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  Opinion   Columnists  12 Sep 2023  Claude Arpi | The PLA’s weaknesses are now evident on all fronts

Claude Arpi | The PLA’s weaknesses are now evident on all fronts

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.
Published : Sep 12, 2023, 9:38 am IST
Updated : Sep 12, 2023, 9:38 am IST

Though difficult to predict the future, a careful analysis of the PLA’s preparedness shows several weaknesses for a professional modern army

President of China Xi Jinping. (AFP)
 President of China Xi Jinping. (AFP)

After a four-month gap, the 19th round of talks between the Indian and Chinese generals at the corps commander level was held at the usual Chushul-Moldo border meeting point. Interestingly, for the first time, it was spread over two days (August 13 and 14). Though no breakthrough was made for the Depsang and Demchok sectors, the contentious issues were discussed in some depth.

A joint press statement (which was an achievement in itself) said: “The two sides had a positive, constructive and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control in the western sector. In line with the guidance provided by the leadership, they exchanged views in an open and forward-looking manner.”

As usual, it was agreed to resolve “the remaining issues in an expeditious manner and maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations through military and diplomatic channels”.

The last sentence does not, however, mean that a solution is forthcoming soon, as the formula has been used in most of the statements.

In the meantime, it is interesting to analyse the present state of preparedness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has been repeatedly told by President Xi Jinping, who is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), to be “ready for war”. The “war” usually refers to the “liberation” of Taiwan, an old Chinese dream. In this context, the visit of three former Indian service chiefs to Taipei has to be noted. Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, Adm. Karambir Singh, and Gen. M.M. Naravane had travelled to Taipei on an invitation by Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs for the Ketagalan Forum. It probably means that New Delhi has started positioning itself in case of a war scenario.

Though it is difficult to predict the future, a careful analysis of the PLA’s preparedness shows several weaknesses for a professional modern army.

We shall list a few.

First and foremost, the PLA is the army of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Chairman Xi, as he is called by the PLA, recently published his “Eleven Absolutes” (a sort of Eleven Commandments). The First Absolute is: “The absolute leadership of the People’s Party (CPC) is the foundation of the People’s Army and the soul of a strong Army. It is necessary to comprehensively strengthen the Party’s leadership and leadership in the Army and implement a series of fundamental principles and systems for the Party to lead the Army, and ensure that the troops are absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable.”

Loyalty to the Party comes before merit or competence; this cannot translate into professionalism. Mr Xi’s first commandment wants “to build a People’s Army that obeys the Party’s command, can win battles, and has a good style of work”.
What recently happened to the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is an indicator that the Party line is supreme. The Chinese (and Taiwanese) social media announced that the commander and deputy commanders of the PLARF were in deep trouble.

When Xi Jinping undertook reforms in the PLA at the end of 2015, the Second Artillery Force, looking after China’s strategic missile force, was renamed PLARF, and it was made responsible for China’s tactical and strategic missile force, including nuclear missiles.

On July 6, Lt. Gen. Wu Guohua, the deputy commander of the force, allegedly died; as reports said that he was purged by Xi Jinping and was suspected to have committed suicide; though the official information just mentioned a “brain haemorrhage”.

Lt. Gen. Wu passed away at a time President Xi Jinping (also chairman of the Central Military Commission) was on a visit to the Eastern Theatre Command, lecturing the troops to be ready for war.

Then, Gen. Wu’s boss, Gen. Li Yuchao, the PLARF commander, was taken away by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) for investigation.
Further, Lt. Gen. Zhang Zhenzhong, a former deputy commander of the PLARF and current deputy chief of staff of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, was also sacked.

To add to the list, Wei Fenghe, former commander of Rocket Force, and former minister of national defence, was said to be under the scanner.

As it is always good to know the limitations of your purported enemy, let us look at the other weaknesses of the PLA.

China’s one-child policy has greatly weakened the PLA as parents are less and less keen to send their one child to war and eventually lose their only offspring. It also means that the soldiers are no longer used to hardship, having been cocooned for twenty years or so by their family; there is certainly less motivation today than during the Long March or Chairman Mao Zedong’s times.

The present Chinese recruitment mode is also a problem; among other issues, a conscripted Army takes more time to accustom to difficult terrains such as on the Indian borders.

Further, the PLA has not fully assimilated the radical reforms introduced in 2016 by Xi Jinping, in particular the combined armed integration.

While Beijing likes to brag about new equipment developed for the PLA (such as laser canons, quantum communication, hypersonic missiles, etc), the personnel manning this weaponry are not fully trained to use the latest technology.

Corruption is a serious issue; we have seen it with the recent beheading of the PLARF. It is a big problem — 100 or so generals were sacked in the past few years — and it is unthinkable in any other Army; corruption in promotion, in businesses, in recruitment, and so on.

Further, hiding the casualties of soldiers, like in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, certainly has a demoralising effect.

In the PLA, the centralised chain of command is cumbersome, officers on the Indian border always have to refer to the higher authorities in Chengdu or Beijing for orders.

The hierarchical difference in the field restricts the analytical process. Orders from senior officers need to be strictly implemented on the ground and if the leadership is targeted during the course of a confrontation, then the force can be in disarray.

Too much brainwashing about the Party ideology does not help for the professionalism of the PLA, but what is worrying is that President Xi Jinping seems obsessed by it; in 2022 he started expressing concern about the potential collapse of the Communist Party of China (CPC), with millions renouncing their affiliation to the Party. 

And lastly, the recent confrontations in Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh have shown that the Indian soldier is a far better fighter than his Chinese opponent.

Tags: india china relations, chinese communist party