Fifth columnist: China’s new chairman

At the Zhurihe military base in Inner Mongolia, also Asia’s largest military training camp, a live demonstration by the People’ Liberation Army (PLA) with Chinese President Xi Jinping in military fatigues on August 1, reveals the backdrop to the current Sino-Indian Doklam standoff.

In what western journalists described as a mock airborne assault, presenting for the first time ‘fighting maneuvers in parade’, as opposed to troops merely marching up and down, this special occasion to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, marks a new chapter in the country’s military modernisation programme.

The event also reveals that China’s biggest military shakeup for half a century represents a shakedown of attitudes, one in which Beijing’s long suppressed ambitions of territorial aggrandisement is likely to find full play.

For long – since the Manchu dynasty and even earlier – China’s belief that it constituted the world’s Middle Kingdom with vassal states (like India) on its periphery formed the core of Han ideology. 

Yet until the Zhurihe military exposition – with Richard Wagner-like martial military music playing in the background – the PLA was never considered the traditional army meant to guard the country’s defences. It was regarded as the armed wing of the Communist Party of China, whose principal job it was to keep order at home and may be, guard against stray invasions from Russia and Japan.

Xi, arguably the most powerful leader since Deng Xiao Ping, could well turn out to be the most important Chinese leader since Mao. At the Zhurihe march for instance, troops addressed him as ‘Chairman’, a title reserved for the Great Helmsman himself.

To achieve what others before him could not, Xi has also affected the most far reaching reforms in the country’s armed forces. The Chinese President took the biggest step towards cutting the army down to size in 2015 when he changed the PLA’s command and control structure. An organisation based on seven regions, whose job it was to control the domestic population, was done away with. What came in were five ‘outward-looking’ theatre commands, which are designed to assert China’s new-found status as a global power in South China Sea, Tibet or wherever required.

In addition, Xi announced the trimming of the PLA by as many as 300,000 troops to roughly two million, virtually half down from the army’s strength in 1980. This year, there have been further reforms. In April 2017, the defence ministry announced that five ‘group armies’ (one group army roughly totals 50,000 troops) or army corps would be disbanded. The PLA, the ministry said, was being divided into 84 ‘units’, without offering any further clarification.

Interestingly, the official line in China is being turned on its head. “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea, must be abandoned,” said an official Chinese White Paper this year. The reference – presumably to China’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea and build significant inroads into the Indian Ocean, which India regards as its backyard – have something to do with shifting this balance of forces that is yet to take place in India.

Just how serious is this changing asymmetry? Western journalists calculate that 20 years ago, China had merely 100 transport helicopters; today it has 1,000, mostly geared towards combat. In 2015, the Chinese Navy had 12,000 marines. This year, the establishment hopes to push the number to 40,000. A decade or so ago, the PLA had only seven units of special operations, which by this January has gone up to 11.

Clearly, the move is to create a highly mobile force. The days of bulky armies encircling large land masses and equally bulky forces are obviously over. The need of the hour is quick in and out jobs by highly mobile Special Forces, small in number but effective.

It is little wonder therefore that Beijing is issuing daily threats to India through their official party mouthpieces, foreign policy briefings and defence ministry handouts. The last one issued on Thursday, virtually declared that the countdown to another Sino-Indian battle has begun. “India should not underestimate China’s determination nor its capacity to defend its sovereignty and national interests and must dispel all illusions and avoid disastrous consequences.”

The Indian side, having learnt its lessons in 1962 as defence minister Arun Jaitley reiterated this week, has kept a low profile deciding not to engage the Chinese in a war of words. Unlike Pakistan, which comes from the same military traditions as India, China is a different kettle of fish, with one of the highest defence expenditures in the world.

On Thursday, China came up yet another proposal. Using the occasion to host some Indian journalists in Beijing, senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhou, director at the Centre on China America Defence Relations of the Academy of Military Science said that the two countries need to sign a new boundary convention in the Sikkim sector to replace the 1890 accord signed between Great Britain and China, making it more contemporary.

In other words, the classical carrot and stick policy is being put to use, or in the words of ancient Chinese militarist Sun Tzu, who believed that “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting… Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Ranjit Bhushan