NEW DELHI: At a promotion ceremony at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Bayi Headquarters building in Beijing on 18th December 2020, four PLA officers were promoted to the rank of General. They included two Political Commissars, one from the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) and General Zhang Xudong, whose appointment as Commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command was announced. His appointment comes amid high tension on the border between China and India and is of direct interest to India.
All members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) namely Wei Fenghe, Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua, and Zhang Shengmin, as well as the main leaders of various departments of the CMC and major units in Beijing attended the ceremony, where the promotion orders were read out by General Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman of the CMC. As per practice the promotion orders were signed by Xi Jinping, who combines the offices of CMC Chairman, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (CC) General Secretary and President of China. In each case those promoted took over from predecessors who had reached retirement age.
General Zhang Xudong takes over the Western Theatre Command (WTC), which is the largest of the PLA’s five Theatre Commands and, for India, the most potent. The WTC merged the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions (MRs) and comprises more than half China’s land area, 22 percent of its population and more than one-third of China’s land-based military. Its establishment strengthened China’s military force deployment opposite India. Merger of the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs will improve joint planning, coordination and operations. Incorporation of the Qinghai plateau region in the Western Theatre Command will facilitate the rapid induction and deployment of high altitude-acclimatised and trained troops into Tibet and across Ladakh.
The responsibilities of the PLA WTC include safeguarding China’s borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, safeguarding Chinese investments and projects in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), protecting China’s 4057 kms-long land frontier with India and focussing on “threats in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as Afghanistan and other states that host training bases for separatists and extremists”. Instructions received by the erstwhile Lanzhou Military Region in January 2015, confirmed that the WTC’s commitment in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the CPEC are long-term. These directed that the “backbone personnel” of the erstwhile Lanzhou Military Region be trained in the Pashto and Urdu languages. Establishment of the WTC reveals China’s increased and abiding military interest in the region.
The potency of the WTC was signalled in May 2016, when it was announced that the status of the Tibet Military Command (TMC), facing India from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh, was to be upgraded to a Deputy Military District-level unit under the leadership of the PLA and re-designated the Tibet Military Region. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-owned Global Times, quoting an unknown ‘analyst’, said: “By raising the TMC’s authority level and putting it under the jurisdiction of the PLA Army (Ground Forces), China continues to strengthen its military presence in the autonomous region and aims to allow the military command to shoulder more combat assignments.” Zhao Zhong, Deputy Director of the Tibet Military Command’s Political Work Department explained: “The elevation of the authority level is not only an improvement for the troops’ designation, but also an expansion of their function and mission.” Quoting ‘a source close to the matter’, the Global Times suggested that “the command may undertake some kind of military combat mission in the future.”
General Zhang Xudong is an ethnic Han and a member of the CCP. While he has no experience of Tibet or Xinjiang, he has served many years in the erstwhile sensitive Shenyang Military Region which has responsibility for the borders with North Korea and Russia. While there he served in prestigious military formations, commanded a Division and was later Chief of Staff before being promoted as Commander of the 39th Group Army. From March 2017 to January 2018, he served as Commander of the PLA Army (PLAA) and Deputy Commander of the Central Theatre Command. He was appointed Deputy Commander of the Central Theatre Command in February 2018. Zhang Xudong was Deputy Commander of the Joint Command Headquarters of the 70th anniversary National Day parade in October 2019. His appointment as WTC Commander was first announced publicly at the promotion ceremony this December.
An important factor in the PLA is the political credibility of an officer and Zhang Xudong’s political reliability is obviously highly rated. While commanding 115 Division he was Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the 39th Group Army Infantry and later member of the Standing Committee of the Party Committee of the 40th Group Army. He was also a Member of the Standing Committee of the Party Committee of the 39th Group Army when he was Chief of Staff of the Group Army. This will certainly have been a factor in his early promotions, especially since Xi Jinping announced at the very first enlarged meeting of the CMC immediately following his appointment as CMC Chairman, Party General Secretary and President of China, that political reliability will be the single most important criteria for promotion.
General Zhang Xudong has earned his promotions during Xi Jinping’s tenure as Vice Chairman and subsequently Chairman of the CMC. His promotions have been early or at least on time. He was promoted to the rank of Major General in July 2012, and in July 2018, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.
India should expect no easing of tension consequent to General Zhang Xudong’s appointment as WTC Commander since such decisions flow from the CMC. In the case of India, it is Xi Jinping who is orchestrating developments. Zhang Xudong might use his experience of negotiations with the North Korea’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) to influence the ongoing protracted negotiations between India and China on the border in Ladakh, but beyond that has no authority to alter either the trend of negotiations or planned military operations.
(The author is former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)