China appoints new PLA Common to go India border command

At the last round of talks on November 6, both sides continued discussing modalities to finalise a plan for phased disengagement.

China has appointed a new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General to head its Western Theatre Command, its biggest military command which is responsible for the India border, replacing a long-standing General who oversaw a tumultuous four-year period that saw renewed border tensions.

The announcement was made on Friday when President Xi Jinping, also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), presented four military and armed police officers “with certificates of order promoting them to the rank of General,” State media reported.

Among the four were Zhang Xudong, who was named as Commander of the Western Theatre Command. The three other promoted officers were Guo Puxiao, Political Commissar of the CMC Logistic Support Department, Li Wei, Political Commissar of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force which is responsible for cyber warfare, and Wang Chunning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) which is tasked with internal security.

General Zhang has no prior experience in the Western Theatre, Tibet or Xinjiang, having spent much of his career in the northeastern Shenyang Military Region (now under the Northern Theatre Command) and since 2017 as the Commander of Central Theatre Command, which is responsible for the security of the capital, Beijing.

General Zhang replaces the influential General Zhao Zongqi, who turned 65 this year, and has been in charge of the Western Theater Command since its formation in February 2016, when Mr. Xi put in place sweeping reforms consolidating the seven military regions into five commands, with the aim of increasing jointness and integration between different services. The Western Command is the biggest of the five.

General Zhao was in charge during the 2017 Doklam crisis, when ties between India and China were strained during a 72 day stand-off on the plateau near the India-Bhutan-China trjunction, and also during the current tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which erupted in early May when the PLA carried out multiple transgressions across the LAC. In October 2017, he was appointed to the Communist Party’s 19th Central Committee.

The PLA’s unprecedented mobilisation this summer and transgressions in multiple areas has led Indian officials to believe the moves were authorised at least at the level of General Zhao, or even higher at the CMC.

The appointment marks the second major change in the leadership of the Western Theatre Command since this year’s crisis began. In June, the PLA appointed Lieutenant General Xu Qiling as the new commander of the PLA Western Theater Command Ground Force, or Army, serving under General Zhao who oversaw all forces there, including the Ground Force or Army, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force.

India and China are set to soon have the ninth round of talks at the Corps Commander level to take forward disengagement on the LAC, with the next round of talks agreed to on Friday as officials from both sides met under the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs.

At the last round of talks on November 6, both sides continued discussing modalities to finalise a plan for phased disengagement.

One of the sticking points is China’s insistence on India first withdrawing from the strategic heights south of Pangong Lake before it does so on the north bank.

Officials told The Hindu following the last round that proposals were under discussion and would be taken up at the ninth round, and “once agreed upon it will be done in multiple phases with on the ground verification after each step.”

North of the lake, China has moved troops up to Finger 4 since May and has prevented India from reaching Finger 8.

Under the first phase of disengagement, both sides had moved back in Galwan Valley and in the Gogra-Hot Springs area. The situation at Pangong Lake remains unresolved, as also in the Depsang plains where India has been prevented from reaching patrolling points.

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