Chinese president Xi Jinping has moved out his top military commander at the all-powerful Western Theatre Command and reshuffled his influential political commissars there, signalling that their Ladakh adventure has been less than satisfactory

Much speculation is being attached to the decision of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to move out his top military commander in charge of the People's Liberation Army’s (PLA) powerful Western Theatre Command and reshuffling his influential political commissars there.

The PLAs Western Theatre Command is wholly India-centric and virtually covers the entire Sino-Indian border, which is 4,056 km long and traverses Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

President Xi removed Gen Zhao Zongqi, the PLA’s top military commander amidst the military stand-off in eastern Ladakh, replacing him with Gen Zhang Xudong, who has no experience of the Indian border. Gen Zhao, reportedly the architect of the 2017 Doklam conflict, was perceived as a hardliner on India and his removal suggests that the PLA has not exactly achieved its overambitions plans in Ladakh last year.

"Whether the Chinese General was moved out because of poor performance or his relatively advanced age, 65, is a matter of speculation. The fact is that the PLA has not covered itself with glory. In Doklam, the Chinese Army was stopped from constructing a road by us. The Ladakh trespass during the pandemic is a wilful act of intrusion and in both the cases, China has been thwarted. Sure, they may be obstructing our patrols in the Depsang Area, but Indian occupation of heights on the Kailash Range, effectively blocking their ingress to the west, is a massive setback to the Chinese. This has frustrated their designs,” points out Lt Gen Satish Dua (Retd), former Corps Commander in Srinagar, who has also served as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Several Changes In Command

What has further heightened postulation is the scale of changes in the Western Theatre Command: Xi has promoted four senior Chinese military and armed police officers. Among them was Gen Zhang, now commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command. The other officers who were promoted include Guo Puxiao, Political Commissar of the Logistic Support Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Li Wei, Political Commissar of the PLA Strategic Support Force and Wang Chunning, Commander. Political Commissars in the PLA are usually a uniformed military officer and Communist Party cadre, although this position has been used to give civilian party officials some experience with the military.

Observers believe changes on such a scale are rare in China, where information coming out is next to negligible. In this case, the announcements were made by official Chinese news agency Xinhua last month.

Gen Zhao, who took over the Western Theatre Command in 2016, was already on an extended term. He had reached the retirement age of 65 this summer, but had been allowed to continue in the post by President Xi.

The New Commander

New Delhi’s assessment is that Gen Zhao had the approval of the Xi-led CMC when the PLA troops carried out the initial incursion in the Finger area near Pangong Tso in late April and early May 2020. Subsequently, there was some discomfort over the misadventure after the bloody Galwan Valley skirmish in June last year, the deadliest clash between soldiers of the two countries since 1975, in which 20 Indian troops and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed. Over the next few weeks and months, the initial tactical success met with stiff Indian response, including consolidation of the heights on the south bank of the salt-water Pangong Lake resulting in strategic loss to China.

Not much is known about Gen Zhang, especially his association with Western Theatre Command, as he has reportedly served mostly in other theatre commands of the PLA.

Born in the coastal province of Liaoning, he is a Han and has served in the erstwhile Shenyang Military Region in northeast China. He was the Chief of Staff of the PLA’s 39th Army. From March 2017 to January 2018, Zhang was the deputy commander of the Central Theatre Command (CTC) which is responsible for the security of capital Beijing.

At the military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China in 2019, he acted as deputy commander of the Joint Military Parade, which gained wide appreciation within the CMC.

India and China have held several rounds of talks at the diplomatic and military-level to resolve the prolonged stand-off. At the latest round of foreign ministry-level talks on December 18, 2020, the two sides said they had agreed to continue work towards ensuring complete disengagement of troops at all friction points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The meeting also decided to hold the next round of military dialogue at an early date.

Top Indian observers like former diplomat, G Parthasarathy, believe that the changes in China’s all-powerful Western Theatre "are more in the manner of routine”, but he goes on to add that from Beijing’s standpoint, "I will not be too pleased with Indians seizing the heights in the Galwan Valley and not respond the way we were expected to.”

According to Parthasarathy, China expected that as in the past, this would be another moment where talks would meander on – but that has not happened. "We should have never agreed to the LAC without clearly demarcating what the line was,” he told this writer.

The term 'LAC' gained legal recognition in Sino-Indian agreements signed in 1993 and 1996.

Just before the latest reshuffle, Indian officials said there has been no confirmation if General Zhao was still resisting possible directions from the Communist Party leadership to soften his position, disengage and de-escalate. But Indian officials have confirmed that there have been gaps in the line adopted by China during the diplomatic talks and the military negotiations.

A Powerful, Strategic Division

The Western Theatre Command is one of the five theatre commands of the PLA created since 2016 at the specific behest of President Xi. Its jurisdiction includes Sichuan, Tibet, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, Yunnan and Chongqing.

In May 2016, China raised the rank and status of its Western Tibet Military Command to widen its scope for missions and combat preparedness, in a move, analysts in Beijing believe, is aimed at fortifying the border with India.

The Xinjiang Military Command may also be elevated in the future. Both commands are under the Western Theatre Command. The Communist Party-run Global Times had said at the time of the restructuring that the change would allow the command “to shoulder more combat assignments”.

The Sino-Indian border is a 'live' one despite the several rounds of diplomatic and military talks. In early December last year, China's military voiced strong opposition to the intrusion of an Indian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into China's airspace.

"The Indian UAV intruded into China's airspace and crashed recently, and China's border troops have conducted identification and verification over the vehicle,” Zhang Shuili, deputy head of the combat bureau of the Western Theatre Command's joint staff department, told Xinhua, adding that "India's move has infringed upon China's territorial sovereignty, and we are strongly dissatisfied with and opposed to this."

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.