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Why New Delhi should worry about instability in China's PLA ranks
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Claude Arpi | Date:02 Nov , 2023 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

New commanders may be inclined to please the Emperor in order to consolidate their position in the hierarchy and therefore take a more belligerent stance towards Taiwan and India.

The planet is in turmoil. As if the Ukraine war was not enough, a new conflict has erupted in the Middle East.

The Russo-Ukrainian War had started in February 2014 soon after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, when Russia annexed Crimea. But it is only in February 2022 that Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, aiming at occupying most of the country. Since then the conflict has taken a disastrous turn with more than of a lakh casualties on each side.

Chaos is also visible in the Middle Kingdom where the Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers have both ‘disappeared’ since weeks. This is certainly not a sign of stability for a country which dreams of overtaking the United States in the years to come.

Havoc also in Afghanistan, where multiple earthquakes struck northwest of the city of Herat killing more than 4,000 people, leveling thousands of homes; the earthquake was said to be of magnitude 6.3 on the Richter scale.

And now a new conflict has erupted in the Middle East; in a column in The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman spoke of “Israel’s Worst Day at War”: “This is not your usual Hamas-Israel dust-up. The Gaza-Israel border is only 37 miles long, but the shock waves this war will unleash will not only thrust Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza into turmoil but will also slam into Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and most likely Iran. Why?”

Friedman answers: “Any prolonged Israel-Hamas war could divert more US military equipment needed by Kyiv to Tel Aviv, and it will make the proposed Saudi-Israeli normalization deal impossible — for now. And if it turns out that Iran encouraged the Hamas attack to scuttle that Israeli-Saudi deal, it could raise tensions between Israel and Iran and Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and also between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” He concludes: “This is an incredibly dangerous moment on multiple fronts.”

Some reports on the social media speak of 6,000 bombs dropped in Gaza in the first six days of the conflict (during the air campaign against ISIS between 2014 and 2019, the US-led coalition dropped 2,000-5,000 munitions per month across all of Iraq and Syria).

According to a release of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), as on October 12: “Dozens of fighter jets and helicopters attacked a series of terrorist targets of the Hamas terrorist organization throughout the Gaza Strip. So far, the IAF has dropped about 6,000 bombs against Hamas targets.”

Incidentally, a story was going around: “The so called Five Eyes Intelligence knew about Nijjar’s killers; why did it not have knowledge of the 5,000 Hamas rockets and hundreds of terrorists preparing to attack Israel?”

It is something for Mr Trudeau and his allies to answer or at least to ponder about.

For Delhi, an important question to look at is: will China benefit of the new war and how will it affect India?

There is no doubt that with the intensification of the conflict, the United States, China’s main adversary, will be bogged down on two fronts. This will undoubtedly weaken Washington (and its allies).

According to The Global Times, China’s (new and old) Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized Israel after its counterattack in Gaza against Hamas. Wang blamed the rapidly worsening conflict in the Middle East on a lack of justice for the Palestinian people: “The crux of the issue lies in the fact that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people,” Beijing’s top diplomat said in a phone call with Brazil’s Celso Amorim, a special adviser to Brazilian President Lula da Silva.

Reuters says the comment by Wang appeared “to mark a hardening of its stance amid heavy Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and talk of a possible ground operation to dislodge Hamas, which controls the strip. Earlier this year, China positioned itself as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, as it seeks to become a more influential player in the region.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin used the same argument: “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict keeps repeating for a fundamental reason: The Middle East peace process has been off the right track, the foundation of the two-state solution has been continuously eroded, and relevant U.N. resolutions are not followed through in good faith.”

In view of its pro-Palestinian stand, Beijing will probably be unable to mediate in the conflict, but China will certainly benefit from the engagement of the United States on two fronts at the same time.

In these circumstances, some observers believe that it would be the ideal time for Beijing to occupy Taiwan.

This raises several questions: first, is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) militarily ready? The next question is: can China open another front (in the Himalaya for example) against India to divert the world’s attention from its much larger objective on Taiwan.

China’s problem is that today India is ready to defend its territory and it will not be surprised like in May 2020 when the PLA entered several places in Ladakh.

On October 9 & 10, the 20th round of India-China Corps Commander Level meeting was held at Chushul-Moldo border point.

A release of the Ministry of External Affairs says: “The two sides exchanged views in a frank, open and constructive manner for an early and mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC in the Western Sector, in accordance with the guidance provided by the national leadership of the two countries, and building on the progress made in the last round of Corps Commanders’ Meeting held on 13-14 August 2023.”

It was agreed to maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations and both sides said that they were committed “to maintain peace and tranquility on the ground in the border areas in the interim.”

But China keeps putting the blame on Delhi …for wanting to occupy its own territory.

Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the Research Center for China-South Asia Cooperation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told The Global Times, “the biggest obstacle in making a breakthrough in corps commander level meetings lies in India’s objective, which is not simply reaching disengagement of troops from friction points, but to use the talks to compel China to withdraw and allow India to carry out patrols and occupy Chinese territories in certain areas.”

Liu accuses the US to cozying up to India, “siding with New Delhi in the border dispute, granting it higher status and more flexibility on major global issues, to serve its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China.”

Long Xingchun, a professor at the School of International Relations at Sichuan International Studies University, even argues “China will not make major concessions to India on border disputes, particularly on territorial issues, due to concerns over India’s strategic drift toward the US.”

Now, what could happen?

On the western front (Ladakh), China can’t do much while the talks are on and India has massively posted troops on a LAC, which is still ill-defined. The status-quo, particularly in Depsang and Demchok should presently suffice for Beijing.

In the Central Sector (where maps were exchanged in 2000), it is difficult to envisage an advance in the Barahoti sector during the winter though Delhi should be aware of China’s new aggressiveness; ditto in Northern Sikkim were the PLA could hardly advance a few hundred meters in the Naku-la or Chorten Nyima sectors, but Chinese surprise incursions can’t be overlooked.

Trickier is the Eastern Sector, where China could try its luck in places like Asaphila, Dipu-la or in the Fish Tails area. But here too the Indian Army seems to be aware of the danger. Let us not forget that the PLA was repelled last December in the Yangtse sector, a few hours after it tried to occupy some ridges south of the LAC.

What should worry Delhi is the instability in the PLA ranks.

According to Chinese social media, several personnel changes will take place in the weeks to come. It includes Liu Zhenli, a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) taking over as defense minister to replace Li Shangfu, who has ‘disappeared’

The Commander of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Gen Chang Dingqiu may take over as director of the CMC Joint Staff Department (JSD), while the position of PLAAF commander may be filled by Lt Gen Jing Jianfeng.

Further, Wang Xiubin, commander of the Southern Theater Command is slated to become commander of the Strategic Support Force (SSF) while Lt Gen Hu Zhongqiang, the deputy commander, will likely succeed him as the commander of the Southern Theater Command.

This does not include several important changes in the offing in the Western Theater Command facing India.

All these new commanders may be inclined to please the Emperor in order to consolidate their position in the hierarchy and therefore take a more belligerent stance from the PLA vis-a-vis Taiwan and India.

Turmoil is undoubtedly here to stay for some time and in these circumstances, Delhi should not be caught napping like in May 2020.


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