Chinese dictator Xi Jinping replaced Gen. Zhao Zongqi as head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theater Command — the wing of the military responsible for the border with India — this weekend, following multiple defeats at the hands of the Indian military.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua identified Gen. Zhang Xudong, an army officer with no experience on China’s western border, as the new head of Western Theater Command.
At 65, Zhao had reached Beijing’s official retirement age for senior Communist Party officials. Multiple Party officials have seen that age come and go and remained in power, however, suggesting that his performance — especially after a humbling year on the Indian border for the PLA — also played a role in his departure.
Xi Jinping is 67 years old. Shortly before his 65th birthday, Xi removed term limits on his position as president, commander-in-chief, and head of the Party.
Xinhua provided little information regarding Zhao’s removal and notably did not mention him in announcing new military promotions this weekend.
“Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), on Friday presented four military and armed police officers with certificates of order promoting them to the rank of general, the highest rank for officers in active service in China,” Xinhua noted. “The promoted officers are Political Commissar of the CMC Logistic Support Department Guo Puxiao, Commander of the Western Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Zhang Xudong, Political Commissar of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force Li Wei, and Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force Wang Chunning.”
The announcement did not mention Zhao and he did not appear in the accompanying photo of the soldiers partaking in the promotion ceremony.
Zhao spent a significant portion of his military career before running Western Theater Command on China’s western border, serving in occupied Tibet. China-India relations have been tense there for decades following the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which resulted in the deaths of at least 8,000 Indian soldiers and 2,000 Chinese, according to the Communist Party. India has insisted that Beijing usurped Indian sovereign territory at the time and refused to recognize Chinese sovereignty over parts of the terrain.
To avoid a repeat of the 1962 war, both sides agreed not to arm soldiers on the border with firearms. That decision resulted in one of the most harrowing reports of brutality between two modern armies in recent years. In June, Indian Army soldiers reportedly discovered PLA troops establishing tents and a base on sovereign Indian territory in the Galwan Valley, Ladakh region — a steep, mountainous, and extremely cold territory. When confronted about their presence, the Chinese soldiers reportedly attacked with rudimentary weapons including sticks wrapped in barbed wire, rocks, and their fists. Reports indicated that many of those killed in the attack, the deadliest incident since the 1960s war, died of hypothermia or fell off of cliffs.
China refused to publish an official death count from the Galwan Valley incident and has not identified any of the soldiers lost in the exchange. The Indian military claimed it had killed twice as many Chinese soldiers — about 40 — as the 20 or so it had lost despite the Indians being outnumbered.
“The Chinese army possibly suffered more than twice the casualties [of the Indian side],” retired four-star Indian Army General V.K. Singh told reporters following the incident.
Chinese state media finally admitted that it had lost soldiers to the clash with India in an article in September that referred obliquely to “martyrs.” That month, reports surfaced that soldiers on both sides had used firearms against each other in limited exchanges, the first time in decades that shots were fired across the border. Chinese officials accused the Indian troops of shooting first and vice versa. The Indian military was the first to publicly change the rules of engagement at the border to allow firearms, a development that followed the Galwan Valley incident.
China’s Western Theater Command said at the time, apparently confirming that the Chinese fired: “the Indian army blatantly fired threats to the patrol personnel of the Chinese border guards who had made representations. The Chinese border guards were forced to take countermeasures to stabilize the situation.”
Shortly after the first reports of shots fired, Indian media began reporting that Indian troops had crossed into Chinese territory and seized a new mountaintop position over Pangong Tso, a lake in Tibet. The Indian military stated that it had intercepted PLA troops attempting to establish another illegal position in Indian territory, similar to what preceded the Galwan Valley incident, and that they acted more forcefully to prevent another melee.
The Chinese Communist Party, through its state media outlets, rejected New Delhi’s allegations and claimed the Indians had invaded and occupied legitimate Chinese territory. Tensions remain high between the two countries on the border, though no major incidents have occurred in the last three months.
“The Chinese have been developing military camps in their depth areas all along the LAC [Line of Actual Control, or border with India]. Around 20 of such camps have been observed with some civilians also around these places,” Asia News International (ANI) reported in early December.
Both sides have reportedly positioned at least 50,000 troops each along their border, according to the Times of India.
Zhao is believed to have been the mastermind behind the attempts to expand into India that resulted in successive failures, Indian media noted Sunday.
“New Delhi’s assessment is that Gen Zhao had the approval of the Xi-led Central Military Commission when PLA troops carried out the initial incursion in the Finger area near Pangong Tso in late April and early May,” according to the Hindustan Times. “But there was some discomfort over the misadventure after the bloody Galwan Valley clash in June, the deadliest clash between soldiers of the two countries since 1975, in which 20 Indian troops and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed.”
Zhao was reportedly attempting to find a role in the Central Military Commission — which oversees the entire Chinese military — following his departure from Western Theater Command. After his abrupt removal, however, it is unclear if he will receive any new role in the Chinese armed forces.
Zhang, Zhao’s replacement, is 58 years old. According to the Hindustan Times, Zhang has no experience serving on the Indian border, the first time that a soldier lacking that experience has taken the helm of Western Command. Zhang instead has experience protecting the Chinese borders with Russia and North Korea and has run one of China’s major military theaters: Central Command, which is responsible for Beijing, arguably the most important PLA command theater.
Western Theater Command is the largest of the five PLA theaters and among the most challenging due to the dangerous Himalayan terrain along the India-occupied Tibet border.