The atmosphere of suspicion in the People’s Liberation Army is an indicator of the troubles within. Whether these are serious issues or just to ‘scare the monkeys’, is another matter. India must be cautious

An important event took place during the last week of August: India hosted China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe for four days. The visit was important for several reasons. One, it was the first encounter at the highest level of the military after the Doklam episode; Gen Wei is also a State Councillor and a member of the all-powerful seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC), chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The visit also came just after the ‘summer holiday’ of the communist party’s top guns at Beidaihe, according to some of the scarce information which filtered out from the beach resort, the summer was hot. Further, Gen Wei was accompanied by a 27-member delegation, which included Air Marshal Dingqui Chang of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, Lt Gen Guiqing Rong, Deputy Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) handling the entire border with India and Maj Gen Haiyang Li, Commander of the Southern Xinjiang Military District facing Ladakh. The appetizer was the visit of Lt Gen Liu Xiaowu, another WTC’s Deputy Commander, who led a border defence delegation to India between July 2 and 6.

Incidentally, on July 25, Ming Bao, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported that Gen Liu was under investigation and had been stripped of all military authority pending the conclusion to an enquiry. China watchers suspected that Liu, while serving in Guangzhou several years ago, had been too close to two sacked CMC members, Gen Zhang Yang (ex-Director of the General Political Department) and Gen Fang Fenghui (ex-Chief of General Staff Department). These rumours have never been confirmed (and they are probably not true), but they show the highly suspicious atmosphere vis-à-vis the military in China today. It is a fact that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is shaky and nobody really knows ‘who is with whom’.

Gen Wei’s arrival was also preceded by a goodwill visit of a four-member Indian Army delegation headed by Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, India’s Eastern Army Commander, to China from August 13 to 19. The delegation visited four cities, including Lhasa. Interestingly, there was a total blackout by the Chinese military media, which is something rare. This silence did not bode well for the visit of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a few days later.

Was Gen Wei’s four-day India visit a success? One can say ‘yes’, in the sense that the defence establishments of both countries got to know each other better; that was the idea behind the two-day informal meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in April. At that time, the two leaders issued a ‘strategic guidance’ to their militaries to start building trust.

Unfortunately, during Wei’s visit, the setup of a hotline between India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and the PLA equivalent could not be finalised. China wanted a WTC deputy commander to be on the other side of the line; it was not acceptable to Delhi, who preferred the real equivalent (which does not exist). An early operationalisation of the hotline was, however, mentioned during the talks.

Nirmala Sitharaman and her counterpart also decided to work towards reducing troop confrontations along the disputed border, with better implementation of confidence-building measures and greater interaction between local commanders. The Times of India reported: “As for the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control, which has 23 ‘disputed and sensitive areas’ stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, the two sides decided to direct their troops to ‘maintain restraint’ and not allow matters to escalate,” like in Doklam last year.

The scope of joint exercises should be expanded, which is a good thing if implemented sincerely. Remember, during Doklam, the hand-in-hand exercises were unilaterally canceled by China. More border personnel meeting (BPM) points will hopefully be opened; existing ones are located at Nathu La (Sikkim), Daulat Beg Oldi and Chushul (Ladakh) and Bumla and Kibithu (Arunachal). Already on August 15, troops of the two countries met at Kepang La in the Tuting sector of Upper Siang (Arunachal).

A new BPM point may even come up in Uttarakhand (Mana pass?). But there is more behind the scene. Xi Jinping was seriously questioned in Beidaihe, though the details are not known, it appears that Premier Li Keqiang did not approve of many of his policies. Bill Bishop, the knowledgeable publisher of Sinosism, a China-centered newsletter wrote: “It’s not a coincidence that in just the last week Xi has chaired very high level meetings showing his control over the ‘gun’ (PLA) and the ‘pen’ (propaganda). He does not look like someone who is weakened — if anything he may be gaining strength. If there really had been an effort over the summer to push back against Xi and/or Wang [Huning, another member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee], those moves look to have been squashed and they likely gave Xi an even clearer idea of where his enemies are.”

Xi’s first outing, after more than two weeks of ‘disappearance’ was to speak to the Generals; he pleaded “for politically loyal and clean Armed Forces.” He seems today in control, but it might not have been easy. On August 24, The South China Morning Post reported that three senior Chinese Generals “have been either severely punished or detained as part of a corruption investigation this week, as President Xi Jinping sent a strong message to the military that his crackdown on graft is far from finished.” Two out of three were demoted by seven grades to become deputy regimental officers. One was once the PLA’s youngest Lt Gen and the other one, a former military intelligence chief. Both had close ties with disgraced former CMC vice-chairmen, Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who were accused of accepting bribes in return for promotions, according to the Hong Kong newspaper: “The latest moves underscored Xi’s determination to eradicate the remaining influence among the troops of two corrupt former top military leaders.”

Both also had close ties with Gen Zhang Yang …so did Lt Gen Liu Xiaowu, who was in India in July. The PLA Daily recently reported that at least 13,000 military officers had been punished for corruption over the past five years, 200 among them were Generals. Whether it is true or just to ‘scare the monkeys’, is another issue, but the point is that all is not is well in the PLA, and India should keep this in mind while negotiating.