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Was the Chinese intrusion really a PLA strike against Xi Jinping?

By Claude Arpi
May 13, 2013 10:35 IST
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Could some frustrated Chinese generals have decided to teach India a lesson to sink Xi Jinping's world dream, asks Claude Arpi.

What has China gained from its Daulat Beg Oldi excursion?

Many theories have been propounded: Some say the Chinese leadership wanted to show its displeasure on the new coziness between Delhi and Tokyo. But is it not putting the cart before the horse?

Indeed, such Himalayan happenings are bound to draw the US, Japan and India closer, not the other way around.

What about China's displeasure at the infrastructure that India has been building on its side of the Line of Actual Control? Was it worth this drama? Was it not possible to discuss this issue at the already scheduled ministerial meets?

'Experts' will argue that according to the Art of War, it is the Chinese way to get what they want. This is not certain, because the issue has serious negative collaterals for China.

They may have 'marked their territory' by 'camping' for three weeks in the 'Gateway to Hell,' but they have not earned goodwill from India.

This incident, even if it is 'successfully' solved by both diplomacies, will remain for years a scar in Sino-Indian relations which had just started looking up.

When Chinese scholars visit India, they like to say that both countries should sincerely work on the mutual trust deficit. It is clear the Chinese 'camping' has pushed back for years the earlier progress in closing the 'trust' gap.

Perhaps a more important issue which has escaped the analysts: What about the Chinese Dream?

Since he ascended to the Middle Kingdom's throne, the new Emperor Xi Jinping has proclaimed the Great Dream of China: 'The China Dream will bring blessings and goodness to not only the Chinese people but also people in other countries.'

Where do the last intrusions fit in the Chinese Dream?

In an article in Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, a China watcher, made a fascinating analysis of Xi Jinping's new concept, the Chinese Dream. Sisci argued that this Dream is not enough: 'Both Chinese and Westerners have spent a lot of time and spilled much ink trying to explain the significance of the Chinese dream, yet Xi Jinping presented also another concept that is possibly even more important. He said the earth needs a 'world dream (shijie meng).'

What is this World Dream anyway?

In an interview with BRICS journalists before he left for his first foreign tour, Xi declared: 'China being the world's second largest economy, the China Dream also will bring opportunities to the world. The China Dream will be realised through a road of peace.'

A few days later, addressing the Moscow Academy of International Relations, the Chinese president asserted: 'The China Dream will bring blessings and goodness to not only the Chinese people but also people in other countries.'

Sisci rightly affirmed: 'Despite the fact that the content of the Chinese dream is still vague and hazy, it is clear that the Chinese dream and the world dream must be consistent with one another. China should not clash with the rest of the world or with the incumbent powers, but should lead alongside them. China speaks of a dream of living a good life, free of need and hunger.'

His conclusion was: 'China's world view needs in fact to be consistent with the broad world view that has shaped and dominated the world for the past 500 years.'

Now, considering Xi's dual Dreams (for China and for the World), how to explain the deep Chinese intrusions into Indian territory in Ladakh?

Is the Chinese Dream's aim grabbing more Indian territory?

Xi never said so; he just spoke of 'a road of peace.'

Does this road pass through the 'isolated' Depsang Plain?

It is difficult to answer, but the Chinese actions in Ladakh, near the Karakoram Pass, appeared to be the opposite of President Xi's recent comments.

Something Indrani Bagchi wrote in The Times of India is worth pondering on: 'In their conversations with their Chinese counterparts about the incursion, Indian officials found them to differ from each other. This contradicted the general impression about China being almost monolithic in their decision making.'

This raises a question: What about a senior local commander or even a Central Military Commission member, deciding on his/their own to show what the 'Chinese Dream' means for the People's Liberation Army, while at the same time, embarrassing Xi Jinping.

Why would have some generals tried to sabotage Chairman Xi's Dream and embarrass him?

Just read Xinhua's report dated December 21, 2012: 'The military (read Xi) declared that receptions for high-ranking officers will no longer feature liquor or luxury banquets. The receptions will also be free of welcome banners, red carpets, floral arrangements, formations of soldiers, performances and souvenirs, according to ten regulations drawn up by the Central Military Commission.'

The Chinese news agency further elaborates: 'The ten regulations state that speakers at meetings should avoid empty talk, while commission officials will not be allowed to attend ribbon-cutting and cornerstone-laying ceremonies, celebrations or seminars unless they have received approval.'

That is not all for the poor (or rich) generals; officials are also required to discipline their spouses, children and subordinates and make sure they do not take bribes.

The South China Morning Post also reported that Xi, China's commander-in-chief, issued an order, making the lives of Chinese generals and senior officers even tougher. Some of them will 'have to serve as the lowest-ranking soldiers for at least two weeks per year.' Apparently President Xi wants to 'shake up the military and boost morale.'

To cancel the banquets, the bribes and then force senior officers to live with jawans might be too much to swallow for certain generals.

The Hong Kong newspaper explains: 'It dictates that officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel or above must serve as privates -- the lowest-ranking soldier -- for not less than 15 days. Generals and officers will have to live, eat and serve with junior soldiers during the period.'

The periodicity of the 'training' for senior-most officers is even detailed: 'Leaders of regiment and brigade-level units have to serve on the front line once every three years. Division and army-level commanders must serve once every four years. Top leaders from army headquarters and military districts will do so once every five years.'

Further horror, all military vehicles must be given new car plates and blacklisted sedans include Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lincoln, Cadillac, Bentley, Jaguar and Porsche and a few others. In other words, the Great Proletarian Revolution of the PLA!

One can imagine the resentment in the senior levels of the PLA; for some generals, it looks more like a Nightmare than a Dream.

Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based veteran military expert told The South China Morning Post: 'The lack of discipline, the rampant corruption and the gap between the officers and soldiers are so commonplace, it has compromised the battle-effectiveness of the PLA. Many generals and senior officers today have never experienced hardship. They are promoted to their position because of their connections or other reasons.'

Xi several times said he wanted the PLA to be ready for any situation; by opening a new front against India, some generals temporarily diverted the leadership's attention from the 'reforms.'

This would explain why the Indian prime minister kept speaking about 'an isolated incident.' It is not 'isolated' because the intrusions occurred at one 'isolated' location along the LAC. It is 'isolated' for Beijing, because this particular 'intrusion' did not have the blessings of all in the Middle Kingdom.

This would explain that the PLA official Web site, while daily commenting on the conflict with Japan in the East China Sea, has never mentioned the DBO incident.

Could 'isolated' and frustrated generals have decided to teach India a lesson and sink Xi's 'world dream'?

It is possible as several generals would not mind to open a new front, first for pecuniary reasons.

Willy Lam in an article in China Brief says: 'Moreover, the PLA top brass seems keen on interpreting the China Dream in such a way as to justify its lobbying for more economic resources and a greater say in national affairs.'

Lam quotes a PLA Daily editorial indicating that the defence forces would 'struggle hard for the fulfillment of the dream of a strong China and a strong army.'

Some generals today propound the theory that 'boosting national defence construction can only give a significant push to economic and social development.' A dangerous game, if China wants to walk 'on the road to peace.'

That could explain that Beijing decided to withdraw from DBO without too much fuss. It is also true that Beijing has been surprised by the strong public reaction in India and the readiness of many to take on the mighty Dragon.

The leadership probably realised that it is better to save face than to see Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to New Delhi later this month cancelled, with all possible implications.

The generals may have been politely 'convinced' to return to their barracks for now. The Chinese Dream has to go on.

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in March. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

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