Muscle Flexing Xi? Hong Kong, Taiwan, Ladakh

anil chopra. air power asia, China, Ladakh

Chinese army must step up combat readiness, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said, as the country increases defence spending to tackle “security threats from Taiwan independence forces”. Xi told Chinese military officers on the sidelines of  the annual meeting  of the National People’s Congress. Meanwhile China had stunned Hong Kong when it announced it would impose a national security law on the city, that could spell the end of Hong Kong’s unique freedoms. On the other side, significant number of Chinese soldiers have transgressed into Indian Teritory in Ladakh.

Picture Credit: CGTN

General Secretary and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping had lost no time in establishing his stamp of authority over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is deemed an important power base for any leader. Barely two months after he took over the chairmanship of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC) from President Hu Jintao, in November 2012, Xi had passed a series of regulations on “administering the army with strictness and austerity.

National People’s Congress which is held once a year is also time for power posturing and for the leader to show his power and authority. Often it has been used to make statements to convey to Chinese people that on critical security and foreign policy issues the leadership will not compromise. President Xi’s statements amidst home grown pandemic Coronavirus, for which China has been receiving the flack world over, is to reassure its people. After reigning in Hong Kong, China’s primary goal remains reunification of Taiwan.

NPC Meeting. Picture Credit: China.org.cn

National People’s Congress (NPC)

          The NPC is China’s highest organ of state power and the national legislature. With nearly 3,000 members it is the largest parliamentary body in the world. It meets in full session for roughly two weeks each year and votes on important pieces of legislation. Members are considered to be part-time legislators and are not paid. The majority of the power of the NPC is exercised by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), which consists of about 170 legislators and meets in continuous session, when the full session of the NPC is not held. NPCSC members have a full time job, and cannot simultaneously hold positions in executive or judicial posts. NPC is unicameral legislature, with the power to legislate, oversee the operations of the government, the supreme court, the state committee of Supervisory, and the central military commission and elect the major officers of state. The NPC is elected for a term of five years. Western media sources commonly describe the NPC as a rubber stamp.

Hong Kong Security Law

          China had submitted is a draft resolution on Hong Kong Security law to its rubber stamp parliament, where it finally approved. The law would make criminal any act of secession, subversion, terrorism, or activities by foreign forces that interfere in Hong Kong. More worrying was that China could set up its own institutions in Hong Kong responsible for security. That could effectively put to end the “one country, two systems” principle existing since 1997. Freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights and freedoms that are not applicable in mainland China will get undermined. Last year, protests over an extradition law turned violent and evolved into a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement. China doesn’t want to see that happen again. People believe this will affect free speech and their right to protest. In China, this would be seen as subversion. Pro-democracy activists lobbying with foreign governments could be a crime in the future. In China, almost all trials involving national security are conducted behind closed doors.  People worry that a threat to Hong Kong’s liberties could affect its attractiveness as a business and economic powerhouse.

Hong Kong Security Legislation Protests. Picture Credit: The Indian Express

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

          The PLA is the armed forces of China and of its founding and ruling political party, the Communist Party of China (CPC). The PLA consists of five professional service branches: the Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Forces and the Strategic Support Force. Units around the country are assigned to one of five geographical theater commands. The PLA is the world’s largest military force and constitutes the second highest defence budget in the world. The PLA is one of the fastest modernizing militaries in the world and has been termed as a potential military superpower. With significant regional power and rising global power projection capabilities, the world needs to take their intent and actions seriously. The PLA is under the command of the CMC of the CPC. The civil control over military means absolute control of the Communist Party. In times of national emergency, the People’s Armed Police and the China Militia act as a reserve and support element for the PLAGF.

PLAAF J-20 “Elephant Walk” Picture Credit: Twitter @RupprechtDeino

Taiwan Independent Stance

          In his statement“Military must boost its ability to perform military missions”, China’s president was essentially targeting separatism, with Hong Kong continuing to seek semi-independence, and the more vocal positions taken by Taiwan. There has been a growing chorus of countries calling for a change to Taiwan’s position in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to resume allowing Taiwan to attend meetings as an observer. More and more countries are speaking up for Taiwan, and not backing down in the face of Chinese pressure. Covid is being used as an opportunity for Taiwan to solidify itself as the antithesis of Beijing, by supporting other nations in the health emergency. Taiwan has been capitalizing on Beijing’s assertiveness. Buoyed by mass demonstrations in Hong Kong resulting from China’s tightening grip on the city, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election in January, capturing the largest vote total in the island’s history. Two months later, when Beijing expelled a host of American journalists, Taiwan openly called them to relocate in Taipei, promoting free press. With a population of 23 million, and only 110 miles from China, Taiwan has recorded only 440 confirmed cases of Covid 19, and just seven deaths. The island has gone more than 30 days without a new locally transmitted infection. Just last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his congratulations to Taiwanese President, on the start of her second term in office, along with an approval for the United States’ sale of $180 million worth of submarine-launched torpedoes to the self-ruled island.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Picture Credit: New York Times

          Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan and threatens to use force to reunify it with mainland China, if necessary. The two sides have halted dialogue since the DPP won the island’s general election in 2016, and again with greater margin in 2020. The military tension has mounted as relations between Beijing and Washington have steadily deteriorated, and also as the US has increased its support to Taipei. President Tsai has vowed to bolster Taiwan’s defences, and in the past year the US has sold it $2.2 billion worth of battle tanks and surface-to-air missiles, along with $8 billion of F-16 fighter jets. Chinese defence spokesman Wu said the US arms sales were “extremely wrong and very dangerous”, and added that any attempt by the Tsai to seek independence by force would “end up in history with shame and disgrace”.

Xi’s Praise of The Army

          “The fight against the COVID-19 epidemic is a test for our army. The People’s Liberation Army has followed the party’s command, responded rapidly upon orders and played an important role and made outstanding contributions to the fight against the epidemic. Facts have proved once again that the People’s Army is always a heroic army that the party and the people can fully trust,” Xi Jinping said. Xi is not just the president of China, he is the general secretary of the Communist Party and the chairman of the central military commission which was created by Xi himself. The entire chain of command of China’s defence forces runs back to the Chinese President. It gives him complete control over the People’s Liberation Army. So, when Xi Jinping speaks on military strategy the generals listen.

Picture Credit: India Today

Tells Chinese Military to Boost its Ability

          “It is necessary to explore ways of training and preparing for war because epidemic control efforts have been normalized,” Xi said. “It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions.” The Pandemic had created challenges for the military, but China’s integration of the civil, military and political spheres had been an advantage during the crisis. The technology is set to play a vital role in Chinese military operations. Xi wants the defence forces to push for independent and original innovations. The PLA is keeping a close eye in the South China Sea including Hong Kong, Taiwan as well as along the border with India.

          Meanwhile China announced a 6.6 percent year-on-year increase in its defence budget. Defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said China was facing heightened security threats, especially from Taiwan’s independence-leaning ruling party. “The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities in Taipei are relying on external forces and going further down the path of separatism,” adding that the “The situation against separatism is getting grimmer.” He also said China faced new risks and challenges in national security, including unilateralism by “some countries” that was shaking international security and escalating geopolitical risks, as well as what he said were increasingly complex domestic security threats and secession movements. “We have to make economic calculations but above that we have to make security calculations when we consider military spending,” Wu said when asked about this year’s defence budget. He said the military budget was still “far behind” what was needed to protect China’s sovereignty, security, development and other interests, adding that “moderate and stable growth” in spending was reasonable. China’s official defence budgets have long been criticized as opaque, but Wu said they were always “open and transparent”.

Ladakh Stand-off and Actions India

          Indian Army Commanders began their bi-annual conference on Wednesday, 27 May 2020.  During the three-day meeting, in addition to the rest of the agenda, the top brass are likely to discuss the stand-off at the border with China in Ladakh. In response to Chinese incursions, the Indian Army has increased presence of its troops to match the strength of the Chinese Army, which has deployed over 5,000 of its personnel on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at different locations in the Ladakh sector. The stand-off centres around a strategic bridge being built near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), the last Indian military post south of the Karakoram Pass. The bridge is part of the strategic roads being built by India along its borders. Interestingly China has been much ahead of India in infrastructure development all along the Indo-Tibet border. India had no choice but to mobilize additional troops. Indian and Chinese soldiers are eyeball-to-eyeball at four locations at Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and DBO in Ladakh, as the face-off continues along the LAC. The first incident was reported from eastern Ladakh on 5th May evening when some 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers indulged in a violent face-off, another similar clash took place near Naku La Pass in north Sikkim on 9th May. Several rounds of talks between local military commanders have failed to end the standoff that began with a violent confrontation between rival patrols three weeks ago near Pangong Lake. Ground reports from LAC say that Chinese troops continue where they were, digging trenches and preparing bunkers above Pangong Lake and 3 points in the Galwan valley. No sign of pullout from Indian territory, despite Beijing’s statement yesterday. Best not to read too much into China’s statements. From India’s experience of the 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017, when Indian troops dug in and stood their ground in the face of a rapid mobilisation by the Chinese side, the stand being planned now seems similar. India is handling the situation in a mature way, despite China’s aggressive behaviour.

G219 Western National Highway. Image Credit: vatsrohit.blogspot.com

Lt Gen HS Panag, former Northern Army Commander, who is well versed with the lay of the land, in an article in The Print, writes that Ngari in the Indus Valley is an important Chinese base with an airfield. Chinese National Highway G 219 passes through Ngari. It is only 50 km from Demchok and here we have the terrain advantage. Ngari can also be threatened from Chumar. This is the reason for frequent face-offs in these areas. Confrontations along the LAC have been more about China asserting its hegemony by embarrassing India. However, India’s developing border infrastructure has altered the situation, he added. He further feels that China is extremely suspicious of India. It believes that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas captured/secured by China. India’s alignment with the US, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India, and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan — through which the prestigious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes — only strengthen China’s suspicion. Much as he would like to speculate about China’s broader political aims, the direct political aim is simple — to maintain the “status quo” along the LAC on its own terms, which is to forestall any threat, howsoever remote, to Aksai Chin and Chinese NH G 219 which runs from Yecheng in Xinjiang to Lhatse in the Tibet Autonomous Region, cutting through the disputed Aksai Chin.

Map Credit: The Economist

Renowned strategic and international security expert, Ashley J Tellis while speaking to Rahul Kanwal of India Today said that he fears that the Ladakh faceoff between India and China could well escalate into an armed conflict between the two Asian giants. “What is very clear to me is that what is happening on the borders with India in all the different areas is certainly not some localised action, which has been provoked simply by zealous local commanders,” he said. “It is a set of actions that has been approved at the theatre level and if it has been approved at the theatre level, then it almost inevitably has been approved at the level of the general staff in Beijing as well.” “They are doing (this) at a time when they are under pressure because of their performance in the Covid-19 crisis. This is another way of showing that China will not be cowed by the international display over their performance of the management of the pandemic,” Tellis said. Interestingly Ladakh is the only area where physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China.

The Indian movement of the troops has been done with the idea to prevent any alteration of Indian territory and to face the Chinese challenge with “strength and restraint”. Defence minister Rajnath Singh had reviewed the situation during a meeting with the CDS and the three service chiefs on 25th May. Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a high-level security meeting with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat to assess the situation along the LAC. The CDS reportedly briefed PM Modi on the military inputs and suggestions to handle the situation in Ladakh.

Ladakh. Picture Credit;: India Today

Threat of War – In My View – Unlikely

          China is known for posturing and to wait and watch for responses. The current ongoing incident must be looked at in the background of the China going through its NPC; it being under diplomatic attack for Covid; hard stand by Taiwan with support from the world; incidents in Hong Kong; Economic showdown with USA; slowdown in Belt and Road Imitative (BRI); and China’s concerns for India trying to match it in border infrastructure development. An initial brigade level PLA exercise in the region was used to divert troops to show force and do some arm twisting. In military parlance every act of this nature has to be taken seriously and handled firmly. Although China vastly outspends India on defence, the local military balance is more even. India’s armed forces in Ladakh are in a strong position today, having built up airfields, positioned troops and tanks over recent years. Indian Army is stronger in numbers in Ladakh region. Fall-outs have to be factored. Back-up plans have to be in place. Diplomatic and military-to-military contacts have to be maintained on the sidelines. India is not a pushover. Stay firm, hold the ground and tire out the opponent has to be the way ahead.  

Picture Credit: Deccan Herald

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

4 thoughts on “Muscle Flexing Xi? Hong Kong, Taiwan, Ladakh

  1. Chopra Sir,

    A very insightful analysis of the overall situation.

    These stand offs have been happening earlier and would continue further also.

    The need of the hour is to evolve A National Strategy to resolve and leverage these incidents in future too.

    I think we have plenty of cards to be played up at various levels but a concrete strategy and pol will is required for implementation of the same.

    Best Regards & Wishes
    Sanjeev Chopra

    Like

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