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China is placing key generals on India border near Ladakh

Nine officers with operational responsibility for the Sino-Indian border in the Lanzhou Military Region have been promoted from senior colonels to major generals in January.

JAYADEVA RANADE  New Delhi | 31st Jan 2015

Ladakhi girls hold their voter card as they wait to cast their vote during the 8th Phase of Lok Sabha elections,at Leh in Ladakh on 7 May 2014. PTI

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to visit Beijing to build bilateral relations and explore additional economic opportunities, it is the right time to analyse China's ambitions and intentions. The unceasing intrusions by Chinese troops especially in the Ladakh sector are one area that merit attention.

Pertinent are the intrusions by Chinese troops especially in the Depsang plains just days prior to the visit of Premier Li Keqiang in April 2013, and in the Chumar area of Ladakh last September. The latter, very unusually, broke with pattern and continued throughout Chinese President Xi Jinping's stay in India and for many days thereafter. Some observers at the time sought to suggest that either these were solitary actions by a local commander, or that Xi Jinping's control over the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is lax. While credible reports clearly indicated that the actions were planned and deliberate in both cases, additional confirmation is available from the latest round of promotions in the PLA.

The recently announced promotions in the PLA not only further consolidate Xi Jinping's grip over the PLA as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, but are also of relevance to India. Nine officers in the Lanzhou Military Region, which along with the Chengdu Military Region has operational responsibility for the Sino-Indian border, made the significant jump from senior colonel to the rank of major general on 12 January 2015.

Among them, the promotions of particular significance for India are the appointments of Hālǐmùlātí Ābùdōurèhémàn as Deputy Commander of the Southern Xinjiang Military District; Liu Lin, as Chief of Staff of the Southern Xinjiang Military District; and Zhang Limin, as Director of the Political Department of the Southern Xinjiang Military District. All are from the Southern Xinjiang Military District, which exercises front-line responsibility and jurisdiction over the Hetian and Ali Military Sub-Districts.

The Hetian Military Sub-District (MSD) has front-line responsibility and jurisdiction over the areas of Daulet Beg Oldi and the Depsang Plains. The PLA's Ali Military Sub-District (MSD) includes the three Chinese counties of Ritu (Rutok), Gar (Gartok) and Zhada (Tsamda). Chusul and the Indian portion of Pangong Lake are opposite Ritu (Rutok) County, Indian Demchok is opposite Gar (Gartok) County and Chumar and the Shipkila Pass are opposite Zhada (Tsamda) County. The commanders of the Hetian and Ali MSDs both hold the rank of senior colonel in the PLA. The commander of the Hetian MSD is Senior Colonel Kuang Dewang and the commander of the Ali MSD is Senior Colonel Liu Geping. The two have been in position since at least late 2013 and, as senior colonels are on the verge of the big promotion to the rank of major general.

Both the Hetian MSD and Ali MSD report to the South Xinjiang Military District based in Kashgar, which, in turn, reports directly to the Lanzhou Military Region Headquarters. Their action orders come from Lanzhou, via Kashgar, where the generals are based. At least as far as the border with India is concerned, the South Xinjiang Military District does not channel its reporting through the Xinjiang Military District headquartered in Urumqi.

The commander of the South Xinjiang Military District, presently, is 55-year-old Lt Gen Li Haiyang. He assumed command between late December 2013 and early January 2014. Li Haiyang spent six months in 2003-2004 studying in a Russian military institute and later, in mid-2010 after only six months as chief of staff in the South Xinjiang Military District, Li Haiyang was suddenly transferred to the PLA's General Staff Department (GSD) in Beijing as director of its Combat Rapid Response Office. After two years in this post, he returned to his previous job as chief of staff in the South Xinjiang Military District. This experience makes him an officer who is known, and probably trusted, in Beijing and Lanzhou. He additionally has the requisite experience and knowledge about rapid troop deployments.

A map showing China’s military region boundary. Source: Chinareport.com

Maj Gen Zhang Jiansheng, Li Haiyang's predecessor, was promoted and posted as a deputy commander of the Lanzhou Military Region. He was the first officer from the South Xinjiang Military District in the last 22 years to be promoted directly to Lanzhou. He was also commander of the Ali MSD a decade ago. He can be expected to oversee all matters concerning the South Xinjiang Military District (including the Hetian and Ali MSDs) on behalf of Lanzhou Headquarters.

It is interesting too that the South Xinjiang Military District now has one lieutenant general and seven officers of the rank of major general posted at its headquarters. A few other indicators point to Beijing's increased interest in the Sino-India border. One is the upgrading of China's defence attaché in Delhi to the rank of major general, with effect from January 2015. Of the 113 countries where China has defence attaché, it has posted Major Generals only in 12.

These appointments suggest Beijing's increased interest in the Sino-Indian border and consequent growing importance of the South Xinjiang Military District. This was substantiated by an article in the influential Communist Youth League (CYL) newspaper Zhongguo Qingnian Bao on 14 May 2013, which implicitly laid claim to Ladakh and described it as part of Tibet.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

 
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