Understanding the Chinese Leadership’s Decision-Making Process in a Possible India-China Border Conflict Scenario
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Apr , 2021

If you know the Enemy as well as well as you know Yourself, then you can win a Hundred Battles! – Sun Tzu


The top hierarchy in the Indian military are not very familiar with the structure and functioning of the leadership in the People’s Republic of China despite it being our neighbouring Country and what deserves to be most watched, due to our troubled relations caused by the unsettled Indo-Tibet boundary. For example, when a person having the designation “State Councillor” of the ‘Chinese State Council’, comes visiting to hold Border Talks, many of us think that he is even superior to their Foreign Minister whereas in actuality he is comparable to a Minister of State having Independent Charge. Only those holding ‘Vice-Premier’ designation are comparable to our Cabinet Ministers. In the system of leadership and power-holding arrangements that Mao Zedong created to run the State and which has evolved since then, nobody has a full say in decision-making whether it be in the Communist Party, Central Military Commission or in the State Council, except for the ‘Paramount Leader’ who is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Therefore the possibility of any way-ward functioning, or different Power Centres emerging are systemically removed. There is always a ‘whole of Govt approach’ to tackle national issues which includes deep study and analysis, discussions in different Policy-making Institutional Bodies in the Party, Govt and then the Military before decisions are taken in the context of employment of the PLA behind a screen of utter secrecy,  scrupulous logistical mobilisation, and a barrage of sophisticated propaganda. In this article we shall examine the process behind China’s decision to intrude in strength in Ladakh during March 2020. Such an understanding will help both Indian Military Commanders and the National Intelligence Set-up to predict with a high degree of certainty the trend of actions by the Chinese Theatre-level commander(s), and take timely pro-active countermeasures to foil their Plans. If one gets into the mindset of the Chinese leadership and know their way of functioning, their actions become very predictable indeed! We only have to look out for the indicators and the meaning behind the ‘confusing’ statements issued by the Chinese Govt spokespersons, media, and their leaders in various forums.

The Foreign Policy of China is monitored and usually initiated in an Organisation called “Central Foreign Affairs Commission”1 which is a Standing Body of the “Central Committee of CPC”. It exercises general oversight on matters related to Foreign Affairs. Its present composition is given below:-


    • Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission

Deputy Leader

    • Li Keqiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Politburo Standing Committee Member

Chief of General Office and Secretary-General

    • Yang Jiechi, Politburo Member

Group Members

    • Wang Qishan, Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China

This Group meets secretively out of the limelight and publicity in the leadership Compound in Zhongnanhai, Beijing on a fixed day of the Week. During one of its deliberations most probably in March 2019 after the Doklam Crisis, it was decided to “turn the heat” on India after its lukewarm response to the prestigious ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative of President Jinping. Some relevant information about the Members of CFAC is as follows. Premier Li Keqiang2 is an excellent economist who has worked up the Party hierarchy. Yang Jiechi3 is a career Diplomat who had previously served as China’s ambassador to USA. He had studied at the London School of Economics and is proficient in history. Wang Qishan4 is the current Vice President of China and long-term friend of Jinping since the Cultural Revolution days. He is an expert on economics and had been earlier handpicked by Jinping to serve as the Party’s Secretary of the “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection”, the party’s top anti-graft body.

This ‘Preliminary Proposal’ of the CFAC was thereafter forwarded to the “Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party”, usually known as the “Politburo Standing Committee”5 (PSC). This is a committee consisting of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It currently has seven members. Its officially mandated purpose is to conduct policy discussions and make decisions on major issues. The PSC is well equipped and staffed to bring out cogent proposals for consideration by the Members. In April 2019 the Staff Proposals for “Giving India a Shock-Treatment” must have been put up to the PSC for deliberations. The current Members of the PSC are:-

    1. Xi Jinping6. ‘General Secretary’ of the ‘Communist Party of China’ and ‘Chairman’ of
      the ‘Central Military Commission’. He has been a Member since 2007.
    2. Li Keqiang. ‘Party Secretary’ of the ‘State Council’. Member since 2007.
    3. Li Zhanshu7. ‘Party Secretary’ of the ‘Standing Committee’ of the ‘National People’s Congress’. Member since 2017. He is a long-time friend and member of Jinping’s inner circle.
    4. Wang Yang8. ‘Party Secretary’ of the Chinese People’s ‘Political Consultative Conference’. He is an advocate of liberal economic policies and strong economic growth.
    5. Wang Huning9. Top-ranked ‘Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CPC’. Member since 2017. Called “China’s Kissinger”, he is an able academic, Party ideologue and top adviser.
    6. Zhao Leji10. ‘Secretary’ of the ‘Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’. Member since 2017. A man of proven abilities, he delights in speaking the rustic ‘Shaanxi’ dialect.
    7. Han Zheng11. ‘Deputy Party Secretary’ of the ‘State Council’ of the People’s Republic of China. Member since 2017. Ex ‘suave’ Party Boss of Shanghai, and lead-person on Hong Kong.

The retirement age for Membership of the PSC is ‘67’, at the time of convening of the National People’s Congress. The PSC meets at Qinzheng Hall, Zhongnanhai on a fixed day every Week. The PSC must have discussed the case of India’s intransigence over several weekly sessions in April 2019, and must have come to a conclusion to proceed with the agenda of “Teaching India a Military Lesson”. President Jinping values ‘national honour’ and ‘strong image’ abroad.

The decision-making process in China and especially the deliberations of the all powerful PSC are kept blanketted by the “Office of the Central Secrecy Commission”12, which is a subordinate organization of the ‘General Office’ of the ‘Central Committee’ of CPC. It supervises the “National Administration of State Secret Protection” (NASSP) of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, which is the Agency responsible for the protection of classified information.

The decision taken by the PSC concerning India would then have been conveyed to the “Central Military Commission”13 (CMC) in May 2019, for further deliberations and implementation. The CMC is the National Defence Organization of both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the State Council under the National People’s Congress, and functions as the Military Branch of the government. The CMC is housed in the Ministry of National Defense compound (“August 1st Building”) in western Beijing. Its composition is:-


    • Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Leader of the “CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform”.

Vice Chairmen (2)

    1. Air Force General Xu Qiliang, Member of the  Politburo, Executive Deputy Leader of the CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform. Top-rate NDU alumni.
    2. Army General Zhang Youxia, Member of the Politburo, Deputy Leader of the CMC Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform. 1979 War with Vietnam veteran.

Members (4)

    1. Rocket Force General Wei Fenghe, State Councillor & Minister of National Defense.
    2. Army General Li Zuocheng, Chief of Joint Staff. Ex ‘Chengdu’ MR Commander and 1979 War with Vietnam veteran.
    3. Admiral Miao Hua, Director of the CMC Political Work Department. An old associate of Jinping, and ex Political Commissar of ‘Lanzhou’ MR.
    4. Rocket Force (Commissar) General Zhang Shengmin, Secretary ‘CMC Commission’ for Discipline Inspection & Dy Secretary ‘CPC Central Commission’ for Discipline Inspection.

In all probability, the mechanics of “Teaching India a Hard Military Lesson” would have got drafted by the No. 2 Joint Staff Dept in June 2019 and discussed in detail before final approval.

Thereafter the PLA Western Theatre Command14 based at Chengdu would have got activated in July 2019 to implement this Strategic Plan. The Theatre Commander Gen Zhao Zongqi15 was an experienced ‘India-hand’ having served many years in Tibet. Assured of full logistic and other support from the CMC, he would have called a Planning Conference in July 2019 involving the following16:-

    1. Lt General Xu Qiling, Commander PLA Ground Force, Western Theatre Command.
    2. Lt Gen Wang Qiang, Commander PLA Air Force Western Theatre Command.
    3. Lt Gen Xu Yong, Commander, Tibet Military District.
    4. Lt Gen Liu Wanglong, Commander, Xinjiang Military District.
    5. Major General Liu Lin, Commander, South Xinjiang Military Region.
    6. GeneralLi Zuocheng, Chief of Joint Staff, CMC. (Also an Ex ‘Chengdu’ MR Commander).

The PLA Plan involved activating the long dormant ‘Ladakh Sector’ by employing the forces under South Xinjiang MSD. These were:-

    • 4th Highland Motorised Infantry Division (ex Kuka)
    • 6th Highland Mechanised Infantry Division (ex Kashgar)
    • 8th Motorised Infantry Division
    • 11th Motorised Infantry Division (ex Urumchi)
    • Two (I) Artillery Brigades (ex Theatre resources)
    • Xinjiang Special Operations Brigade
    • Engineer Brigade (ex XMD)
    • (I) AD Brigade (ex Theatre resources)
    • EW Regiment (ex XMD)
    • 363 Border Guarding Regiment
    • (?) Border Guarding Regiment

PLAAF Assets (Urumqi Base)17

    • 111th Brigade (Korla-Xinhiang) (J-11s)
    • (?) Brigade (Urumqi-South) (JH-7)
    • (?) Brigade (Malan/Uxxaktal) (JJ-7A)
    • (?) Brigade (Changji) (J-8F, JJ-7A)

The ‘Cover Plan’ made was to organise a “Special Theatre-level Winter Offensive Ops Exercise” in the Takla Makan/Kun Lun Mountains area in February 2020 involving the latest PLA hardware and attack helicopters, and give the same Event maximum global media publicity to show off China’s capabilities to fight and decisively win a War under ‘modern’ conditions. The period July-October 2019 was used to do advance dumping and concealment of 40 days war stocks at Brigade-sized dispersed Launch-pads, a clear 100 kms away from the LAC. After this Exercise gets over, the troops were to lie doggo in the Exercise area for two weeks, so that the Indians assume that a ‘routine’ show-off event of the PLA had been conducted, and the participating Troops had gone back to their home-bases. Mock convoy movements were also conducted during day-time to give this impression to the monitoring agencies. After this cooling-off period got over, in the First Phase the 4th Highland Motorised Infantry Division and the 6th Highland Mechanised Infantry Division started making the stealthy moves at night during the first week of March 2020 to undertake the incursions at six selected weakly patrolled/unheld Sectors across the un-demarcated LAC in Ladakh, easily getting in unchecked and unchallenged 5-15 kms into the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh by the 10th of March 2020. The ‘surprise’ achieved was akin to the Nazi invasion of Russia during OP BARBAROSSA, as at many places the Indian  Border Guards (ITBP) waved at the Chinese thinking that they must have lost their way! Realisation set in 24 hours after the ‘fait-accompli’ was achieved in toto, and the commanders on the Indian side went ballistic as they could not hide their shame. This was also due to the obvious outcome of the utter lack of coordination and support rendered, between the Army and the GREF Task Force which was completing the strategic Darbuk – Shyok – Daulat Beg Oldi all-weather two-lane highway. Both Agencies were working with different Budget allotments and thereby under control of different Ministries!


The speed and volume of the Indian mobilisation ordered by its Joint-Services HQs to counter the Chinese intrusion was unbelievable! Within a matter of three weeks, two additional Divisions-strength troops and a whole new tank brigade got moved up to Ladakh during the winter, when the main access roads had not been opened up. A mirrored-deployment strategy was adopted by the first week of April. No confrontation was created with the aggressive and intruding Chinese. This baffled their commanders. Thereafter they started looking up at the possibilities of causing violent incidents and starting a fire-fight. The Chinese propaganda machine was in full swing to create a false impression in the international media that the opposite of what had actually happened was “true”! Indian Border Guards and Chinese Border Guards who have a permanent presence on the LAC know each other very well and maintain restraint and non-provocative relations. But the new Chinese PLA Troops at the LAC were a hostile and blatant ‘racist’ lot, full of overconfidence and aggression. They had the full backing of their Political Leadership in this planned and dangerous belligerence. The Pakistan Army tried its best to take advantage of this delicate situation by being more aggressive on the Indo-Pak LC and give the appearance of Sino-Pak collusion in this venture.

What needs now to be asked on the Indian side is why the NTRO & ISRO which have the capability to launch ‘low-orbit’ cheap surveillance satellites, fail to monitor correctly the PLA Force-levels at the exercise location in Western Tibet/ Southern Xinjiang? Why doesn’t India permanently keep a ‘geo-stationary orbit’ surveillance satellite to monitor the India-China Border Zone, under all conditions? The Chinese Secret Service (MSS) also called Ministry of State Security19  (Kwo-Tchya-Anchwuan-Pu) did a marvellous job in monitoring the Indian Agencies’ lack of awareness of this large-scale secretive military operation. Their Cyber-espionage Groups ‘APT3’ and ‘APT10’ even successfully carried out disruption of India’s vital Power Grid and also that of our largest port JNPT’s operations in November 2020.

What could have ultimately saved India from a nasty Border Conflict with China, the possibility of which we had naively not prepared for over a decade20, was the unexpected outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020; as all other nations of the world squarely blamed China for its total mishandling of the deadly ‘biological weapon-type’ outbreak and its undue secretiveness from November 2019 to February 2020! The Chinese CFAC was forced to take a re-look, scale down the belligerence, and opt for the façade of “negotiated pull-backs”! The Trump Administration’s whole-hearted support of India, and solemn assurance that “we will supply you whatever you want, and wherever you need it” also made a sure difference. The unwritten strategic alliance, and mutual logistics support agreement that Indian diplomacy had painstakingly built up with the United States over the last two decades, came in handy in our time of peril. Let us hope that the correct lessons are learnt, and there will be no repeat! There is the dire need to upgrade Indian Armed Forces’ core group of Chinese language specialists to monitor ‘Open Sources’ information, which will surely give some indications!


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col JK Achuthan (Retd.)

8 GR was commissioned in June 1980. 

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