier posted in Tibetan Military District, Zhao certainly understands the ground reality on the plateau. The point is that this trip to the “Roof of the World” was important enough to bring along three MR Commanders.
On October 10, the China Daily mentioned the changing role of the border defense forces…
Fan admonished the officers posted in Tibet, “make full efforts to correct and control all the inappropriate activities around you, fight corruption, punish corruption severely, always maintain the characteristic, objective and the inherent quality of the people’s party. The leaders among the cadres must build the pillar of a strong ideological line and spread the glorious tradition of our party and our army.”
It means that there are probably senior followers of Zhou Yongkang in Tibet, and they may not be easy for Xi to control. Interestingly, Chinese media reports did not mention which units General Fan visited, how long he stayed in Tibet, where he went. The semi-clandestine visit could be another indication that something is not well in the Middle Kingdom.
A month earlier, China Military Online had reported that Xu Qiliang, the second CMC Vice Chairman had inspected some garrisons in Xinjiang and Tibet, “General Xu Qiliang visited the officers and men in frontier areas, and held talks with the leaders of the units garrisoning in Hotan [near the Aksai Chin], Ngari [near Demchok] and Lhasa areas,” said The Tibet Daily. Xu Qiliang also paid a visit to Shenxianwan (North of the Karakoram Pass and the Depsang Plains) at the altitude of 5,380 metres and the Khurnak Fort (opposite the Indian troops posted on the Panggong tso) where he inspected a squadron of speed boats and inquired “about the soldiers’ work, study and life.”
What is the significance of these visits? It is difficult to give a definitive answer, except that the seniormost Chinese generals are aware of the situation on the Indian front. For India, the question mainly revolves around the exchange of maps of the LAC. Coming out of the meeting with Xi, the Indian Prime Minister suggested, “…a clarification of LAC would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquility. I have requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC.” Xi answered about finding an agreement on the border, but nothing about the LAC. It is telling.
The incident at Chumar is all the more incomprehensible under the circumstances…
‘Exchange of maps’ of the contentious LAC was also not mentioned in the Joint Statement and Xinhua just said that both sides “agreed to properly manage and control the border disputes between the two nations, maintain peace and security in the border regions, and find a solution at an early date.” This does not augur well for the future.
Meetings of the Chief of Staff
A couple of days after his return from India, President Xi Jinping met with the PLA’s Chiefs of Staff in Beijing. He stressed again the loyalty of the senior officers, “Headquarters of PLA forces must have absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China, guarantee a smooth chain of command and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented”, he said. Since this came soon after the Delhi visit, the Indian press emphasized only his words about a regional war, “All PLA forces should improve their combat readiness and sharpen their ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology.” But this is not a new doctrine as it has been expounded in detail in successive White Papers published by the Chinese Ministry of Defence.
Perhaps more interesting is one of the latest statements, “Military commanders should have a better understanding of international and domestic security situations as well as the latest military development.” It signifies that some commanders needed to be briefed about the international situation and the relations with the neighbours. A statement issued by the Ministry also said, “All PLA forces should follow the instructions of President Xi and update their operations to meet new goals and missions set by the CMC.” Once again, does it mean that some officers do not follow the instructions of Chairman Xi? Could some commanders have taken initiatives on their own when their Supreme Commander was on a diplomatic trip? It is difficult to be affirmative but certainly a possibility to envisage.
Xi wanted to press some ‘acupuncture’ points on the border, to make his Indian interlocutors aware that the issue is still pending…
Purging General Xu Caihou’s friends
And then the heads started rolling! On October 01 this year, The South China Morning Post reported that two generals close to General Xu Caihou – Major General Gao Guanghui and Major General Xu Yuanlin, “…have been moved from their posts, possibly for failing to pledge allegiance to Xi Jinping.” What does ‘fail to pledge allegiance’ signify?
It is difficult to say for certain but a Hong Kong paper elaborated, “The fate of two major generals linked to a high-ranking PLA officer under investigation for corruption is in doubt amidst a reshuffle of personnel that suggests that disloyal officers are being purged.” For us in India, the most interesting case is that of Major General Xu Yuanlin who was, till recently, posted in the political department of the Lanzhou Military Command (MR). Nobody seems to know his whereabouts. Just three months ago, he had succeeded Lt. Gen. Fan Changmi as Head of Ideological Education for Lanzhou MR.
On conditions of anonymity, a retired PLA Colonel told The South China Morning Post that for Xu and Gao had been forced in to retirement to assist the investigation of Xu Caihou or they may be undergoing shuanggui themselves, as many senior officers promoted by Xu Caihou. Shuanggui is an internal disciplinary process for party members suspected of corruption.
The same Colonel stated, “But I don’t think all senior military officials promoted during Xu’s era will be kicked out. Some were elevated on account of their personal capabilities but I think Xu and Gao were purged for refusing to show allegiance to President Xi Jinping.”
Another possibility is that the leadership has decided to “kill a few chickens to scare some monkeys.” It is a well-known strategy leaders go after ‘lower’ cadres/officers in order to control more powerful leaders. In this case, the monkey is probably Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar and previously member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
…PLA/PAP knew that it was a short-term operation to frighten Indians. If that was intended, the Chumar operation was clearly a failure…
Promotions and Demotions
In the meantime, China is slowly but surely tightening her grip on Tibet. The latest sign is the ‘elevation’ of the status of the Political Commissar of the Tibet Armed Police. On October 07, The Global Times announced, “China’s Central Military Commission upgraded the political status of the Political Commissar of the Armed Police Corps of the Tibet Autonomous Region, indicating the central government’s determination to safeguard regional stability.”
Major General Tang Xiao, the Political Commissar of the Tibet Armed Police Corps, under the People’s Armed Police (PAP), will now enjoy enhanced powers and status. He will be treated on par with the Head of a Corps-sized military body i.e. he will gain one star and don the rank of Lieutenant General. The Tibet Corps itself will not be upgraded.
The Global Times explains to its readers, “Under the dual leadership of the State Council and the Central Military Commission, the Chinese People’s Armed Police is composed of internal security forces and various police forces, including border security, firefighting and security guard units.” Niu Zhizhong, Chief of Staff of the PAP announced Tang’s promotion at a press conference on October 03. Niu said that ‘better treatment’ for the Head of the Armed Police in Tibet “is a major decision made by Central Military Commission based on the special environment and strategic position of the Tibet Armed Police.” The objective of Tang’s promotion is to better safeguard regional stability.
On September 30, the frontier defense troops of the two countries completed simultaneous withdrawal according to the steps formulated by the two sides and restored peace and tranquility in the area.
With the October 03 announcement, Tao Xiao now has official military rank and receives regular military salary. Nothing has been said about the PAP Commander in Tibet, Maj. Gen. Song Baoshan. Why to promote the Political Commissar only? It sounds like a demotion for Song.
Changing Role of the Border Forces
Another indication that the Chumar incident is rather strange is the current propaganda in the Chinese press that the PLA/PAPF were disengaging from the border issue to concentrate on the law and order situation (terrorism) in Xinjiang Military District. On October 10, the China Daily mentioned the changing role of the border defense forces, “The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is altering its focus from frontier defense to maintaining social stability as China builds good relations with its neighbors to the West, according to Cheng Jiazhu, Deputy Commander of the Corps.”
While celebrating the Corps’ 60th anniversary on October 10, the Chinese newspaper explained, “Founded in 1954, the Corps took on the mission of guarding border areas. Now, it has 176 regiments in 14 divisions scattered throughout Xinjiang’s 14 prefectures and cities. … In pursuit of its initial mission to provide border security, regiments of the Corps settled in the most remote and wild places of the country. It was to fulfill the mission of consolidating border defense, while avoiding commingling resources with locals.” It probably signifies that some of the border forces will be diverted to law and order duties as ‘China builds good relations with her neighbors.’
The incident at Chumar is all the more incomprehensible under these circumstances except if the PLA/PAP knew that it was a short-term operation to frighten some Indian monkeys. If that was intended, the Chumar operation was clearly a failure, as India could react quickly and amass more than 1,000 jawans in a few hours in the newly ‘disputed’ area.
Sometimes, there is a gap between the words and the deeds, especially if all the generals do not follow the ‘instructions’ of Chairman Xi…
At the Indian Council of World Affairs, the Chinese President hoped that China and India would be the ‘express trains’ driving regional development as well as the ‘twin anchors’ of regional peace. “When China and India join hands for cooperation, it will benefit not only the two countries but also entire Asia and the world at large,” he said adding that, “Nothing is more imperative than to deliver a more comfortable, more secure and happier life to the people.”
Once again, the President’s words do not tally with the situation on the ground, though the issue came to a close on September 30, when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release, “The two sides have reached a consensus on properly resolving the recent stand-off between the frontier defense troops at the border of the two countries. On September 30, the frontier defense troops of the two countries completed simultaneous withdrawal according to the steps formulated by the two sides and restored peace and tranquility in the area.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that both sides understood that friendly cooperation conformed with their common interests and peaceful and tranquil borders are important for the growth of bilateral relations, but sometimes, there is a gap between the words and the deeds, especially, if there is disagreement amongst the senior officers and if all the generals do not follow the ‘instructions’ of Chairman Xi. This seems to be a serious problem in the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s visit to India is a mixed bag.