On 4th January 2022, the Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi Jinping, signed and issued the Training Mobilisation Order (TMO) to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for the new year.
This TMO is relatively short, 206 characters, compared to the last years one which was 636 characters. It appeared above the centre fold of the PLA Daily, the newspaper dedicated to the Chinese military.
This TMO lists training priorities for the PLA to “perform mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defense”. Xi Jinping has stressed on the need to “closely follow the evolution of technology, warfare and rivals.
As has been the custom, the release of the TMO is elaborately stage managed and flaunted. This year the 81st Airborne Brigade of the Central Theatre Command (CTC) showcased the event. The Airborne forces, comprising three divisions worth of elite airborne forces, are the centrally held reserves for rapid deployment anywhere on China’s borders for offensive operations or reinforcing a threatened sector. What is noteworthy is that this Brigade was kitted in a new “white winter camouflage combat uniform”. It would imply that this Brigade and its parent Division are earmarked and are preparing for contingencies in Tibet for operations against India.Special Forces Units and Electronic Countermeasure units also took part.
At this release function the media reported of personnel being “fully armed with high morale” – whatever that means. However, it is not clear whether Xi Jinping personally reviewed the proceedings like he has done since 2018. It has been observed that Xi Jinping has resorted to the use of the pronoun “I” in this TMO. He had last used it in the first TMO issued in January 2018. That was the TMO issued after the Doklam stand-off in 2017. Why has he used it this time is intriguing? Some say that it is a display of his confidence as “paramount leader” and the personality cult he has generated. It also could be that he is not too pleased with the way PLA is going about its job and that he is taking full charge from now onwards?!
This TMO lists training priorities for the PLA to “perform mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defense”. Xi Jinping has stressed on the need to “closely follow the evolution of technology, warfare and rivals. Redouble its efforts to better combine training with combat operations and strengthen systemic training and use of technology to develop an elite force that is capable of fighting and winning wars”.
After four years of PLA’s new found ‘mantra’ on training through these TMO’s it is rather odd to note that Xi is stressing on “efforts to better combine training with combat operations”. This, in my reckoning, is an indication that the training is not realistic and not operationally oriented to the scenarios that are operationally active. Induction of technology does not transform a force into a modern fighting machine unless technology is absorbed and fully integrated in the functioning of all the units at the tactical and operational level. There is a difference between acquiring modern gadgets/technology and in integrating these as force multipliers. In the former case, it is one of living amidst technology and gadgets but not knowing how to operate or integrate all that is available. That is hardly a notion of a modern fighting outfit.
Xi has reiterated that the PLA should redouble efforts to better combine training with combat operations and for the PLA to “resolutely implement the plans and instructions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership and CMC”
Xi Jinping has also demanded that all officers and soldiers “should uphold the spirit of fearing neither death nor hardships and conduct training in a vigorous, well-designed and safe manner to boost their commanding and fighting capabilities and foster excellent conduct”. Xi has reiterated that the PLA should redouble efforts to better combine training with combat operations and for the PLA to “resolutely implement the plans and instructions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership and CMC”.
Xi mentioning “fearing neither death nor hardships” is a telling matter, more so nearly two years after the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh. It probably indicates that there are a significant number of troop desertions and medical casualties which have resulted from the deployment in Tibet. The move to recruit local Tibetans in the Border Defence Units reinforces this view.
Western Theatre Command (WTC) is taking its toll on the higher leadership too. Since the commencement of the stand-off in Eastern Ladakh, the current General in command is the fourth one. Gen Zhao Zongqi retired in December 2020 and was relieved by Gen Zhang Xuding who was at the helm for just six months. His successor Gen XuQiling stepped down due to poor health after two months in command. The baton then fell in the hands of Gen Wang Haijing who is still hanging on.As a result of this frequent change probably Xi Jinping is more deeply involved in the decision making at the WTC.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang Military Science and Technology Institute, Beijing, as reported by SMCP, has said that many senior officers and commanders on the front line were suffering from gastrointestinal disease and other health problems. Zhou further added that, “Working conditions in the low-oxygen, low-temperature, high-altitude Western Theatre Command are tough, with coronary heart disease becoming a common problem among officers and soldiers”.
The PLA Daily also carried a commentary on occasion of the release of the TMO, wherein it expressed pessimism about the international security situation claiming, “In today’s world power politics and the ‘law of the jungle’ are still prevalent and various foreseeable and unforeseeable risks and challenges has increased significantly and the danger of war is real”. It added that, “Facing encirclement and suppression of hostile forces and strong containment and pressure that hinder us, we must base ourselves on the most difficult and complex situations and make the most solid and comprehensive training preparations.”
Chinese conscription policy creates a constant state of flux in every unit. At least one fifth to one fourth of the manpower is turning around every month, depending on the length of Conscripts’ contract period.
This is an apt case of the pot calling the kettle black. It is China which has made these ‘laws of the jungle’ by its unilateral unprovoked actions in the South China Sea, in military coercion of Taiwan and in its military expansion into Eastern Ladakh. What it accuses the rest of the worlds of “containment and pressure” are, in fact, a reaction of its aggressive assertive designs.
I have mentioned in my earlier writings that PLA has a major weakness in its junior leadership and fighting capabilities at the tactical level, technology notwithstanding. Chinese conscription policy creates a constant state of flux in every unit. At least one fifth to one fourth of the manpower is turning around every month, depending on the length of Conscripts’ contract period. On completion of their contract the Conscripts are demobilised, resulting in a lack of cohesion in the basic infantry, armoured and engineer sub-units, weapon detachments of the artillery, air-defence, and the entire range of equipment operators of the communication, surveillance and such like units. Thus trained manpower is replaced by young soldiers fresh from basic military training. Commanders cannot build a cohesive sub-unit and military leaders then end up becoming administrators and clerks.
Resultantly, the PLA follows a rigid and strict format of command and control with no leeway to junior commanders in the hierarchy to exercise initiative. This may also be out of necessity as the Chairman of the CMC who is the final authority in military matters is also donning many hats, viz, President, Chairman CMC, General Secretary Chinese Communist Party and a dozen more titles, that outside China he is called “Chairman of Everything”! Tight and strict hierarchical control is anathema in modern maneuver warfare which is heavily loaded with technology.
How does this relate to the situation in Eastern Ladakh? Sumdrong Chu was a precedent. The Chinese crossed over South of the Sumdrong Chu in the Tawang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh in the spring (April) of 1986 and occupied a post which was manned by the personal of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) during the summer, of what is in military colloquial parlance ascribed as the ‘campaign season’. The Chinese, however, beat the IB to it and took over their post. It resulted in an immediate deployment of the Army in an eye-ball to eye-ball situation which persisted through 1986-87.Consequent to India’s Prime Minister Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, the first after the 1962 war, brought in a bit of a thaw. However, Sumdrong Chu was only finally resolved after nine long years of negotiations, but PLA continues to retain a toe hold south of the Sumdrong Chu. To expect Chinese to agree to Indian demands in Eastern Ladakh in just two years would tantamount to China conceding defeat and failure. To expect that to happen is the bane of most leaders who want to resolve all issues during their limited tenures in office. China exploits such situations and drowns the opponents in their own hurried ill-considered compromises. Persistence, patience and precision are the bedrock of negotiations with the Chinese. Precision is with regard to what is the end state that has been identified. Don’t keep changing goal posts on a whim. There should be no wavering with regard to this issue as it will lead to India making concessions and comprises.
After the Indian PM’s visit to China in 1988, complacency set in. The lessons that were obvious post the Sumdrong Chu incident got buried in the deep dungeons of the MEA-MoD and were forgotten. There was every reason to place great emphasis on developing infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh, including constructing a tunnel under Se La (which, in my view, should have, in fact, been undertaken in 1963 following the 1962 War).This was not done and it was ten years later, in 1997-98 that road construction projects were sanctioned under what has come to be known as the “CSG Roads”. Incidentally most of these projects in Arunachal Pradesh under the “CSG Roads” head are running well behind their PDC (Prospective Date of Completion).
The military’s job is to fight and create an adverse situation for the enemy. Their job on ground is to exercise hard power. Thereby, making it easier for the diplomats to conduct negotiations that would further the nation’s interests.
A plus point as a consequence of the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh is that there has been a substantial boost given to this aspect of development and upgrading of infrastructure towards the northern borders along the entire stretch of the IB/LAC. The Border Roads Organisation has been strengthened and reinvigorated.
Effective diplomacy is pre-conditioned by the nation’s/leadership’s willingness to use force. For example, Turkey’s President Erdogan demonstrated this when challenged by Russian military forces and did not hesitate to shoot down a Russian fighter aircraft. He was not afraid to fight against the Russian proxy forces in Syria and Libya either. As a result he was able to engage in productive diplomacy with Putin and reach compromise deals with him that benefitted Turkey.
Consider this hypothetical scenario. How would the situation in Ladakh have evolved/spiraled had India resorted to employment of artillery and air attacks on the Chinese bases supporting its forces in Galwan? Would de-escalation have come about sooner? The military’s job is to fight and create an adverse situation for the enemy. Their job on ground is to exercise hard power. Thereby, making it easier for the diplomats to conduct negotiations that would further the nation’s interests. Would it have jolted the Chinese to seek an early settlement? That is a moot point but it demonstrates the leadership’s willingness to use force.
In 1969, the Chinese ambushed Soviet forces near Zhenbao/Damansky Island in theUssuri River in what was a well-planned pre-emptive action that surprised the Soviets. However, it led to a seven-month undeclared war between Soviet Union and China. The Chinese had undertaken pre-emptive action earlier in Korea in 1953.
China will continue to soft-peddle the issue of de-escalation in Eastern Ladakhuntil it is sure that it has achieved an unassailable position of strength. Then it will negotiate to seek major concessions and force compromises and completely change the reality on the ground thereby making the talks on the LAC just a paper exercise.
The recent statement by the Army Chief saying that “we will defeat the Chinese in a war” is conveying India’s determination and will to cut the Chinese to size (not ten feet tall but five feet only). The Chinese media reactions calling the statement as “unconstructive comment” are ludicrous. For the last nearly two years, state sponsored Chinese media and even their Ambassador in town, have been spewing venom and balderdash against India in their columns.
Talks are fundamentally to probe the adversary’s mind and look for a weakness. Chinese are very particular in analysing the meaning of every word and the long term implication of every sentence. These are meticulously related to what has been recorded on the same or similar situations over the last 75 years – yes 75 years. That is the reason that such meetings, on even one issue, lasting 13 hours. Every sentence would have been sent back to Beijing and thoroughly scrutinised and an appropriate response sent back which is then conveyed in the meeting. Thus, no meeting where an issue is discussed can be deemed to have “failed”. India must diligently follow the mantra of – persistence, patience and precision in its talks with the PLA.