In analysing the aggression shown by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Eastern Ladakh since May 2020, and the intransigence apparent in the consequent negotiations to return to status quo, it is imperative follow the hierarchy dictating the same. The attempt herein is to refute any impression of a local or within Military Division/ Theatre Command initiative to undertake belligerent posturing. This is essential also to contemplate future directions.
China in the past three decades has been rapidly growing, and in 2020 it is an intensely assertive power. Tied with the growth of China is the transformation and modernisation of PLA. The PLA’s modernisation is embedded with the ‘Two Centenaries’ goals – founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) with its first centenary in 2021, while the second, in 2049, will mark 100 years since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself was founded. A transformed PLA has become an important part of the ‘China Dream’ – a wide-ranging development and modernisation ambition for the Chinese nation.
How does CPC control the PLA? The idea that the CPC controls the “gun” is an oft-stated, and hence, the armed wing of the CPC, the PLA has been an intensely political entity from its very inception. Initially the “Red Army” under Mao Zedong, the PLA is not a national institution but rather the military arm of the CPC. The PLA’s political work system is the primary means through which the CPC “controls the gun” in accordance with Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
The Articles 4 and 13 of Internal Affairs Regulations of Chinese PLA are instructive in that the PLA oath demands no special loyalty to the country, only the Party, showing over-arching control that CPC exercises on PLA. The Article 4 states that “The People’s Liberation Army was created and led by the Communist Party of China. The mission of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the new era is to resolutely safeguard the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” The Article 13 is the soldier’s oath states that “I am a soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and I swear: Obey the leadership of the Communist Party of China…” 1
The PLA’s traditional identity, hence, is of a party army with a military culture that is hierarchical and where decision making is top-down and centralized. As the CPC’s armed wing, the PLA is organizationally part of the party apparatus. Career military officers are mostly party members, and units at the company level and above have political commissars responsible for personnel decisions, propaganda, and counterintelligence. These political commissars are also responsible for ensuring that party orders are carried out throughout the PLA. CPC committees, led by the political officers and military commanders, oversee decision making at all levels and party inspection cadres monitor the behaviour of personnel. Multiple levels of commissars, party committees, and inspection cadres hence penetrate all levels of the military, providing an interlocking, reinforcing system that infuses party authority throughout the PLA. 2 It can safely be stated that the PLA is a politicized “party army” since its inception and exists to guarantee the CPC regime’s survival above all else; serving the state is a secondary role.
The tiers of political work in the PLA are intertwined in a manner that ensures that the CPC is able to penetrate the military from top to bottom. These tiers comprise the political commissar system, the party committee system, and the party discipline inspection system. Political commissars are responsible for personnel, education, security, discipline, and morale. The importance of the Political Commissar can well be seen in that Lt Gen Wu Shezhou the Political Commissar of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) since January 2017 is an elected member of the 19th Central Committee. The 19th Central Committee is a political body comprising the top leaders of the CPC, and is, formally, the “party’s highest organ of authority” when the National Congress is not in a plenary session. This Committee is vested with the power to elect the General Secretary and the members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee, as well as the CMC. As an aside, Gen Zhao Zongqi, the Commander of WTC had been an elected member of 18th Central Committee since 2012, and is currently member of the 19th Central Committee.
In the implementation of the military strategic guideline in the new situation, China’s armed forces must closely centre on the CPC’s goal of building a strong military.3 The CPC Central Committee constitutes Central Commissions and Leading Small Groups (LSGs) as the political core executive and give the “core leader” President Xi significant influence over strategic policymaking. Each LSG makes sure party decisions within its purview are implemented. CPC LSGs on National Security and Military Reform are headed by President Xi Jinping, concurrently in addition to being the CPC General Secretary, Central Military Commission Chairman (CMC) and China’s President.
The CMC, the PLA’s highest decision making body, is technically a party organ subordinate to the CPC Central Committee. The State Council, which is akin to a Cabinet or the chief administrative authority, and has a Ministry of National Defence, does not control the PLA, which is done by the CMC. The members of the CMC are elected by the top CPC hierarchy – the Politburo Standing Committee. The real “nerve centre” of the Chinese military system is clearly the Central Military Commission (CMC). It is the principal deliberative and decision-making body for all major military and strategic decisions that involve the PLA. One of the principal objectives in restructuring by President Xi is to ensure the absolute loyalty of the PLA to the CPC and to himself personally as the party’s paramount leader.4
The Political Work Department of the CMC, created in January 2016 as part of the Military Reforms, manages the PLA’s political commissars and undertakes the routine political work in the military. This Party committee system is replicated in some fashion at each level of command. Party committees fall under the supervision of the CMC Political Work Department and are intended to ensure loyalty at all levels. They propagate the party positions, policies, and directives throughout the force.
With the intricate relationships, and the overarching control that the CPC has on PLA, it is imperative to correlate the happenings of Eastern Ladakh:
- In studying China’s reform plans there are repetitions of the year 2020. It is year that is particularly important in terms of political goals as it marks the end of the 13th five-year plan in 2020. 2020 is also the CPC’s target year for achieving a ‘moderately well-off society’. China’s 2019 White Paper China’s National Defence in the New Era stated that by 2020, PLA was to have achieved basic ‘mechanisation’, significant enhanced ‘informatization’ and greatly improved strategic capabilities. The PLA announced on 20 March 2020 that combined arms battalions have become the PLAA’s “basic mobile operational unit” with heavy, medium and light roles. The PLA Army has been experimenting with battalion-level formations that have artillery, reconnaissance, armour, intelligence, and air defence assets under battalion command. “This suggests they wish to ready brigades to deploy for strategic missions while reserving the group armies for major combat, likely in proximity to China.”5 Mechanized warfare primarily includes planes [fighters and bombers], tanks, artillery [self propelled], warships [surface and subsurface], and like weapons and equipment. Three-dimensional warfare, mobility warfare, and firepower warfare are its principle methods. Its basic characteristics are: the great suddenness of the outbreak of war, broad scope of the battlefield, long period of operations, multiplicity of the means of operations, great destructive force of attacks, extensive material support requirements, and intensive requirements for command and coordination. The primary operational methods of informatization include information warfare, precision fires warfare, network warfare, unconventional warfare, and space warfare, among others. Its outstanding features are: system vs. system; information confrontation as the focus of both sides; a battle carried out in multiple dimensions including land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic spectrum, and cyberspace; integrated cross-services and arms joint operations as the basic operational form; mainly nonlinear, non-contact operations; high attack accuracy; rapidly progressing conflict; integration of operational actions, command, and support.6
- It is obvious that the ongoing aggression – actions and decisions, in Eastern Ladakh is directly controlled from the Apex, with both WTC Commander and WTC Political Commissar being members of the all powerful 19th Central Committee. The Political Commissars, including the one with South Xinjinag Military District, are similarly managed by the Political Work Department of CMC. The Central Committee’s LSG on National Security is also chaired by President Xi, as is the CMC. The selection of the targeted areas may have been operational and/ or tactical decisions, to provide increased space or depth to the Western Highway.
- The overall response Indian Army (and the Indian Government) has exhibited robustness and strength. In that manner of speaking, if PLA’s ‘active defence’ and “Local wars” doctrines to pre-emptively aggress in Eastern Ladakh, (without escalation in major conventional conflicts) was the intent, it may not have fully been realised. The PLA has to worry about the impact of the casualties it has suffered, on the political future also of its masters in CPC.
The PLA Army, that is, the ground forces, in the targeted year of CPC’s 2020 objectives cannot exhibit even an appearance of incomplete success. The CPC leadership exercises ultimate control over the deployment of PLA forces in operational times. Hence, since 2020 is a critical timeline in transformation of PLA, and 2021 is the CPC’s centennial year, then the transgressions in Eastern Ladakh are strategic opportunity for PLA to prove the transformational success and become more influential in defence and foreign policy. If the events in Eastern Ladakh indicate inability for the PLA Army to meet 2020 way point, it will be unacceptable to the CPC hierarchy. This dictates the end-state of the current imbroglio.
While it can be well appreciated that CPC and PLA do not desire conventional war at this juncture of a global geopolitical and China’s internal churn, it will be prudent to anticipate the future course of events and prepare. It may be likely that the oncoming winter, or even through negotiations that there may be a draw down, or a change of tack. However, irrespective of that possibility there is a need to prepare for the future:
- We need to develop a repertoire of proportional response options to PLA’s coercion or aggression, to contrive a favourable situation. These manifold options could also include a number and/or scope of bilateral and multilateral training exercises with allies, in such super high altitude reaches.
- With the omnipotent threat from the Strategic Support Force, we must review and if feasible demonstrate, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, against military application of disruptive technologies. In fact we must possess a near-permanent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure. Forewarned is always forearmed!
- There would be need of ‘hardening’ and creating alternatives to the pro-action by Strategic Rocket Force. This might require intensive deliberation among the Services, the field formations, units and bases. We also require genuine jointness, with IAF taking lead to exploit fullest potential. In the long run such planning will pay dividends.
- And lastly, the age-old dictum, offense is the best form of defence. From 1948 onwards, we have never hesitated to undertake offensives in super high altitudes!
Events of 2020 are benchmarks for CPC (and PLA) to proclaim of having become prosperous, powerful, modern country. By 2021 centennial year, the CPC will declare that the “dream” has been at least partially realised. The PLA’s allegiance is to the Party, and is thus primarily will be the politico-military instrument.
It is possible that the ‘proclamation’ may be benign, so much the better. However, it if it is not so, the events of 2020 are a clarion call for India and Indian Armed Forces.