In stable democracies, civilian political leadership’s control and oversight over the Military is a prerequisite and established doctrine. Lack or deficiency of political role in the decision-making within the realm of security can create a ‘State within a State.'
This over-empowered structuring affords the Pakistani Soldier to be solely accountable to the institution called the ‘establishment’ (read, Pakistani Military), thereby, effectively insulating itself from the directions or concerns of the political leadership.
Chinese Army's Accountability To Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
China is unique in that its Military ie, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not the national army of the sovereign, but the political army or ‘wing’ of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The allegiance of the PLA soldier is not to the nation-state of China or even its constitution, but to the ruling ‘Party’ (simply called so, as there is no other allowed) that has ruled uninterrupted in a single-party format, since 1949.
Mao Zedong rationalised the concept of Dang Zhihui Qiang. “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command. PLA’s subservience to the ‘Party’ has ensured that no rival political formation or ideology could emerge.
While multiple rumours of attempted coups within the Chinese narrative abound, perhaps, the most famous one pertains to Lin Bao— Marshal of the People's Republic Of China and accomplished General of the Chinese Civil War. Lin Bao was the longest-serving Chinese Minister of National Defense (1959-1971) and was touted as Mao Zedong’s successor but Lin got increasingly impatient and lost Mao’s trust and therefore, planned a coup.
Following a botched coup attempt, a flight carrying him and his family to Mongolia mysteriously crashed after accusations of them fleeing. He was officially condemned as a traitor by the CCP. Later, in another attempt, the famous ‘Gang of Four’ from the CCP ie, Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s last wife) and three of her associates Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen got officially notified as ‘counter-revolutionaries’.
These four had controlled the official media realm (since Cultural Revolution days) and tried usurping Mao Zedong’s legacy immediately after his death by nudging urban militia units loyal to them and hoped that the top brass of PLA would defect – but key PLA leaders Wang Donxing and Chen Xilian remained unmoved and ultimately the coup failed and the ‘Gang of Four’ were sentenced.
How the Chinese Communist Party’s Ideology Evolved Under Xi Jinping
But for the CCP to fully control PLA (once a gargantuan five million force – today a leaner two million) is a constant task. Civilian political commissars within the PLA are entrusted with the sensitive task of ideological indoctrination and discipline as per the ‘Party’ norms. Xi Jinping's era may have seen a sharper, more modern PLA but also one with more presence and alignment with the ‘Party’ as part of his ‘national rejuvenation’ project.
Clearly, Xi has subliminal worries about the PLA’s equation with the CCP (and, has even appropriated the title of Commander-in-Chief that neither Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, had assumed). Tellingly, the Beijing Garrison had refused to break up the Tiananmen Square protests and units from outside had to be brought in.
Intra-services rivalries have also ushered in competitive dynamics that need constant juggling with better-educated ranks of PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Airforce (PLAAF) assuming increasingly more importance with the Chinese geostrategic expansionism, as opposed to the traditionally dominant ground forces of PLA which are made up of predominately rural conscripts, who are more ideologically connected.
Tackling Emerging Fault Lines in the Party & Ruthless Military Policy
Frequent purges to ensure loyalty and complete control of the top PLA Generalship (as done in 2016, or later, following the seemingly inept handling of the Xinjiang unrest) suggests that nothing can be taken for granted, not even the PLA. In 2015, Xi accused members of plotting, “political conspiracies to wreck and split the party”, and this was seen as a euphemism for the coup. Ensuring that the PLA follows the dictum of the CCP unflinchingly, especially the word and spirit of Xi Jinping is not a simple task, ever.
Institutionalised politicisation of the PLA, coupled with the inexperience of real combat in decades (the last ‘war’ was the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979) has the CCP worried about ‘peacetime disease’ – a metaphor for professional inefficacy and corruption. Besides the task of ‘managing’ the PLA, Xi’s other eye is fixated on reading the pulse of the nation to ensure the legitimacy of the CCP, and specifically, of the personalised brand, ‘Zhuxi’ (Chairman) Xi Jinping.
Therefore, wearing the PLA Uniform (the first Chinese President to do so in Military parades), saber-rattling on Taiwan, showcasing Military hardware and goading the PLA to, “focus its energy on fighting and war” is par for the course, towards perception management.
Xi Jinping’s carefully crafted ‘muscularity’ is as much a sign of his strength as it is of his subliminal fears and weakness. Carefully controlled media and narrative notwithstanding, the size and scale of China and of the PLA, along with the tension-filled ‘live’ frontiers suggest a supremely challenging task for Xi Jinping’s control and reins over PLA, unlike as is popularly believed.
‘China’s Expansionist Strategy Warrants Diplomatic Response’
Dismantling the earlier PLA superstructure of four headquarters and replacing it with fifteen more controllable agencies with loyalists and visibilising Xi’s signature anti-corruption drive may still not guarantee the latter's absolute control of PLA, which he seeks.
It is with this backdrop that localised or isolated incidents may not necessarily suggest Xi Jinping’s personal imprint and nudge, especially if they are as shoddily planned and conducted as the recent attempt at land grab in Arunachal.
Xi’s greenlighting of expansionism would be expected to be more robust, scaled-up, and professional than that warranted by the news and visuals filtering in. In authoritarian times, many senior officials try to deliver ‘good news’ that they believe the top leader would like to receive, and herein, short-circuiting the formal approval processes before initiating a move.
It is not beyond the local PLA leadership in the region to ingratiate itself with the powers that be in Beijing. Importantly, the previous head of the India-facing Western Theatre Command ie, General He Weidong, was given a double promotion to become the new Vice Chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC). Weidong was in-charge of the PLA operations in the 2017 Doklam and the Line-of-Actual-Control stand-off in 2020 with India.
In times like this, knee-jerk action and reaction by both the Supreme Leader, in this case Xi Jinping, or by his overenthusiastic functionaries in the operational realm, like General Wang Haijiang in command of Western Theatre Command now (or by even further junior leadership), cannot be ruled out. For a nation that deploys unmatchable resources of scale, deceit and sophistication, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping’s personally authorised doctrine on expansionism would include sending 300 odd unarmed (owing to bilateral agreement) PLA soldiers, who then beat a hasty retreat.
India Must Amp Up Its National Security Plan
Certainly, India needs to remain hyper-vigilant as its Armed Forces have remained so. However, it is equally important to go beyond the suffixation of news (which disconcertingly broke rather belatedly) with ‘more Chinese were hurt’ or release of WhatsApp clips. While psychology is an important part of modern warfare, it would be naïve not to consider partisan utilities that are inherent in a competitive democracy.
However, security preparedness goes far beyond the platitudinous ‘Kadi Ninda’ or ‘not an inch of land’ (worse so, if ascribed to a political leader and not to the Armed Forces themselves – as if the Armed Forces belong to a partisan persuasion and not to the sovereign!).
What is required from the Indian Government is to articulate strategic documents that state a sovereign position beyond partisan or individual cults like what the US Government has done with the National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, Missile Defense Review or even the latest 2022 China Military Power Report.
The Chinese governance structure between the CCP and PLA is not as seamless or aligned as projected, nor are their postures or actions infallible (as validated by recent incidents). What is however, required is to put the Indian security issues above partisan passions (and social media ‘forwards’), empower the Indian Forces further, and develop a strategic culture that is proactive and reactive.
The Arunachal incident is not the first, and it, unfortunately, wouldn’t be the last – the Chinese may well recollect their experiences with the Indian Forces post-1962, be it in 1967 (Cho La and Nathu La) or more recently in 2020, or even earlier this week. The Indian Armed Forces did what they did, not because of the political cover that has been historically afforded to them, but despite it.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)