Major’s Squad: A Deep Dive Into The History, Ideology And Evolution Of China’s People’s Liberation Army
Major’s Squad zooms in on China’s People’s Liberation Army, its history, ideology and evolution.
“Gentlemen, what makes China so special is its rich history and evolution of culture. Let us never forget that it was China that gave the ‘Art of War’ to the world. While judging an enemy, anything and everything is important. Development of battle tactics over the years, warring strategies, brutal or benevolent army, political interference and so much more.
“Weapons and soldiers are the last piece that fits into a situation to be called a war. And any nation which has not learnt to pay attention and manage all these pre-hostilities factors, is bound to come out devastated and abashed from that debacle.
“A sword in the hand of a Sikh soldier is a vastly different weapon than in the hand of a Gurkha. And same goes for a khukri. My point being, the more time we can dedicate understanding an enemy, the better we can predict the outcomes, and less myopic our analysis will be.
“Weapons are secondary, it’s the men behind them that matter. Media and analysts are engaging endlessly in debate over tech data of weapon systems. Whereas the consequential factor in war would be who is using that weapon. Hence, let us talk today about history and ideology of PLA and China. Let us try to understand what makes them what they are, and why.”
Major gave this opening statement as everyone took their chairs in the garden. It was an outdoor meet today and recent rains had resulted in cool summer breeze.
Niranjan raised his hand and when nodded to, said: “how far do you think we should go back in time? Because there is no end to the discussion on what changed the overall thinking and ideology of PLA and China.”
Major replied, “I think there always is. Certain moments in history shape the armies. For Indian Army, it was the pressure in 90s because of CI and CT operations in J&K and North East. Being a conventional army is no big deal. It is an expected format. But being this tough, resilient and experienced in mountains and jungles, as a complete 1.4 million strong army is something else.
“So, I’ll leave it on you to decide what you feel is the defining moment, but what we can do is hear your views on Chinese history. You are best placed to educate us on that, given your interest and education.”
Niranjan shook his head affirmatively and said: “glad to take the lead. In my opinion, we can start from 1700s about history of China to get a perspective.
“In 1700s and early 1800s, the trigger was the opium crisis in China, which was becoming a national problem. The inception of the trade was simple; contemporary Chinese medicine used opium as a core of the process. The isolationism by the empire and furthermore the adherence to a morphed Confucian economic policy, the empire soon found itself in a precarious position.
“The British were selling upwards of 1,400 tonnes of opium every year to the Chinese by the 1830s. The Qing government engaged in a ‘war on drugs’, which spanned the next 30 years, marking the early events of it in 1839 when they sentenced opium traffickers to death.
“The crackdown was a long hard slog and it was extremely difficult to manage the different sources of opium and systematically halt all as by that time the Americans too had joined by supplying Turkish opium. In the same year the government mounted an offensive on the coasts of Canton (an important trade hub) and destroyed opium on the ships harboured there.
“Keep in mind the aforementioned deficit was tackled primarily by the opium exports as that was the only thing the Chinese initially agreed to trade. This changed everything. The colonists were not ready to give up such a huge source of income and this marked the start of the first ‘opium war’; fought primarily between the British and the Chinese.
“The Chinese ships attacked the ships that refused to embark from the shores of Hong Kong in an all-out skirmish. This would spell disaster for the Chinese. Long story short, the British bullied China into surrendering Hong Kong to them and along with it an understanding that they would not interfere with their trading activities again through the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.
“They were also forced to cede five ports as a treaty and the British enjoyed extraterritoriality in their regions. This was a huge embarrassment for the once great empire of China. This also gave rise to rebellions such as the Taiping rebellion, which is considered an indirect fallout of the government losing its influence.”
And Niranjan took a deep breath! Everyone laughed at this.
Before he could start again, Hukum interjected and said, “but by 1800s even the Russians had come majorly. Don’t you account for that?”
Niranjan: “Of course I do. I was just taking things one by one. The Russian empire annexed a lot of the northern area during the 1850s and added to problems of the crumbling empire. There was further war with the French and the British which were also referred to as the ‘second opium war’, which also resulted in the Chinese facing defeat.
“In 1858, The Treaty of Tianjin which further gave the French and British control of the Peking Delta and control over trade in the Yangtze river. There was additionally the treaty of Aigun, where the Russians got back the area they had lost to the Chinese some centuries ago.
“Infuriated by Chinese intervention in Korea, the Japanese had a bone to pick. The first Sino-Japanese war was the nail in the head of the Qing Dynasty as it provided a harsh reality check of their military backwardness. One might say that it in turn influenced the Chinese to shape their military aggressively in the future.
“By the time the war ended and the Qing empire sued for peace in 1895, the country was in shambles. Through the ruins rose the different warlords who staked their claim over their region, resulting in a fractured mass of an empire which warred endlessly amongst each other.”
Major: “I guess we can wrap up the nineteenth century and if you can sum up early twentieth century, that will be great.”
Niranjan: “Yes sir. I’ll keep it short. The advent of 1904 marked the first noticeable rise of Sun Yat Sen’s action; he was involved in many anti-dynasty revolutions and was exiled as a result. His comeback, so to say, was the Tongmenghui society which aimed to overthrow the Tatars and redistribute the land.
“His famed three principals were to be the cornerstone of the nation he aimed to build; namely nationalism, democracy and welfare. This garnered support from the Malay and the Siamese and soon became a full scale revolutionary action known as the Wuchang uprising.
“Sun Yat Sen, with his lieutenant Chiang Kai Shek were the flag-bearers of the Kuomintang which sought to reunify China. For this purpose, they formed an uneasy alliance with Tse Tsung’s CCP to mount an attack on the warlords. This was the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that broke the back of the empire. But the alliance that existed, was even more short-lived than they initially thought. Shek took the offensive deep into Jiangxi and executed communists by the truckload.
“This ended whatever remnants of camaraderie, if any, were there between the Kuomintang and the CCP. What happened was a systematic retreat by CCP that was called the Long March. Even though there were many such retreating marches, this one in particular was unique because of the path.
“But as if on cue, the Japanese invaded from Nanking in 1937 after they fabricated a Chinese skirmish at the Marco Polo Bridge.
“The Chinese were brutalised and the armies on their side also suffered some blunders over and above that. The casualties were second to only the Second World War that would happen in the years to come. The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ by the Japanese is seen as one of the most brutal war crimes in history. Beheading contests, mass rapes etc, were just a few of the atrocities committed on the Chinese.”
Major stood up and hung the map on the board they had bought for the meeting and said: “thanks a lot, Niranjan. That was precise yet detailed enough. The period is extremely critical in Chinese history. Especially, the Japanese brutality that phase led to creating a whole new psyche, that defined the newer version of much famous Chinese nationalism for future.
“From late nineteenth century, Chinese nationalism was simply anti-Manchuism. But the loss in 1895 Sino-Japanese war, created a social debate that required new nationalism, which would come out as a result of Social Dwarnisim, where Chinese believed in existence and dominance of superior race.
“So, over the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese included ideologies like the anti-Manchuism during the 1911 Revolution, the anti-imperialist sentiment of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the Maoist thoughts that guided the Communist Revolution in 1949. Chinese nationalism was also influenced by Russian ethnographic thinking.
“Later, in 1970s, Chinese nationalism within mainland China became mixed with the concepts of Marxism, but in Taiwan, it was primarily about preserving the ideals and lineage of Sun Yat Sen, the party he founded, the Kuomintang (KMT), and anti-communism. Post dissolution of USSR, Chinese nationalism has only risen, due to any other ideology for them to follow and emulate.
“The PLA, which was formed in 1927, during Nanchang uprising, was then known as Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. It was after the surrender of Japan in 1945, that two main units known as the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army, which were fighting in Sino-Japanese war since 1937 as National Revolutionary Army of Republic of China, were formally integrated into what came to be known as People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“By 1949, after having won the civil war, PLA reorganised itself, and by 1950 leadership and organisation structures of navy, air force, artillery, chemical warfare, logistics, medical etc, were established under the control of Communist Party and the National People's Congress via the Central Military Commission (and until 1975 the National Defence Council).
“During the 1950s, Chinese took help of the Russians and started converting itself into a modern and well-equipped army. Thirteen major regions and nine ‘strategic guidelines’ which would go a long way in shaping PLA were established and initiated during the 1950s.”
Hukum asked, “so they were much better prepared for 1962 war with India?”
Major: “Oh, yes. They achieved all their objectives in 1962, Sino-India war. Bad leadership, ill equipped army and casual approach to the threat led to defeat of India. Even after the Sino-Indian war in 1962, border tensions continued as Indian and Chinese troops came face to face during patrols along their perceived border.
“During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Chinese in an attempt to relieve pressure on Pakistan’s eastern flank, started reinforcing positions in Chumbi Valley and threatened India to vacate border out-posts (BOP) in Nathu La held by 17th Mountain Division and Jelep La held by 27th Mountain Division.
“However, the day was saved by Major General Sagat Singh, who refused to vacate Nathu La despite intense pressure to do so. He cited the watershed principle for boundary definition as both the passes lay on the watershed. Unfortunately, 27th Mountain Division decided to vacate Jelep La.
“Three years later in 1967, the Indian Army (IA) and the PLA were involved in serious clashes at Nathu La and Cho La. Despite suffering casualties in the initial stages, the IA used its advantageous gun positions to pound the PLA. The Chinese were given a ‘bloody nose’ suffering approximately 300 casualties.”
Firestarter spoke for the first time: “Sir, wasn’t this also the time that Sino-Soviet tensions started to peak. I remember reading that It reached a crescendo as PLA troops ambushed Soviet border guards at Zhenbao/Damansky Island near Manchuria.
“The clashes between two nuclear powers which saw the deployment of tanks, mortars and MBRLS ended in a stalemate as both sides vacated the island after suffering significant losses of equipment and troops.
“This was closely followed by sporadic clashes in Tasiti, Bacha Dao and Tielieketi. At Tielieketi, Soviet border guards and PLA engaged in a clash, resulting in an entire platoon of PLA being wiped off and four taken prisoners. This was followed up by intense diplomatic activity on both sides to thwart possibility of an all-out war.
“Later both sides decided to return ambassadors and immediately resume border talks. Western observers were of the view that the conflict was caused by Mao in order to use China’s local military superiority over the Soviets to satisfy domestic political imperatives in 1969.
“The Chinese relied on the concept of localised 'small wars' which involved ambushing opposing forces and claiming a quick victory to send a message. This message was largely aimed at forcing the conclusion of border talks on its terms with significant gain of territory. This policy worked extremely well with the Soviets with the possibility of war under a nuclear umbrella — a policy which is still being employed by the Chinese with India.”
Major stopped him, and said: “had the infractions with Vietnam started by now?”
Firestarter replied: “No sir, it started in 1978. But the point worth remembering is that Chinese have always had this habit of pressure tactics and land grabbing. In 1975, six-member Assam Rifles patrol was ambushed by the PLA well inside Indian Territory. Four jawans lost their lives in this incident. India lodged a strong protest with the Chinese and there was no further escalation. All this was result of their frustration when Sikkim joined India.”
Major: “Yes, and we still see the same tactics being employed by PLA. Whatever they are doing or trying to do in eastern Ladakh, is maybe just a shade different from their earlier tactics.”
Hukum: “Exactly, sir. Post the Sino-Vietnamese war, the Chinese remained in occupation of small pockets of Vietnamese territory. These pockets were seen as strategically important for China and of great symbolic value for Vietnam. This led to a series of clashes, which peaked in 1984-1985 and lasted until 1991.”
Firestarter added excitedly: “meanwhile, it was during the same time that efforts towards modernisation of the PLA, which started in the late seventies, continued into the eighties and saw extensive military reorganisation to improve combat effectiveness in combined-arms warfare.
“The reforms envisaged drastic reduction in force levels, reorganisation of military regions, formation of group armies and reorganisation of indigenous defence industries. By 1985, the PLA had met its downsizing target and shed about 1 million soldiers.”
Niranjan, who was silent for some time stood up and came to map to explain and said: “by mid-1986, tensions had flared up at the banks of the Sumdorong Chu. The PLA had constructed permanent structures and a helipad denying access to SSB Personnel, who manned a border outpost in the area. India offered that its troops would not reoccupy the post if the Chinese withdrew.
“However, this offer was arrogantly rejected. In retaliation, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji launched Operation Chequerboard. He leveraged the newly-acquired heavy-lift capability of the Indian Air Force and airlifted an entire brigade using Mi-26 helicopters and occupied Hathung La. This totally took the Chinese by surprise and the Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to teach India a lesson.”
Hukum added: “India stood up to the threats and granted statehood to Arunachal Pradesh. War clouds started building up as India’s actions were seen as a clear provocation by the Chinese.
“The PLA moved 20,000 troops from the 53rd Corps in Chengdu and the 13th Corps in Lanzhou along with artillery and helicopters. By early April, it had moved 8 divisions to eastern Tibet.
“India conducted a massive air-land exercise known as Exercise Chequerboard, which involved several divisions of the army and several squadrons of the IAF. Troops were now face to face at multiple places along the LAC.
“Finally, diplomacy however won the day as the then external affairs minister N D Tiwari’s visit to Beijing in May 1987 lead to gradual softening of stance by both sides. There were mutual agreements to continue talks and troops were pulled back. This was followed up with prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit to China.”
Firestarter also stood up and pointing at map said: “the key thing to realise about effective military campaigns from the PRC perspective is their impact on the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to maintain control over its populace. The tactical actions are not the only determiner, and nor are quantitative summaries of victories the key decider.
“In 1985, Deng Xiaoping assessed that major or nuclear war with the Soviet Union was no longer a necessity. The PLA's new guidance then was to prepare for local, limited wars around China's peripheral regions. These wars were expected to be short, high intensity conflicts. Their objectives would be political and would be fought under conditions of nuclear deterrence.
“The PLA was to prepare themselves for short mobilisation times and rapid response. This became the basis of PLA doctrine. What they would equip and train for. On the larger geopolitical front, the western reaction post the PRC's brutal Tiananmen crackdown created a certainty in Chinese establishment circles that the US was a geo-political rival and economic cooperation with the US apart, China must deter US intervention.
“Even as China’s overall military security continued to progress while US-China relations remained turbulent, two landmark events occurred which changed its view of how to proceed with its modernisation programmes.
“The first was the 1991 Gulf War, which was an eye-opener for the PRC establishment regarding both their equipment, force levels and doctrine. The second was the end of the Cold War, the emergence of the US as the sole superpower and the irrelevance of the Soviet threat, which again reduced the PRC's strategic value in the eyes of the US decision-makers.
“While the realisation of the US's strength led to greater pragmatism as PRC sought to build up its military power, for instance Chinese decision-makers realised that to deter US intervention, they would need to "lay low" till their strength increased, they also heavily influenced how the PRC sought to reorient its forces. Technology was critical, not only the weaponry but also the information flow needed to enable joint operations.
“The PRC then fine-tuned its vision for the PLA from focusing on local, limited war to preparing for local, limited war “under high-tech conditions”. In 1996, the US sent two carrier battle groups to support Taiwan. This further cemented the PRC's views that it needed to accelerate its modernisation and its great power ambitions. And facing off against the US would automatically prepare it for any regional adversary as well.”
Major: “Very well put, Fireman!”
Firestarter: “Sir, Firestarter!”
Hukum, meanwhile, opened his notebook and said: “Sir, I also made some notes on China’s cyber capabilities. The PRC leadership has continued to implement reforms. The PRC now understands that space and cyberspace have joined the conventional battlefield.
“They also realised that using information warfare would not only help the PRC control public opinion beyond censorship, but also allow it to wage wars for influence amongst decision-makers abroad. Meanwhile, its information warfare grew even more brazen, with a focus on espionage for both military and dual-use/commercial technologies.”
Firestarter: “You are right, Hukum. The PRC also realised that jointness and rapid military reaction meant more than just adding technology or economic power. They undertook a huge manpower reduction drive in combination with a focus on building local arms and inducting high technology.
“Licensed purchases from Russia, Israel, Europe and elsewhere – often conflated with reverse engineering (which too the PRC engaged in) plus a heavy focus on indigenisation was resorted to.
“The PRC was pragmatic. They developed their military equipment progressively in phases with significant production orders at each phase. Not only did this boost their economy but it also built up a more experienced military industrial structure.”
Major: “In 2016, the PRC moved to a five new theatre command set up even for its peacetime deployment from its erstwhile military regions. The theatre commands would focus on combat operations plus joint training of subordinate forces based on wartime missions.
“The new commands included the Eastern Theatre Command (TC) based on the former Nanjing military region (MR) responsible for managing Taiwan and Japan; Southern TC based on the Guangzhou MR responsible for Vietnam and the South China Sea region, as well as backing up the ETC in a Taiwan conflict; Western TC which replaced the former Chengdu and Lanzhou MRs; Northern TC which replaced the Shenyang MR plus Inner Mongolia and Shandong Provinces responsible for the Korean peninsula plus providing forces against Japan to the ETC; and the Central TC which took over from the erstwhile Beijing and Jinan MRs.
“This last Central TC not only has responsibility for acting as a praetorian guard for the capital but also acts as a strategic reserve to provide reinforcements for any of the other theatres. The new strategic logistics support force has subordinate joint logistics support centres in each theatre as well.
“These theatre commands can deploy subordinate PLA ground force, air force units, and request additional forces from the Central Military Command (CMC) as required. PLA Rocket Force units are expected to be available to the respective theatre commands based on CMC assignment.
“All in all, the PLA military structure has moved from a land centric, mass deployed force to a relatively capable system with heavy usage of moderately capable equipment with significant advances in both doctrine and information networks. Its aim is to be able to deploy rapidly and bring all its forces to bear in an integrated fashion. These are all major strategic steps and it is upon us to not ignore them over the lust to compare weapons to weapons.”
Firestarter nodded lightly and said: “it is not a force to be taken lightly, even as it must be recognised that the schizoid nature of the political and military command and control, plus the relative lack of transparency in the PRC setup mean that a lot of its equipment, doctrine and even tactics likely have flaws which will not be exposed unless there is a real conflict.
“Potential adversaries still need to take them seriously though as the PRC's desire to exert hegemonic control over its periphery and its own populace is a constant challenge. As recent as May 2020, Xi Jinping ordered PRC forces that it was necessary to ‘comprehensively strengthen the training of troops and prepare for war’, ‘resolutely safeguard national sovereignty’ and also ‘safeguard the overall strategic stability of the country’.”
Hukum got up while keeping his diary inside and replied: “this may seem bizarre to any democratic leader thinking of how to manage a pandemic. But the Chinese Communist Party is focused on retaining power at all costs.
“So, if a potential opponent like India proves to be too tough to overwhelm via a border attack or mountain warfare, punitive campaigns via a mix of rocket, precision weaponry against both Indian military and high-value economic targets cannot be ruled out.
As always, the aim of military action will be to enhance the Chinese Communist Party's control over its populace and message that it remains the dominant force in Asia, and increasingly, the world. Military objectives alone are not the key determiner of how the PRC sees victory.”
Major, finally, wrapped up the map and said while walking towards parking: “gentlemen, this was a great discussion. We are getting there. The aim of this team will always be strategy, analysis and feedback. We have to grow beyond comparing stats and focus on what makes things happen in wars and geopolitics.
“We have to reach a stage where we have a good holistic vision and can start predicting outcomes of actions. Being right or wrong is secondary, but having that confidence is the most important thing. I’m very happy with today’s discussion. Next time lets get hardcore on Chinese equipment, arsenal and armaments, and take a deep look at their capabilities. Best wishes everyone, Jai Hind”
Major’s Squad is a debating team of nine defence enthusiasts, led by a decorated veteran, Maj Manik M Jolly, SM, who gather every week to discuss the critical topics in field of defence and national security.
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