The continuing intrusion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops at eight points around Chumar in Ladakh, that was detected on September 10 is qualitatively different from earlier intrusions. Four border flag meetings at the rank of brigadier and major general have failed to resolve the situation. It is unprecedented for an intrusion to continue during and after the visit to India by China’s highest ranking leader and chairman of its Central Military Commission (CMC) and suggests it is a deliberate, carefully calibrated military action.
There has been a qualitative change in the PLA’s military activities since 2007 with intrusions becoming deeper, longer in duration and involving larger numbers of personnel. The frequency of intrusions in Ladakh’s Chumar area has also increased since 2010-11. One clear message is that issues of sovereignty and territory are non-negotiable and would trump any other consideration, including economic.
Two intrusions were specially different and embarrassed successive Indian governments. The first took place in the Depsang Plains in Aksai Chin, Ladakh, virtually coinciding with Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s India visit (May 19-21, 2013). This was despite Beijing publicising that by making India the first stop on Li Keqiang’s very first trip abroad as premier, China was emphasising the importance it accords to relations with India. The focus of Li Keqiang’s visit was, predictably, economic. The 21-day (April 15-May 5) intrusion by PLA troops was unusually extended in depth and prolonged in duration. Beijing’s failure to respond to New Delhi’s requests to withdraw caused intrinsic damage to the bilateral relationship as evidenced during prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tokyo.
Some senior officials in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi confirmed to interlocutors during private conversations that the intrusion was a deliberate, planned action. They said the PLA’s plan had been approved by the Politburo which had also considered the likely impact of the action on Li Keqiang’s impending visit and assessed that India wouldn’t cancel his visit. In conversations with foreign diplomats in Delhi, Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese diplomats and officials dismissed description of the PLA’s action as “intrusion” or “incursion” and asserted that PLA troops were “well inside” Chinese territory.
The latest intrusion detected on September 10 at eight points in Chumar is very unusual as it coincided with Xi Jinping’s first visit (September 17-19) to India as China’s president. Another smaller confrontation simultaneously continues between “civilians” in Demchok. These were preceded by a brief intrusion in the Burtse area of Ladakh in mid-August. Prior to these intrusions, General Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the CMC, accompanied by PLA deputy chief of General Staff Admiral Sun Jianguo and political commissar of Lanzhou Military Region Lt General Miao Hua, inspected PLA posts in Bangongluo (Pangong Lake), Kena (Khurnak Fort, opposite Chushul), and Shenwenxian, all in the Ali Military Sub-District subordinate to the Lanzhou Military Region in the third week of July 2014. Two weeks later, the deputy secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in charge of Border Defence Management, visited these areas and urged construction of border defences and augmentation of border defence personnel.
While some Chinese and pro-China individuals argue that the visit is overall a success and the incident on the border shouldn’t be exaggerated, other reports suggest Xi Jinping’s grip on the PLA is weak. One palpably unacceptable report on September 19 claimed that Xi Jinping had assured Modi the previous day that he had instructed PLA forces to withdraw. Another recent report disingenuously suggested that on return to Beijing, Xi Jinping had summoned PLA commanders and urged them to follow orders. Actually, Xi Jinping had met senior military leaders to finalise promotions to the CMC.
Xi Jinping, who has close ties to the PLA and once held “active” military rank, has a very firm grip on the PLA. He was described this July by the authoritative party fortnightly Qiu Shi as the “most powerful communist leader in China”. Additionally, he heads China’s party, military, state and all-pervasive security apparatus, and has appointed most officers holding top PLA posts. Senior PLA commanders too have publicly sworn fealty to Xi Jinping. Important in this context are the affiliations of PLA officers commanding formations involved in the intrusions.
The Lanzhou Military Region (MR) commander, 60-year-old Lieutenant General Liu Yuejun, has a blemish-free political record confirmed by his membership of the 16th, 17th and now the 18th central committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He is one of the few PLA officers at this rank with battle experience having fought in the Sino-Vietnam war (1979). Liu Yuejun, appointed to the present post in October 2012, is significantly, like Xi Jinping, a “princeling” and now positioned for promotion as general.
Lt General Miao Hua, political commissar of Lanzhou MR who would vet all operational plans, owes his promotion to Xi Jinping. His affiliation to Xi Jinping dates back to August 1999-July 2005, when he was director of the political department of a group army in Nanjing MR and Xi Jinping was deputy director of the National Defence Mobilisation Committee, Nanjing Military Area Command from 1999-2003. The commander of the Ali MSD since February 2012, Liu Geping, who has direct operational responsibility for Ladakh, has been depicted by the official state media as a soldier with sound communist and political credentials. None of these officers will disobey Xi Jinping or the CCP.
The ongoing intrusion and stand-off since September 10 conveys multiple messages. One certainly is to test the Modi government. An interesting item in the state-run Global Times on September 18 described New Delhi’s stance on the border issue as “superficially” getting tougher, but also urged close attention as to why India had referred only to the eastern part when talking about “one India” and whether this signalled that the Modi administration is considering more strategic adjustments on this issue. Further, in addition to warning India against drawing closer to the US or Japan as China can apply military pressure on India at a place and time of its choice, the current intrusion could well be intended to pressurise India to participate in the New Silk Road Economic Belt, Maritime Silk Route and the BCIM initiatives in pursuance of China’s “Policy of Peripheral Diplomacy”.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.