New Delhi: It has been two weeks since India and China agreed to disengage after a 73-day military standoff on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. But so far, there has been no official word from New Delhi or Beijing on how the two struck a deal to pull back from their most serious face-off in two decades—creating space for theories to mushroom.
One of these is that Chinese President Xi Jinping sacked a senior general in the People Liberation Army’s (PLA), who was thought to have been standing in the way of a resolution of the Doklam standoff—and that this led to the deal being struck.
According to Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Studies think tank, “the mutual withdrawal deal” by India and China that was announced on 28 August “was clinched just after Chinese President Xi Jinping replaced the chief of the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) joint staff department.”
This position, considered the most senior in the PLA and equivalent to the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was created last year as part of Xi’s military reforms to turn the Chinese Army into a force “able to fight and win wars,” Chellaney said in an article in the Hindustan Times last week.
“The Doklam pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India and probably was responsible for precipitating the standoff in the first place,” he said.
In his piece, Chellaney recalled that Chinese President Xi’s visit to India in 2014 happened in the midst of a Chinese military incursion in Ladakh—just as a visit by Chinese premier Li Keqiang to India in 2013 was overshadowed by another incursion, also in Ladakh.
Chellaney further pointed to Xi’s repeated demand of “absolute loyalty” from the Chinese military—most recently at the PLA’s 90th anniversary in July. “Had civil control of the PLA been working well, would Xi repeatedly be demanding ‘absolute loyalty’ from the military or asking it to ‘follow his instructions?’” he wrote.
Other analysts however seem unconvinced by this argument.
“I think the situation in China is more complex than this which, to my mind, is a simplistic reading of the situation,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. Sibal’s own view is that “Xi was trying to consolidate his position with the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party due next month”.
“He in the recent past has purged a number of high ranking officers from the military on charges of corruption. So no doubt he is trying to consolidate his position but this cannot be seen in the light of the Doklam standoff,” Sibal said, adding: “It does not fit in with Chinese politics.”
According to Happymon Jacob, professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, “In a tightly controlled regime like China, it is not easy to imagine that the country’s military would work at cross purposes with its civilian leadership.”
“I do not think there is enough evidence yet to suggest that PLA is not under the control of China’s political leadership,” he said.
“With regard to the PLA’s rhetoric against India, there are parallels elsewhere as well. India’s military leadership often speaks out against China and Pakistan which does not mean that the civilian government in India has lost its control over the military,” he said.