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8 October 2014, Gateway House

Chumar incursion: a message to Xi?

The reason behind a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contingent intruding into eastern Ladakh around the time of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, still needs to be decoded. It is not unlikely that domestic rivals, including possible ‘rogue’ elements within the PLA, could have decided to embarrass Xi — angry with his historic crackdown on corruption among Chinese officials

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President Xi Jinping’s visit to India coincided with a standoff between the Indian and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) after an intrusion by a contingent of 1000 PLA soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir’s Chumar sector. This embarrassment during his visit to India could actually be the result of carefully orchestrated moves by his domestic rivals, including possible ‘rogue’ elements within the PLA.

As soon as Xi Jinping took office in late 2012, he made his intentions clear—that he would crack down on corruption by targeting both ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’, meaning senior leaders and low-level officials. The war on corruption became his signature policy and an estimated 180,000 party officials have so far been investigated and many senior leaders convicted. The most talked about names include former Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai (since facing a life term), former head of state security Zhou Yongkang, PLA Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Caihou, and, the vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Su Rong.

The scale of the investigations indicates Xi means business, aware of the tremendous angst among the Chinese people over the level of corruption across the country. There is another school of thought, however, who feel that Xi’s anti-graft drive is actually aimed at amassing political power by cutting through the nation’s fragmented power structure, a move that could lead to authoritarianism, in turn, resulting in more corruption in the days ahead.

The news that the anti-corruption drive was facing resistance in the military establishment was given away by Xi himself. In June, Xi is supposed to have told an in-camera Politburo meeting that “the two armies of corruption and anti-corruption are at a stalemate.” The delay in actually beginning the probe against Zhou Yongkang, dubbed ‘security czar’ until recently, is also seen as the result of stiff resistance to the anti-graft campaign.

It is in this backdrop that the PLA intrusion into India needs to be examined. The Chinese leader’s host Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rolled out the red carpet as Xi touched down in Ahmedabad, and engaged in a demonstration of India’s soft power with a cultural extravaganza along the Sabarmati river front.

Hence, the intrusion’s timing must have been both troubling as well as aroused the Prime Minister’s curiosity. Moreover, the PLA troopers had brought along heavy equipment and claimed they were building a “provisional road” along the LAC. Modi had to raise the issue before Xi and sought his intervention to ensure status quo. Xi acquiesced, but the actual disengagement was confirmed only on September 30 after a meeting at Spanggur Gap between the border commanders of the two sides. It was agreed to restore status quo ante as on September 1, 2014.

Intrusion by the Chinese into Indian side is commonplace—PLA soldiers have crossed the LAC and into Indian territory 334 times this year (till August 4). But, it was the supposedly deliberate intrusion in the Chumar region during Xi’s visit that surprised many, including perhaps Xi himself. The intrusion put additional pressure on Xi, who was meeting Modi on the back of the Indian head of government’s path-breaking visit to Japan – a visit that must have made the Chinese wary of an India-Japan trade and security axis. During Modi’s Tokyo visit Japan pledged $35 billion of public and private investment and financing, including Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), to India in five years.

The Chinese were expected to top the commitments made by Japan. In fact, the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai, Liu Youfa, predicted just days before Xi’s arrival in India that Beijing could invest over $100 billion in India. In the end, however, the Chinese made a financial pledge of only $20 billion over the course of five years.

Commerce aside, Xi could also have tried to sell India a dream of a border deal on the lines of the 2004 agreement between China and Russia along China’s northern frontier. Modi for his part, stated that working on the border was one of his government’s priorities. Whether the intrusion and the resultant mood in New Delhi over the Chinese military’s behaviour hindered Xi’s approach to the new Indian leadership is difficult to guess.

However, the Chinese President’s express action upon his return to Beijing does reinforce the belief that the intrusion occurred without his concurrence and he intends to discipline the PLA or the military establishment as a whole. Put differently, it means there is a section or sections of ‘rogue elements’ within the Chinese military that Xi hopes to neutralize. What action did Xi actually take? Well, nothing formal as yet, but news leaks suggest that the President will promote two PLA Army generals close to him to make the anti-graft drive more vigorous and provide momentum to reforms in the world’s largest military.

The generals have not been named yet, but reports say Liu Yuan, the political commissar of the PLA general logistics department, and Zhang Youxia, head of the general armaments department, are the ones in Xi’s mind. While Youxia could be named vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, which exercises command and control of the PLA, Liu may be tasked with heading the military’s discipline commission. Both would then join the President, who is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, to form a key trio leading the Chinese military. These promotions would displace a slew of officers appointed during Xi’s predecessor – Hu Jintao’s time.

Establishing those loyal to him, could be Xi’s answer to tackling the ‘rogues’ within the Chinese military as well as ensuring absolute control and needless to say — it would put a stop to embarrassing incidents during international visits.

Wasbir Hussain is Executive Director of the Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati. A two-time former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Hussain has been writing and commenting on peace, security and development issues relating to India’s Northeast and its neighbourhood.

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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