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India in the fraught relationship between President Xi and the Chinese Army

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

It is increasingly clear that Chinese President Xi Jingping and the generals of the People's Liberation Army have strong differences about how to approach India. And the PLA might be working against Xi Jinping to torpedo any peace overtures made by the Chinese government towards India, Ambassador (retd.) Prabhat Prakash Shukla argues in this essay. (For a wide-ranging conversation with Ambassador Shukla on the Ukraine war, India-US, India-Russia ties, and the conflict with China, see here ).

A march past of the People's Liberation Army. Photo:CGTN

It was December 2012: Xi Jinping had just been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, when he delivered a speech to the cadres. The subject was the collapse of the USSR. After rubbishing what he called “historical nihilism”, he said it was a mistake to denigrate Lenin and Stalin, which would undermine the Party at all levels.

Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military? Because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the party was disarmed … Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called ‘neutrality.’

This fixation on the collapse of the USSR was comparatively recent. Outgoing General Secretary had also referred to the danger of collapse in his Work Report to the Congress, pointing to the lack of ideological commitment and the rise of corruption. He added that corruption “could prove fatal to the Party, and even cause the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state”.

The reason for this alarmist view of the situation was not far to seek; the year 2012 had been a tumultuous one, starting with the Bo Xilai affair and going through the events concerning Ling Jihua, the unexplained absence of Xi himself in September when he failed to keep appointments with the likes of visiting US Secretary of State Clinton. Over the years, the Party would accuse Bo, along with Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, several PLA senior officers and Hu’s aide Ling Jihua of seeking to organise a coup against the Party, presumably aiming to disrupt the succession of XJP. This was the first succession that Deng Xiaoping had not provided for; hence – presumably - the struggle.

These two themes, socio-political collapse and Party control over the gun, have never been far from the mind, deeds and words of XJP since those first days. This note is an attempt to explore the relationship between XJP and his Armed Forces.

It is said that when Deng was preparing to hand over power to Jiang Zemin, he advised him to spend five days at work, and four of these with the military. This was an acknowledgement of two important features of the situation. The first was the role of the Army as the final upholder of Communist power in the country, a fact that brutally asserted itself in Tiananmen Square in 1989, still fresh in public memory. The second was that Jiang – and all his successors – were not military men, unlike Mao and Deng, who were as much military men as of the Party.

Jiang and Hu handled the military with care, and the military reciprocated the attitude. All the same, they both worked to curb the political role of the military by reducing their presence in the ruling bodies of the Party. One example: after 2007, the beginning of Hu’s second term as General Secretary, there was no member of the military in the Party Secretariat. The number of military men in the Central Committee and Politburo had fallen sharply after the Mao era. And Jiang had ended their role in business. Or tried to, with limited success, seeing that they are active behind the scenes once again.

The most unsettled times began with President Xi. He had well-founded doubts about the position of some of the senior echelons on the PLA, ever since the 14th Group Army [Corps in Indian terms] played host to Bo Xilai in February 2012. This Corps was descended from his father, Bo Yibo, who had commanded the group during the Civil War in China. There was a waxwork statue of the father at the base. He was also in the pantheon of the Party’s Eight Immortals; Xi’s father did not rank among them. This event occurred in early 2012, when Bo fils was already in trouble over the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, in Chongqing, his Party domain.

The first sign of the extent of the bitterness at the top ranks of the Party became public when, in March 2012, Premier Wen Jiabao criticised Bo in public, just after the National People’s Congress, a very rare thing among the Party leaders to do. At a press conference, Wen warned against a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution, and advised the Chongqing Party leadership to learn from the Wang Lijun incident. This latter had fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu, carrying documents apparently linking Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, to the murder of the British businessman and to corruption, including at the level of Bo’s wife. Wang had been handed over to the Beijing authorities by the US Consulate after spending thirty-six hours there, and was later sentenced to 15 years’ jail time. Interestingly, while Wen asked the Chongqing leadership to learn from the incident, Hu Jintao was reported to have denounced Wang as a traitor.

However, Hu was himself stymied shortly after, when his closest aide, Ling Jihua, then the head of the powerful General Office of the Central Committee. He was forced out of this office over a scandal involving his [Ling’s] son; the latter crashed a Ferrari, while driving with two female companions. All were in various stages of undress, and the son lost his life. All this happened within the space of a week in the middle of March. Subsequently, Ling was expelled from the Party, and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was later revealed that money was transferred from the China National Petroleum Corporation, at the behest of Zhou Yongkang, Politburo Standing Committee member who also was tried for bribery and abuse of power, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

This was the situation Xi inherited as General Secretary – a Party divided, lacking legitimacy, as economic growth slowed and removed the Party’s last claim to legitimacy, plus an acknowledged dependence on the military for survival. Many of the top PLA echelons were, understandably, Hu appointees, some inherited from Jiang. As far as the Indian border regions were concerned, Hu had been tough on Tibet ever since his own stint as Party leader there; he was the first to invoke martial law, in March 1989, after disturbances in Tibet; the Tiananmen martial law followed. It is a fair assessment that he paid close attention to the military appointments in the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions. The former covered the area on the eastern sector, while Lanzhou covered the central and western sectors, as shown in the map below [See Maps 1 and 2 below].

Table 1

Before getting into the specifics, it would be worthwhile to get a general picture of the presence of the military in the top bodies of the Party after the Mao era [Table 1 above]. The case of Liu Huaqing, the only military officer on the Politburo Standing Committee [PBSC] is a special one. He was a PLA veteran who took part in the Long March, and was moved to the Navy in 1982 as its Commander. He retired in 1988, but was called back as the Commander of the bloody operation to clear Tiananmen Square in June 1989. He was rewarded by being made Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1989, and then with a seat in the Politburo Standing Committee at the Fourteenth Congress of the Party from 1992 to 1997.

Thereafter, the military has had no presence in the Politburo Standing Committee, while retaining two places in the Politburo, and one in the Secretariat. Since 2007, the Secretariat seat is also gone. This very likely is the work of Hu Jintao, who had assumed full power only after 2004, when Jiang Zemin stepped down from the post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Map 1.1: PLA Military regions prior to 2016

Map 1.2 : Theatre commands after 2016

Note: the boundaries of India are incorrectly drawn.

One noteworthy fact is that, in 2007, the Tibet Military District Commander Lt Gen Dong Guishan was chosen member of the CPC Central Committee, one of only two Lt Gen rank officers in the field [as against at the CMC] to make it to the CPC Central Committee. His career was almost entirely devoted to the Tibet and Chengdu areas, and he was Deputy Chief of Staff in the Tibet Military District when Hu declared martial law in Tibet, where he was then the Party Chief, in March 1989. His selection to the Central Committee, as well as to the post of Commander of the Tibet Military District in 2004, almost immediately after Hu took over as Chairman of the CMC, reflects the salience Tibet had in Hu’s military planning.

This, then, is the background to the advent of Xi Jinping to the Party leadership and the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in November 2012. By the spring of 2013, he was also President and Chairman of the State CMC, and Li Keqiang was Premier. The latter had obvious connections with Hu Jintao, both having sprung from the Communist Youth League. He was the first Chinese leader to visit India after the changes of 2012-13, and indeed laid emphasis on the fact that India was his first foreign visit. Unfortunately, as happened several times in the past, the PLA Army intruded into the Depsang Plains in Ladakh at the same time. That was settled with some effort, but it seems to have given Xi something to think early 2014, his move on the PLA echelons was under way.

Xi and the PLA: differences over India

By 2014, two things were clear: for Xi, India was a priority relationship, and he was taking over the India file; secondly, the PLA was not in agreement with this new approach. It also became clear that large parts of the foreign policy establishment also disagreed with this new approach.

The evidentiary record begins with the September 2014 visit of President Xi to India; the personal comfort between him and Prime Minister Modi was on display during their informal meetings on the banks of the Sabarmati. At the same time, the PLA Army was intruding into Chumar in southern Ladakh, and there is good reason to believe that Xi was unaware of this.

And Xi had clearly come to India to move the relationship to a different plane, as became evident when he spoke to the media after the formal talks in Delhi. In response to Modi’s call for clarifying the Line of Actual Control, and settling the border issue, he ignored the first point, but used a noteworthy formulation:

"[S]ince the border has yet to be demarcated; sometimes there might be certain incidents. But the two sides are fully capable of acting promptly to effectively manage the situation through various levels of border-related mechanisms, so that such incidents do not have a large impact on the bilateral relationship."

China has the determination to work with India through friendly consultations to settle the boundary question at an early date.

His reference to “an early date” did not play well with all sections of the media in Beijing. While Xinhua and People’s Daily did report the words, Global Times did not. The same paper, in a different report, even ascribed the phrase to the Indian Prime Minister!

One fall-out of this was a meeting of Xi with what Xinhua described as the “PLA Chiefs of Staff” where, amid the usual remarks about military readiness and preparation for a regional war, he added two additional thoughts:

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.

And later:

Military commanders should have a better understanding of international and domestic security situations.

The first was an obvious reference to the fact, commented upon in the Indian media as the visit was ongoing, that the troops had not withdrawn, even though, according to the Chinese, they had been ordered to by President Xi. The second apparently was a reflection of his own view that applying military pressure on India would only drive it closer to the US and Japan. Prime Minister had visited Japan a few days before receiving Xi, where he had spoken of an eighteenth century mindset among some expansionist powers which led them to occupy others’ territories and enter their territorial waters.

This was clearly not enough, and Xi made the first of his top-flight changes in the PLA line-up in Lanzhou Military Region [which then controlled military activities on the Ladakh border] when he moved out Lt Gen Miao Hua from the post of Political Commissar in the Lanzhou MR, after only five months in the job. It is true, though, that he was promoted Admiral and sent as Political Commissar of the Navy, another highly unusual circumstance, since such changes between services are very rare – and there is some delicious irony in this for Xi, which need not detain us here. The Commander of Lanzhou MR, Lt Gen Liu Yuejun, who, was promoted as well in mid-July and moved out to the newly-formed Eastern Theatre Command. Together with Lt Gen Miao, he had been responsible for both the Depsang intrusion during Li Keqiang’s visit, and the Chumar intrusion during Xi’s visit. Both of them also had extensive experience in Lanzhou, and had been brought in under Hu Jintao.

These were clearly compromises that Xi was forced to make because of the Party’s dependence on the Army for its political survival. Presumably as a result, Xi launched a two-prong move on the Army’s power. One was the anti-corruption drive, the other was the restructuring of the PLA.

On the anti-corruption campaign, the senior-most officers investigated were Gen Guo Boxiong, and Gen Xu Caihou, both of whom had retired as Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission [CMC] at the same time that Hu demitted office, ie, in November 2012. They had also serves as Vice Chairmen along with Xi himself. After their detention on corruption charges the CMC members and several other units applauded the move, indicating that Xi had carried the PLA with him on this.

Much the more consequential for President Xi was the later sacking of Gen Fang Fenghui as Chief of the Joint Staff Department, and Gen Zhang Yang, Chief of the Political Work Department in August 2017 – again on charges of corruption. The former had long years well over three decades, of experience in Lanzhou, and was appointed Chief of General Staff in 2012, later renamed Chief of Joint Staff Department, after the restructuring. Both men were sacked a few days before the Doklam stand-off was settled.

The question of whether there was a link is worth exploring briefly. Gen Feng was close enough to Xi to accompany him to the first summit with President Trump in April 2017 in Florida. He also hosted visiting US Chairman Joint chiefs Gen Dunford in mid-August. So apparently, there was nothing adverse against him until that time. And the Doklam issue was resolved once he was out of the way. The facts do suggest that he was the stumbling block: his long association with Hu and Lanzhou would reinforce this conclusion.

But this time the plan did not go well. Unlike in the case of Guo and Xu, there were no expressions of support for Xi, nor any denunciations of Fang and Zhang. To make matters worse, Zhang committed suicide shortly after the 19th Congress of the CPC. There has been an obvious distancing between Xi and the top brass ever since, to be examined later in this essay, in the course of examination of the Defence White Papers over the years.

Meanwhile, it is worth recording one significant development at the level of the lower Commands on the Indian border. Under Hu, it was the Tibet Military District who was in the Central Committee; under Xi, it has been the Xinjiang Military District Commander who has held that place. After the 18th Congress, it was Lt Gen Peng Yong who commanded the area and was in charge therefore during the Depsang and Chumar intrusions. He was replaced at the 19th Congress by Lt Gen Liu Wanlong, who appears to have taken over in early 2017. Things were relatively quiet in Ladakh as recently as early 2020, when the Northern Area Commander Lt Gen Ranbir Singh visited Urumqi and met Lt Gen Liu Wanlong. By May, of course, it was a different story altogether, and the first fatal confrontations in forty-five years occurred.

The chain of command in the area is complicated: theoretically, the Xinjiang Military Command [the new designation, in place of Military District after the restructuring of 2015-16] reports directly to the Chief of the PLA Ground Forces in Beijing, Gen Han Weiguo, who has no previous experience in the Indian border. Han is demonstrably close to Xi, who appointed him the first Commander of the Central Theatre Command, which includes Beijing; he was also the commander of the first Army Day parade outside Beijing [in Inner Mongolia] witnessed by Xi. These factors make his role, or absence of one, the more intriguing.

In practice, the Western Theatre Command, under Gen Zhao Zongqi and the Political Commissar Wu Shezhou, seems to be doing most of the communication during the confrontation. This team was joined in early 2020 by Lt Gen Xu Qiling, though he has had no exposure to the Indian border in his career.

Likewise, the Ministry of Defence has been virtually out of the picture this time, unlike during the 2017 Doklam stand-off, when it had played a helpful role in preventing the situation from going out of control. The explanation may be found in the fact that the Ministers had changed between 2017 and 2020. The previous Minister, Gen Chang Wanquan had some experience in Lanzhou MR, whereas the current Minister, Wei Fenghe, has none.

It would appear that the current crop of senior brass dealing with India are mostly those with hard-line attitudes, and the rest are those with no, or limited, experience of dealing with India. That would explain why the situation came to a pass where fatalities occurred on both sides. However, the lynch-pin, Gen Zhao Zongqi, has turned 65 in April this year, making him of retirement age for a full General. The next round of promotions of full Generals should take place in July, as it usually does. He would then be due for retirement and replacement if President is able and wishes to replace him, though the retirement age is not a hard and fast rule; both the Vice Chairmen, and the Chief of the Joint Staff Department, for instance, are older. But this could provide President Xi with an opening, if he feels strong enough to move.

Speaking of Doklam brings into focus three other senior PLA officers. Of them, the most impressive career is that of Gen Li Zuocheng, currently the Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the CMC, and thus the senior-most officer in a command post. He was awarded the Merit First Class for his role in the Vietnam War, and rewarded by being seated in the Presidium of the 12th National People’s Congress at the age of 29. In 1995, he was named among the top hundred public officials and in 1997, as Major General, he was the youngest Group Army Commander. He seems to have fallen foul of Jiang Zemin, who pushed him laterally to Guangzhou as Chief of Staff. His career was revived by Hu Jintao, who posted him to Chengdu where he was Deputy Commander of the MR from 2007 to 2013, becoming Commander in 2013, until 2016. Doklam was his former area of jurisdiction, and he continued to maintain control after moving to Beijing as Commander of the PLA Ground Forces in 2016.

The other two major figures were Gen Fang Fenghui, Chief of the Joint Staff Department, and Gen Zhang Yang, who was the Chief of the Political Work Department, or the Chief Political Commissar of the PLA. The former, with over three decades experience in Lanzhou, and an obvious favourite of Hu Jintao was another of the deciding voices on Doklam. Gen Zhang Yang had little exposure to the Indian border, but both he and Fang had to be sacked to make the Doklam settlement possible, as described above [some doubts have been raised as to the final outcome]. Their replacements, Li Zuocheng at Joint Staff and Miao Hua at Political Work, unfortunately, are not much of an improvement from the Indian point of view – possibly worse, judging by the aggravated fighting in the Galwan Valley this May-June..

In fine, all the many changes in personnel that have taken place under President Xi on the border with India have proved ineffective in terms of keeping the situation from flaring up. That he wants to change relations for the better with India may be seen not just from the talking-to he gave to the PLA senior staff after returning from India in September 2014; there is other evidence too. His taking charge of the India relationship, which no previous President and Party leader has done is another indicator. Equally important, his agreement to naming the Pakistan-based terror groups in the Joint Statement of the BRICS Xiamen Summit immediately after the Doklam issue was resolved, is another indication.

Inevitably, there were twists in this tale as well. Not surprisingly, Global Times, in its report on the summit, headlined terror as the principal concern, but did not mention the inclusion of the Pakistan-based groups. Even more startling, Hu Shisheng, one of the directors at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, openly criticized the decision to refer to these groups by name; claiming that it would strain ties with Pakistan, he declared that it was beyond his understanding how this was allowed to happen.

This was also the first sign of a breach between President Xi and the foreign policy establishment, spilling out into the open. Earlier, after Xi’s remarks about settling the border at an early date, the Chinese foreign policy Track 2 had made it clear in subsequent interactions that there would be no early settlement – and they were proved right. But this was public expression of disagreement, and that was extremely unusual. What is more, Chinese statements after this have indeed refrained from naming Pakistan-based terror groups.

With this, the narrative on President Xi’s relations with the PLA since his taking over the top leadership roles in the country is done. It has also shown that India is one of the important issues that divides Xi from his military. The foreign policy also has similar differences on the question of India.

The Restructuring and the White Papers

The restructuring has been written about in great detail and only the aspects relevant to India are discussed here. The most important feature is the weakening of the PLA Ground Forces, or Army. In the old CMC, the Ground Forced held all the dominant positions, and serviced al the other Arms; in fact, there was no separate Army command. The Vice Chairmen were all Army men; the four General Departments of the CMC – General Staff, Political Work, Logistics, and Armaments – were all under Army men.

These have been abolished, and replaced by six Departments and several commissions. This has resulted in the weakening of the General Staff Department, which has been divested of its role in training and equipment; in addition, the PLA units have come under the control of the National Defence Mobilisation Department; the exceptions are Beijing, Tibet and Xinjiang, which are under the control of the Army. The Army itself has been constituted as a separate Force, under a newly-created post of Chief of the PLA Ground Forces.

The other major feature is the formation of Theatre Commands, to replace the former Military Regions, formally known as Military Area Commands, in the PLA official documents. There has been a steady reduction in the number of such commands: there were nine until 1985, reduced to seven, and now [2016] five joint theatre commands. The reduction was affected by abolishing the Jinan MR, and merging Chengdu and Lanzhou, to make one Western Theatre Command. This is now the largest Command in terms of area, and deploys some 30 percent of the Ground Forces. And this is the Command that operates along the border with India. As mentioned, it has two Military Commands, Tibet and Xinjiang, which report to the Chief of the Ground Forces in Beijing. The Command is headquartered in Chengdu, the Ground Forces in Lanzhou.

As for the two semi-independent Military Commands, in Tibet and Xinjiang, they are headed by Lieutenant Generals; the normal rank for such a command is one rank below. The reason for this and for placing these commands directly under the PLA Army was explained by Global Times shortly after the restructuring:

The Tibet Military Command, on the other hand, is under the leadership of the Chinese ground forces, which suggests that the command may undertake some kind of military combat mission in the future.

And later:

The Tibet Military Command bears great responsibility to prepare for possible conflicts between China and India.

And about a year after, the stand-off in Doklam occurred.

The same is also true of the Xinjiang Military Command, and the violence in the Ladakh followed. It should be emphasised that the Commander in Xinjiang is also a member of the Party Central Committee, thus outranking many of his notional seniors in the Western Theatre Command.

For the first time, a non-Army man has been put in overall charge of one such Command – Admiral Yuan Yubei in the Southern Theatre Command.

Also for the first time, a non-Army officer is one of the Vice Chairmen of the CMC – Air Force General Xu Qiliang. He is not only one of the two Vice Chairmen, he is described as the “Executive Vice Chairman”, whereas the other, Gen Zhang Youxia, is described as the Vice Chairman.

President Xi also announced a reduction of 300,000 men from the PLA, but it is not clear what has been reduced and how much. But the upshot is unmistakable: he has tried to reduce the dominance of the Army within the PLA, above all by separating it from its firm grip on the Central Military Commission, so that it is now one Arm among six, and also appointing a Chief who is close to him personally.

How much all these changes have helped is clear, at least as far as India is concerned: very little. It would appear that India remains a point of discord between Xi and his Generals. Xi sees the need to conciliate India, and so probably does Premier Li Keqiang, and the reason is what he hinted at in his talk to the PLA senior officers in September 2014: the positive approach will prevent India from committing to the US approach in the Indo-Pacific. That is also why Xi has taken personal charge of the India file. The PLA Army seems to take the view that more military pressure on India will achieve the same end more effectively. And all the shuffling of the deck by Xi over the years since 2014, has yielded scant results in changing this line of approach.

An examination of the Defence White Papers over the years is also quite revealing of the evolving relationship between Xi and the military. These Papers have been coming out every two years since at least 2000; there was only one gap, and that was 2017. As this narrative has described, 2017 was among the most fateful years in the tussle between Xi and the PLA, so this absence reinforces that conclusion. Another revealing circumstance is that 2018 was the one year in which no new Generals were appointed, although the normal practice is to have such promotions in July, shortly before Army Day, 1 August.

The formulations used over the years to describe the relationship between the military and the Party have seen subtle changes since the time of Hu Jintao.

In the Paper of 2011 – the last under Hu – the words used to describe the role and standing of the PLA in society we as follows

The Chinese armed forces carry on the glorious tradition of supporting the government and cherishing the people, strictly abide by state policies, laws and regulations and consolidate the unity between the military and the government and between the military and the people.

And later:

… the political work of the PLA must guarantee - politically, ideologically and organizationally - the nature of the people's army under the absolute leadership of the Party…

Thus, in 2011, the White Paper had a brief, non-controversial formulation on the leadership of the Party.

By the next White Paper, in 2013, the formulation was this:

Acting in accordance with laws, policies and disciplines, China's armed forces observe the country's Constitution and other relevant laws, comply with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and maintain their commitment to employing troops and taking actions according to law.

Again, it was brief, but this time, there was no reference to the leading role of the Party or Government. These were very early days of the Xi Jinping leadership, though it is hard to explain why it omitted the role of the Party. The cleansing of the PLA had not yet begun, or at least was not yet public. It should be added, however, that previous Papers also contained brief mentions of this aspect.

By 2015, things had changed; the high-profile sackings of Gen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both close to Hu Jintao, had taken place. Xu had been moved from his sick-bed – undergoing treatment for bladder cancer, which eventually took his life – to the court-martial.

Thus the wording in the 2015 White Paper:

China's armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC's absolute leadership, uphold combat effectiveness as the sole and fundamental standard … firmly maintain social stability, so as to remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC's ruling position and a reliable force for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Moreover, the armed forces will uphold a series of fundamental principles for and institutions of the CPC's absolute leadership over the military… the armed forces will resolutely follow the commands of the CPC Central Committee and the CMC at all times and under all conditions.


The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned…

By this time, the differences are out in the open. For a start, there is noe mention of Xi, and even the role of the Central Military Commission is diluted by reference also to the Central Committee. And the PLA will uphold combat effectiveness as the “sole standard”, while adhering to the leadership of the Communist Party of China – not the Central Military Commission. They will also be a staunch force for upholding the ruling position of the Party.

This was also the time that the White Paper called for abandoning the predominant role of the Army, in favour of more attention to the sea.

As already noted, there was no White Paper in 2017, which was a year of major shifts in the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The Trump Administration had begun the halting and erratic process of changing the traditional approach towards the country, and, more emphatically, towards the Communist Party. Apart from India, there was a new direction that had become unstable, and once again the Army was resorting to its single trick – hit out. Once again, it was Xi who preferred a more moderate approach, including on economic issues; in this too, he was to be rebuffed by his own Politburo.

Also, there were no promotions to the rank of General in 2018, though there had been such annual promotions since at least 2009. This was the backdrop to the White Paper that was issued in 2019.

Excerpts on the role of the Party in the 2019 White Paper:

In the new era, to meet the strategic demands of national security and development, China’s armed forces firmly implement the missions and tasks entrusted by the CPC and the people. They endeavor to provide strategic support for consolidating the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system.

… the PLA endeavors to enhance the CMC’s centralized and unified leadership and its functions of strategic command and strategic management … uphold the authority of the CPCCC and its centralized and unified leadership, and ensure the absolute leadership of the CPC over the military

China’s armed forces unswervingly take Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military as the guidance, firmly uphold General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the CPCCC and the whole Party, firmly uphold the authority of the CPCCC and its centralized and unified leadership, and follow the CMC Chairman responsibility system

Finally, there is a reference to Xi personally; but here too, there is a kink. The PLA takes his thinking on strengthening the PLA as guidance, and uphold his position as the core of the Central Committee and the whole Party. Everywhere else, it is the “centralized and unified” leadership that is in charge. Most intriguingly, “they endeavor to provide strategic support for consolidating the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system”.

Xi Jinping’s own words have come to haunt him: if it is indeed the PLA that is the guarantor of the system, he cannot then command it. It is the PLA who are in charge; they know it, especially now, as the legitimacy of the system crashes to nothing.

Summing up

The study of the relationship between President Xi and the PLA has a narrow focus: India. but it does provide evidence for a broader conclusion as to this relationship as well. It suggests that Xi seeks some accommodation with India, while the PLA Army is opposed to it. It also leads to the conclusion that Xi is not having his way on India, either with the military or, lately, with the foreign policy establishment. That is why, they have not allowed any forward movement on the border issue, and have kept up their nibbling at Indian territory.

This is also why they have made no movement on clarifying the Line of Actual Control, even though the concluding statement on the visit of President Jiang Zemin in 1996 committed both sides to do so. In fact, there are no references to the Line of Actual Control on the Chinese dise at all; they have rejected the concept itself.

Thus, with no agreed border, and no mutually accepted Line of Actual Control, the PLA Army is free to lay claim to any area they wish to. The only answer to this is for India to build up its own military strength, keeping in mind that there is a two-front situation, since Pakistan will certainly get involved on the side of its “Iron Brother”.

None of this is meant to suggest that President Xi is moderate in his other approaches. True, he does want to maintain a working relationship with the US, but that is because China needs the US to continue to grow economically, and its military strength is not yet adequate to confront the US militarily.

But otherwise, on what they regard as their “core interests” – the domestic system, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, apart from the six identified in their 2011 White Paper on its peaceful rise, of which there is less and less now – Xi is as uncompromising as any leader has been, and possible tougher than the likes of Wen Jiabao, or even Jiang Zemin, in recent years, to say nothing of the Party leadership of the 1980’s.

But Xi seems to understand that international opinion and actions are hardening as China asserts these interests, and it cannot withstand such hardening attitudes and policies all around.

And yet, despite all this in common, he is not succeeding in bringing the PLA under control. And at times it appears that it is not just the PLA. In January 2016, Xi warned against “cabals and cliques” within the Party. But the PLA has a special place, as he has himself recognised, in maintaining the Party in power.

A noteworthy incident followed the suicide of Gen Zhang Yang, an incident described above, which appears to have marked a turning point in this fraught relationship. An episode in December 2017 – after the 19th Party Congress, at which some 80 percent of the delegates from the PLA were first-timers, an unprecedented turnover – is illustrative. Given the unrest in the ranks over the suicide of Gen Zhang in late November, the Party summoned over seventy top PLA officers were called for a study session where they were told to “resolutely obey Chairman Xi’s commands, be responsible to Chairman Xi, and let Chairman Xi be at ease.”

So far, that does not seem to be happening.

The narrative so far thus leads to certain significant assessments –

Firstly, that, as of 2019, the PLA seems to have the upper hand in policy and this has been made clear in the formulations employed in the latest White Paper, in the movement of personnel in key positions, and in the actions seen in Ladakh in June this year.

Secondly, as a rule of statecraft, when we defeat a policy or action, we defeat the authors of that approach. In that sense, and not only in that sense, the strong push-back in Galwan was well executed. The fact that the Chinese are not disclosing their casualties is indicative: their explanation that this is being done so as not to inflame opinion in India is not credible. Opinion is inflamed in India, and if that were a concern, the Chinese would settle the border issue. No, the reason is to be found in their own domestic opinion.

Thirdly, and this flows from the above, authoritarian systems are also brittle. Military defeats invariably undermine the entire system. Just the history of the 20th Century will show this to be the case: from the fall of Tsarist Russia in 1917 as the First World War took its toll, through the fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires after their defeat in the same War, the root-and-branch changes in Germany and Japan in 1945, to the fall of military rule and of Yahya Khan in 1971, and of the military dictatorship of Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina in 1982 after the Falklands War, finally to the end of the Soviet Union after the Afghan War – the story is the same. By contrast, democracies are resilient and fare better: India in 1962, the US in 1975 after the fall of Saigon – both survived with just personnel changes, but no systemic collapse. This is what the Chinese fear and that is why they are not revealing their casualties; they have studied the collapse of the Soviet Union very carefully and drawn the appropriate lessons.

And fourthly and finally, this leads to the ineluctable conclusion – we must step up our military readiness, to face what will very likely be a two-front situation. Some short-term measures that have been and could be taken include:

(i) Seeking additional fighter aircraft from Russia, and stepping up the serviceability of the Forces.

(ii) This can be supplemented by reviving the old Rafale contract for 126 aircraft; cutting down the number has left a gap of 90, which will take us another decade to decide on, plus the time taken thereafter to fill the order.

(iii) Raising the retirement age of serving officers and other ranks, so as to make good the shortage of officers and men the Army in particular is facing, especially in the middle ranks.

With good preparation and equipment, we could add China to the list of authoritarian states that collapsed after military setbacks.

New Delhi, 11 July 2020

Post scriptum: Since the above was written, the Communist Party of China has published its Resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP on the major achievements and historical experience of the party over the past century on 11 November 2021, and that lends authentic support to the views expressed in this essay. Here is the relevant quote from the Resolution:


For a period of time, the Party's leadership over the military was obviously lacking. If this problem had not been completely solved, it would not only have diminished the military's combat capacity, but also undermined the key political principle that the Party commands the gun. Setting their sights on this problem, the Central Committee and the CMC have worked vigorously to govern the military with strict discipline in every respect and made resolute decisions to enforce political discipline within the military. At the conference on military political work in 2014 in Gutian, Fujian Province, a plan was unveiled for enhancing the political loyalty of the armed forces in the new era, restoring and carrying on the proud traditions and fine conduct of the Party and the military, and improving political work through rectification. An all-around push was made to strengthen the Party's leadership and Party building, improve Party conduct, build integrity, and fight corruption in the military. Grave violations of Party discipline and state laws including those involving Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang were thoroughly investigated and punished, and their negative influence was completely eliminated. With this, the political environment in the people's armed forces has made a fundamental turn for the better.


The resistance of the PLA continued even after the removal from post of Gen Fang and Gen Zhang. The level of violence in summer 2020 that saw the death of 20 Indian and over 40 PRC soldiers in Galwan put an end to the informal summits that had been taking between PM Modi and President Xi. It is clear that the PLA’s intervention ended the process, because, at the end of the second summit [Mamallapuram October 2019], it was officially announced that a third summit would take place in China in 2020. The murderous confrontation killed the project.



  2. Richard McGregor, The Party, Harper Collins, 2010, p 105












(Prabhat Prakash Shukla has been diplomatic adviser to three Indian prime ministers. In his long and distinguished career as a diplomat, he was also India's ambassador to Russia.)


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