An overriding ambition to make it to the apex Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is said to have led General Zhao Zongqi to plan the intrusions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since early May. Zongqi heads the PLA’s Western Theatre Command, the largest of China’s five theatre commands.
Zongqi, who is close to president Xi Jinping — both were contemporaries in the CPC — used to head the crucial Tibet Military District, which was integrated with the Xinjiang Military District to create the Western Theatre Command. Zongqi was placed in charge of the newly-created command on 1 February 2016.
This ambitious general was hoping to succeed General Fan Changlong as vice-chairman of the CMC — the highest military decision-making body in China —when Changlong retired in October 2017. But he was overlooked for the prestigious post and General Zhang Youxia, a close ally of Jinping, was appointed as the second vice-chairman of the CMC.
The CMC has two vice-chairmen; PLA Air Force General Xu Qiliang is the senior or first vice-chairman and has been in that post since November 2012. He is expected to retire in a couple of years, and Zongqi hopes to get elevated to the CMC then.
The best way to ensure his elevation to the CMC would be to achieve some quick victories over India. And that is what led Zongqi to plan and order PLA incursions into the Galwan, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso areas.
And the tactics he employed — subterfuge and the ambush of the commanding officer of 16 Bihar (Colonel Santosh Babu) at Galwan — were learnt by him during the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. General Zongqi is one of the few veterans of the war in the PLA. That war had resulted in an ignominious defeat for China.
One of the primary reasons for the PLA’s defeat was the guerilla tactics adopted by the Vietnamese forces and the ambushes that they launched using traditional weapons and tricks. Post-defeat, the PLA studied the tactics of the Vietnamese forces and included those tactics, including the art of laying ambushes, in their training.
General Zongqi is considered to be a master of subterfuge. Just six months before the Doklam standoff (from June 2017), he had visited India and assured India’s military top brass of friendship and cooperation. During that December 2016 visit, he had met then army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, then vice chief Lt Gen Bipin Rawat (who is now the CDS) and the then GOC-in-C of Eastern Command Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, among others.
A very senior officer who was part of the Indian Army team that interacted with Zongqi recalled that the PLA general spoke softly, but his demeanour was mostly steely.
“He seldom smiled and even when chatting informally, he maintained a stern look. His face was always inscrutable and the impression one gathered was that he was focused and ruthless. A few months later, we realised that he also speaks with a forked tongue and cannot be trusted,” said the officer who was a Major General at the Army Headquarters then.
Zongqi has had a swift rise in the ranks of the PLA over the last couple of decades and survived several purges. He distinguished himself with his brutal repression of Tibetan dissidents while he was the deputy chief of staff of Tibet Military District in the 1990s.
He became chief of staff of Tibet Military District in August 1999, commander of the 14th Army (a Corps level formation of the PLA) in October 2004, chief of general staff of Jinan Military Region in December 2007, commander of the same region in November 2012, and became a general in July 2015. He was also a member of the 18th central committee of the CPC.
Immediately after taking over as commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command in February 2016, Zongqi started planning his moves that would get him eventual entry into the CMC.
“A blow to India would have endeared him to the CPC bosses. The safest way to deliver that blow, he (Zongqi) figured, would be to capture Bhutan’s territory. Since Bhutan is a protectorate of sorts of India, that would have meant a huge setback for India in the region. That is why he planned the territory grab at Doklam,” said a strategist.
But this plan backfired when, contrary to his expectations, India retaliated with full force and prevented the PLA from entering Bhutan. The Chinese had to ultimately back off, and thus lost face at Doklam after the 73-day standoff with India.
Zongqi, who felt the CMC vice-chairmanship would slip away from his grasp if he did not avenge Doklam and redeem himself, thus planned the intrusions along the LAC in Ladakh. He planned the intrusions early this year.
Zongqi’s strategy was that India would quietly capitulate in the face of Chinese aggression, and would have to accept the capture of Galwan Valley by China as a fait accompli. The PLA general thought that India would not expect a Chinese incursion into Galwan Valley, a settled area. PLA forces would establish themselves in the valley and India, caught by surprise, would not be able to do anything.
Adding Galwan Valley to Chinese territory would be a huge victory because China would then gain access to the strategic Karakoram Pass and beyond. That would make Zongqi a hero in his country and ensure his elevation to the CMC.
What Zongqi did not, once again, factor in was India’s strong response and resolve. PLA troops have had to abandon their plans to occupy Galwan Valley in the face of an aggressive Indian response. The stalemate at Pangong Tso continues and with India determined not to back off, it appears negotiations between the two sides are destined for a long haul.
Zongqi’s misadventures with India may ultimately cost him his dream of making it to the CMC.
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