New Delhi: Chinese President Xi Jinping has appointed a new commander for the crucial Western Theater Command (WTC), which looks after the country’s border with India, amid the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Gen. Zhang Xudong replaces the powerful Gen. Zhao Zongqi, who is retiring. Zhang was the second-in-command in the Central Theater Command, which is responsible for the security of China’s capital Beijing.
As commander of the WTC, Zhang will oversee the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Force (Army), Air Force and Rocket Force, besides other elements in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions.
According to military insiders and experts, Xi’s decision to appoint Gen. Zhang as commander for the WTC is unlikely to impact the situation in Ladakh. Indian security experts describe it as a “routine” matter, which comes at a time when the situation in Ladakh has stabilised to the extent that both India and China are staying put through the winter. The experts say the winter will serve as a window for Zhang to grasp the situation at the border as he takes on the new role.
“This is a routine appointment, which, of course, has the blessings of President Xi, and the new General is his personal choice,” a source in the defence and security establishment said.
“Gen. Zhao had hit 65 years, the retiring age for such ranks in China, earlier this year, but did not retire because of the ongoing stand-off in Ladakh. Now that the stand-off has stabilised, a new appointment has been made and the winter will give him time to fully grasp the situation,” the source added.
The two generals
Gen. Zhao had served as the WTC commander since it was formed in February 2016 as part of Xi’s military reforms that brought seven military regions into five integrated commands.
He was the man in charge when the Doklam stand-off happened in 2017, and when the current phase of Chinese aggression was unleashed in May this year in Ladakh.
Jayadeva Ranade, former member of the National Security Advisory Board and an expert on China, said it would be interesting to see what role Gen. Zhao gets after this retirement.
Sources said Gen. Zhang has no previous experience of leadership roles in the WTC, but it should not be held against him.
“In the Chinese system, you end up remaining in the same theatre command till the rank of a Major General. In India, too, an officer who did not serve at major positions in the Eastern Command can head it as the GoC-in-C (General Officer Commanding-in-Chief),” the source quoted above said.
Ranade, now president of the think tank Centre for China Analysis and Strategy (CCAS), said there is no doubt that Gen. Zhang was personally vetted and selected by Xi Jinping.
“Gen. Zhang’s last two appointments came through during Xi’s tenure. Xi is known to dig deep down into the military and select officers and chart their career path. The fact that Gen. Zhang was posted to the Central Command would have given him the opportunity to work closely with the Central Military Commission (CMC),” he added.
Headed by Xi, the CMC is the top decision-making body for military matters in China.
‘Ladakh stand-off is steered by Xi’
Sources doubted that the appointment of Zhang as WTC commander will have any impact on the ongoing stand-off in Ladakh.
“What is happening now is talks between the two countries as the troops on the ground remain dug in. From the Chinese side, decisions on the next steps are taken by the CMC, which is headed by Xi himself. So, directions will continue to come and Gen. Zhang will implement them,” the source quoted above said.
Ranade agreed, saying it would be wrong to think China’s aggression at India’s borders was due to the previous commander of the WTC.
“There are elements that have come in from the Eastern Theater Command as well as the Central Theater Command to Ladakh. So, this is something which is driven by the CMC,” he said. “The new appointment will not change the dynamics at play in Ladakh because decisions will come from the top.”