SINCE May 2020, when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded and massed forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and the Indian Army rapidly counter built-up to block it, there has been an uneasy and tense calm on the border. Emphasising the absence of trust, reports reveal that both sides continue to strengthen their defences.
WTC has been brought on a par with the Eastern Theatre Command, which ranks first in priority.
Developments in the PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC), the largest of five theatre commands which exercises operational jurisdiction over China’s currently ‘active’ borders with India and Afghanistan, are of particular relevance to India. Since before May 2020, the Chinese leadership has accorded special attention to the Western Theatre Command (WTC). It raised its inter se grading to bring it on a par with the Eastern Theatre Command, which ranks first in priority and in receiving new aircraft and weaponry.
An important, visible indicator of the leadership’s attention, given their studied silence on the border situation, was President Xi Jinping’s restricted meeting with nearly 400 PLA and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) officers in Lhasa on July 23. He complimented them for bravely facing the harsh conditions, their good defence of the borders and asked them to “prepare for future wars”. Among the senior PLA officers present was, significantly, General Ju Qiansheng, who had just that month been promoted and appointed Commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF). The SSF’s roles include combat support and it is the space, cyber and electronic warfare force of the PLA.
In addition, senior officers have been posted to the Western Theatre Command (WTC). The number of exercises conducted by the PLA forces deployed in the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Regions, has increased, especially between June 2020 and June 2021, and is also qualitatively different.
Key personnel changes in the WTC’s higher leadership echelons since the middle of last year have raised its potency. In addition to Wang Haijiang’s promotion to the rank of General and appointment as Commander of the WTC on September 6, 2021, the WTC witnessed the appointment of other senior officers.
The promotion and appointment of Wang Haijiang as WTC Commander is significant. Born in 1963, Wang Haijiang was one of the first batch of students to enter the military academy after the national college entrance examination resumed in 1977. Early on in service, he participated in the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 and served as Company Commander of the main attack company, earning first-class merit. He is thoroughly familiar with the region and topography of the India-China LAC, having served for 22 years in the South Xinjiang Military District — overseeing the Hetian and Ngari (Ali) Military Sub Districts which have operational jurisdiction over the Depsang Plains, Pangong, Demchok and Chumar areas — with five years as the Deputy Commander and Commander of the Tibet Military Region. He is a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War. It is likely that the Central Military Commission had decided to promote Wang Haijiang earlier, but possibly had to wait till he became eligible. His taking over will facilitate plans for military activity along the LAC.
Another appointment of interest is that of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Lieutenant General Qiao Xiangji as a new or additional Deputy Commander of the PLA WTC in April 2020. News of Qiao Xiangji’s appointment was confirmed on June 27, 2021. It is not yet clear whether he will take over from the current commander of the WTC Air Force Lieutenant General Wang Qiang, or whether he brings in additional expertise. His appointment could suggest that the WTC’s air assets have increased. Reports indicate that the number of China’s latest 5th generation ‘stealth’ J-20 fighters, J-16, the upgraded J-16-D and other aircraft, including drones in the WTC, have increased.
Born in February 1963, Qiao Xiangji joined the PLAAF in July 1979 and trained as a pilot. Qiao Xiangji received training in the Battle Command Class of the Air Force Command Academy of the PLA and attended the Advanced Training Class of the Military Academy of the Russian Air Force. He was conferred the award of ‘Model Division Commander’ by the PLA Air Force in 2011. In December 2013, he was appointed assistant to the Chief of Staff of the PLAAF. Qiao Xiangji was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General in April 2020.
Equally interesting is the promotion and appointment of Lieutenant General Liu Lin as commander of Xinjiang MR. Liu Lin was, till his promotion, a Major General and Commander of the South Xinjiang Military District which includes operational supervision of the Hetian and Ngari (Ali) Military Sub Districts. He represented the PLA at 12 rounds of Army Commander-level border talks held at the PLA Moldo Garrison near Chushul. Liu Lin has extensive service in the Xinjiang Military Region and is familiar with this sector of the border.
On September 16, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily reinforced Xi Jinping’s message of July 23 to PLA officers. It reproduced a speech delivered by Xi Jinping late last year, where he stated that “China has not yet achieved the complete reunification of the motherland, and has disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests with many neighbouring countries. Solving these problems is a hurdle we must cross, and it is also a major risk and challenge that we must correctly handle…The motherland must be unified.”
Far from suggesting any de-escalation, these developments in the WTC give cause for considerable discomfort.