While the situation along India’s borders with China may be under control now, as the Army chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, claimed recently, the choice of a rising star of China’s People’s Liberation Army to head the Western Theatre Command is reason for wariness.
Not much is known in this country about 57-year-old Lt. Gen. Xu Qiling, whom President Xi Jinping handpicked for the job in the midst of the standoff in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control. Despite both the humiliating defeat India suffered in 1962 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assiduous courtship of President Xi, Indians by and large do not have much interest in or knowledge of China.
This became glaringly obvious during President Xi’s 2014 visit to India when a Doordarshan newsreader called him “President Eleven”, mistaking Xi for Roman numerals.
Another aspect of this negligence is that the Indian armed forces seem constantly to be caught napping. China’s surreptitious construction of the 2,342-km Aksai Chin road between 1951 and 1957 was an astonishing instance. So was Indian unawareness about the Pakistani infiltrators at Kargil in 1999.
The present problem centres on the 8-km road that the Chinese built between Fingers (as spurs are termed) 8 and 4 on Lake Pangong Tso, in effect unilaterally shifting the LAC in China’s favour.
If Beijing is preparing to play hardball, Gen. Xu, who is also responsible for Xinjiang, Tibet and the PLA’s military cooperation with Pakistan, may be the right man. He was chief of staff of the former 54th Army Corps, an elite fighting force involved in supressing the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
India’s territorial disputes with China in three Himalayan regions cover more than 120,000 sq km at altitudes of up to 4,300 metres. The eastern sector, of about 90,000 sq km, corresponds roughly to Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claim and call “Southern Tibet”.
The central or middle sector, west of Nepal, is the smallest contested area at about 2,100 sq km, and is almost entirely under Indian control. China surreptitiously encroached on the 38,000 sq km western sector covering the Aksai Chin plateau (eastern Ladakh) and several districts in Xinjiang in the 1950s. There is also the 5,180 sq km chunk of Occupied Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963.
Despite the seven-hour June 6 meeting between Lt. Gen. Harinder Singh, 14 Corps commander, and China’s Maj. Gen. Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang military region, the tussle for spurs and summits, roads and waterways continues.
The agreement to keep talking at the brigade and battalion commander level gives no clue to China’s long-term intentions. But specific physical features of the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake can hardly be ends in themselves. They are bound to be aspects of a bigger long-term strategy that demands the leadership of a politically attuned ground and air military expert like Gen. Xu.
A former PLA air force commander, Gen. Xu has worked in four of the five theatre commands and was one of the younger generals to be promoted to lieutenant-general last year. The previous year he was sent to head the ground forces in the Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the security of Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, as well as the East China Sea.
President Xi, who is also chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, which is the PLA’s high command, merged the 54th Corps he commanded with the 83rd Army Corps in a 2015 military overhaul.
His predecessor, 63-year-old Gen. He Weidong, is expected to retire after his less arduous current posting in the Eastern Theatre Command. Managing sensitive border areas like restive Xinjiang and the Tibet autonomous region, whose stability is never to be taken for granted no matter what the Chinese might claim, calls for a younger and more vigorous man who can lead frontier soldiers and officers. The rugged terrain, high altitude and harsh climate make it a hard environment where even young people can age prematurely.
The challenge also calls for someone familiar with joint ground and air operations. According to Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based commentator: “All the fighting forces Beijing sends to the frontiers were trained for air-to-ground battles, which need a capable commander like Xu to lead them.”
The latest tensions have further fuelled the buildup of troops and weapons with the PLA stepping up advanced arms testing and training at high altitude.
Gen. Xu’s new position is seen as a test. If he handles the China-India border disputes to President Xi’s satisfaction, he will very likely be promoted to the PLA’s ground force headquarters, or even higher.
What will satisfy President Xi is anybody’s guess. China’s condescending attitude to India was reflected in President Liu Shao-chi’s remark that “China was a great power and had to punish India once”.
However, Mao Zedong seemed to support those, including the British-Australian writer, Neville Maxwell, who argue India forced hostilities on China in 1962. Describing his fights with nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Japan and the United States, Mao had reportedly said, “During none of these did we fear.
And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have any fear. We cannot give ground; once we give it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province. […] Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasises reciprocity.”
Chairman Mao’s mocking tone confirms what Jawaharlal Nehru saw as China’s Middle Kingdom complex. It was earlier evident in the Qianlong emperor’s rebuff of the Macartney mission. Whether or not China wants any further Indian territory, it probably does seek a less pro-American India’s acknowledgement of the global status to which it feels entitled.