NEW DELHI: India is closely examining President Xi Jinping’s “unusual and intriguing move” to replace the overall commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC), which handles the entire border with India, barely seven months after he took charge.
Xu Qiling (58), commander of the ground forces in the western theatre until now, has been promoted to a full general and replaced WTC chief General Zhang Xudong, in a change that has come amidst the continuing military confrontation in eastern Ladakh since April-May last year.
“Zhang (59) had taken over as the WTC chief in December last year from Gen Zhao Zongqi, who retired at the age of 65. Nobody at that rank in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is removed within seven months. It’s definitely unusual. In effect, this is the third change in the WTC chief since the military standoff with India began,” said a senior official.
Apart from Xu, often described as a “rising star” in the PLA and among the youngest to become a full general now, the other three to be promoted on Monday are: Southern Theatre Command chief Wang Xiubin, PLA Army commander Liu Zhenli, and PLA Strategic Support (Missile) Force commander Ju Qiansheng.
Indian officials say it’s “premature” to speculate on the change in the WTC, the largest of the five Chinese theatre commands that handles the entire 3,488-km LAC from eastern Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Incidentally, with no integrated theatre command as yet, India has as many as four Army and three IAF commands for the “northern borders” with China.
“Zhang could have been removed as part of the periodic anti-corruption purge by the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its centenary on July 1. Or, it could be connected to the border crisis with India. We have to wait and watch,” said another official.
The change in the WTC leadership comes ahead of the impending 12th round of corps commander-level talks between India and China, which will be held over three months after the last one on April 9.
Xu was earlier hand-picked by President Xi, who is also chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) that controls the PLA, to be the commander of the ground forces in the WTC in June last year just a few days before the violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley. As the overall WTC chief now, he will be the key player in the protracted negotiations between India and China to defuse the border crisis.
Sources say that while the PLA is now willing to discuss the stalled troop disengagement at patrolling points (PPs) 15, 17 and 17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area in eastern Ladakh, it has refused to stop blocking Indian patrols in the strategically-located Depsang Plains.