‘CHINA’S FOCUS ON MILITARY ACTIVITIES IN TIBET’

JAYADEVA RANADE  August 2015

                                                                                                                                                   Dated: 21 August 2015

  

                                        ‘CHINA’S FOCUS ON MILITARY ACTIVITIES IN TIBET’

                                                                   by JAYADEVA  RANADE

 

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the country’s official military media have kept a discernible focus on the activities and exercises of the PLA formations deployed in Tibet in the past some months.

The recent round of promotions in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by China’s President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Xi Jinping, on the occasion of the 88th anniversary of the PLA on August 1, 2015, continues the emphasis on professionalism and preference for either battle-field, or other operational, experience for elevation to the higher ranks of the PLA. Included in the list are some officers with experience of service in Tibet and identified affiliations to Xi Jinping. The promotions are also indicative of Xi Jinping having begun to prepare for the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

The ten officers now promoted to the highest rank of General are: PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Wang Guanzhong; Deputy Head of the PLA's General Political Department Yin Fanglong; PLA Navy Political Commissar Miao Hua; Commander of the Beijing Military Region Song Puxuan; Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region Liu Yuejun; Commander of the Jinan Military Region Zhao Zongqi; Commander of the Chengdu Military Region Li Zuocheng; and Political Commissar of the Nanjing Military Area Command Zheng Weiping. The others promoted were Zhang Shibo, President of the PLA National Defence University (NDU) and Wang Ning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF).

Of the ten officers promoted at least four are veterans with battle experience and service in Tibet. All four officers are assessed to be on track for further promotion. Zhao Zongqi participated in the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979 when he is reported to have often disguised himself as a Vietnamese to gather information. Born in 1955, Gen Zhao Zongqi has studied Arabic and has experience of foreign service having been posted to Tanzania as a defence attaché. He has even served as a military consultant for a drama serial on the PLA in 2006. He has served twenty years in Tibet and is a member of the 18th CCP CC. PAPF Commander Wang Ning, who has worked with Xi Jinping in Fujian, participated in the Sino-Vietnam War on the Yunnan border. A member of the Tibet Work Group, he has been promoted as General after only three years as Lieutenant General instead of the normal four.  Particularly important currently for India among these latest promotions to the rank of General, are the elevations of the Commanders of the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions, both exercising operational jurisdiction across India’s borders. While the Lanzhou Military Region’s jurisdiction includes the Ladakh sector, the Chengdu Military Region covers the rest of the Sino-Indian border. Interestingly, both the Commanders were in position at the time of the intrusions in the Depsang Plains and the Chumar area in Ladakh in April 2013 and September 2014 respectively, and their promotions confirm the assessment at the time that the intrusions were deliberate, planned and pre-mediated actions.  (Reference: ‘China Tests India in Ladakh’ New Indian Express dated Sept 25, 2014; & ‘China is placing key Generals on India border near Ladakh’, Sunday Guardian dated Jan 31, 2015).

60-year-old General Liu Yuejun, Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region (MR), has a blemish-free political record confirmed by his membership of the 16th, 17th and now 18th Central Committees of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He is one of the few PLA officers at this rank with battle experience having fought in the Sino-Vietnam war (1979) and seen active duty in the Fakashan conflict. Liu Yuejun, was appointed to the present post in October 2012, and is significantly, like Xi Jinping, a “princeling”. He additionally has solid military credentials as his father, Liu Yide was a Deputy Director of the Political Department of the 14th Group Army and his mother was a soldier. Liu Yuejun was also born in a military camp of the communist people’s army. Consequent to his promotion as General, he will be a contender for elevation to a higher post at the next Party Congress in 2017.

The Commander of the Chengdu Military Region (MR), General Li Zuocheng, was earlier Deputy Commander of the Military Region. Li Zuocheng, who is 60-years old, also has battle experience and was awarded a first-class merit when he was 26 years old for leading a PLA company to victory during the month-long Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979. He suffered injuries to his right arm during the conflict. He too will be in the running for appointment to higher office at the next Party Congress. A possible disadvantage for Li Zuocheng, however, could be that he is neither a full nor alternate member of the Party’s 18th Central Committee.

The promotions point to the attention being given by the Chinese leadership to the Sino-Indian border and to steadily enhancing and consolidating military preparedness in Tibet. In addition to preserving peace and stability in its restive south-western autonomous region, Beijing is ensuring adequate military presence against India. Last year Major General Zhang Jiansheng was promoted and posted as a Deputy Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region. He was the first officer from the South Xinjiang Military District in the last 22 years to be promoted directly to Lanzhou and was Commander of Ali Military Sub District (MSD) a decade ago. He brings to the Lanzhou Military Region Headquarters first­hand knowledge of the Tibetan plateau and the western areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

There has additionally been some interesting coverage of military matters relating to Tibet in China’s official media in recent months. Among the disclosures is the reported -- almost year round -- presence of J-10, J-11 and SU-27 aircraft in the Tibet region on either deployment or for exercises. Other reports have separately claimed that thirty two J-10 fighter aircraft were positioned for the first time in Tibet at the airfields in Lhasa and Hoping through the winter (Nov 20-Dec 25, 2014) and that Chinese fighter aircraft flew more than 1460 sorties last year.

An official Chinese media report in April 2015, claimed that the principle followed in the PLA’s deployment in the Tibet region is that of “lighter in the front, and heavier at the back”. It explained that there are three lines of defense. The first is the Border Defense Regiment, which is deployed nearest to the border; second is the Mountain Division whose objective is to safeguard Tibet; and the third comprises a division-level of Motorized Combat troops. Focussing on the need to augment rapid transportation capability in the Tibet region, the report observed that the third line of defense, or Motorized Combat troops, require a still faster mode of transportation for the troops.

This report also confirmed the strategic objectives of the dual-use road and rail transportation network being developed in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Observing that the troops are largely dependent on the construction of railway infrastructure, the report said that in August 2014, a new railway line from Lhasa to Shigatse had been officially operationalised. It noted that construction of a 402-kms long railway line from Lhasa to Linzhi began in December 2014. Stating that the Lhasa-Shigatse Rail line and Lhasa- Linzhi Rail line will connect the two extreme points of east and west in the region, it said this will enhance the PLA’s ‘deployment ability’ and ‘response capability’. The Tibet region, it added, will in future become the center of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

The report also referred to air power and transport and said that in the last few years China had successfully constructed a number of airports on the Qinghai plateau.  It said that among them there are 7 modern airports located in the TAR, where a significant number of J-10 and J-11 aircraft are deployed to create a “defense line” of air combat. It disclosed that there had also been a gradual rise in the number of J-10 aircraft deployed in the Gongga region adding that the HQ-9, a Chinese made air defense missile, has been deployed to provide safety and security for the airports and railways as well as to guard against the threat posed by the deployment of Indian aircraft on the border.

One recent official Chinese bulletin catering mainly to PLA personnel, discussed some of the military deployments in the TMD. Among the PLA Artillery Regiments deployed in the TMD it disclosed that Unit 7761 of the 308 Artillery Regiment is deployed in Lhasa; Unit 77678 is based in Nixi, Bayi village in Linzhi County; and Unit 77625 is deployed at Duilongdeqing County of Lhasa Municipality. It also listed the deployment of a few other PLA units directly under the TMD.  

Units Directly under Tibet Military District:15th Engineer Brigade (Dazi, Lhasa); Unit-77619,308 Artillery Regiment, Lhasa; Unit-77611,65th Air Defense Division, Lhasa; Unit-77616,16th Vehicle Regiment, Lhasa; Communications Battalion, Lhasa; Special Operations Division, Lhasa; Unit-77606,Lhasa。

52nd Mountain Division(Bayi village, Linzhi County), Unit-77675; Artillery Regiment (Nixi, Bayi village, Linzhi County) Unit-77678; 1st Battalion (Bujiu village, Linzhi County); 2nd Battalion (Yongjiu village, Linzhi County); 3rd Battalion (Yongjiu village, Linzhi County); 4th Battalion (Bujiu village, Linzhi County).

53rd Mountain Brigade(Linzhi City, Milin County),Unit-77680; Artillery Regiment (Jiage village, Linzhi City, Milin County) Unit-77683; First Battalion (Wolong village, Linzhi City, Milin County ); Second Battalion,(Gangga village, Linzhi County); 3rd Battalion ( Linzhi County),4th Battalion,(Wolong village, Linzhi City, Milin County).

54th Armoured Brigade (High Plateau Cavalry- Due to the outstanding contribution to the completion of major tasks on January 13 2010 the CMC Chairman Hu Jintao signed a circular note of merit)( Lhasa City, Duilongdeqing County), Unit-77625;  an Artillery Regiment; a mechanized infantry First Battalion; mechanized infantry 2nd Battalion;  a mechanized infantry 3rd battalion; Tank Battalion; Chemical Warfare Battalion.

Border Defense Regiment of the Military Sub-District under Tibet Military District (also the Independent Battalions):

1st Border Defense  Regiment (Shannan City, Longzi County) Unit-77629: China-India and China-Bhutan Border.

2nd Border Defense Regiment (Shannan City, Cuona County) Unit-77635: China-India, China-Bhutan Border.

Luoza County 5th Independent Battalion (Shannan City, Luoza County):China-Bhutan Border.

3rd Border Defense Regiment (Shigatse City, Tingri County) Unit-77639: China-India and China Nepal Border.

5th Border Defense Regiment (Shigatse City, Saga County) Unit 77646:China -Nepal Border.

6th Border Defense Regiment (Shigatse City, Yadong County) Unit-77649:China-India and China Bhutan Border. (Nathula outpost is the 1st outpost of South West, Zhangniangshe Outpost of the 6th Border Defense Regiment is the Yunzhong outpost).

Gyantse 1st Independent Battalion (Shigatse City , Gyantse County) Unit -77655:China-India and China-Bhutan Border.

Gangba 2nd Independent Battalion (Shigatse City, Gangba County) Unit-77656:China-India Border. (Chaguola Outpost is the High Plateau Red Border Defense Troops).

4th Border Defense Regiment (Chayu, Linzhi), Unit-77643:China-India Border.

Medog County 3rd Independent Battalion (Beibeng village, Linzhi City, Medog County);

Medog Garrison , Mofan Battalion,Unit-77659:China-India Border; and the

Milin 4th Independent Battalion (Nanyi Township, Linzhi City, Milin County):China-India Border.

 

Meanwhile, China continues to expand its strategic reach in this region and is extending its arterial communications network right up to India’s borders. China’s road and rail networks in Tibet are all dual-use strategic projects funded partially from the national defence budget. The Second Artillery, which has its own railway construction battalions, is often involved. Commenting that “high-speed rail lines are becoming a major transport force for the People’s Liberation Army”, the high-circulation, influential China Youth Daily (Zhongguo Qingnian Bao) said in January 2014 that “the Second Artillery (China’s strategic missile forces) could use the high-speed rail network to quickly deploy short-range missiles in a certain strategic direction”. Adding that the PLA has been using high-speed trains to move troops in exercises since 2009, the report said China “eventually will set up a high-speed network of eight lines extending in all directions”. Observing that a typical military train includes 16 high-speed rail cars that carry 1,100 lightly armed soldiers, the news report forecast that “with the daily improvement in China’s high-speed rail network, transferring a 100,000 person army 1,000 li [310 miles] might be possible within half a day in the future,” and that the PLA will utilise high-speed rail to project “mobile combat forces in various strategic directions.”

 

Official Chinese media reports have separately commented on China’s plans to extend the Lhasa-Shigatse railway. Plans call for the strategic rail-road network to radiate outwards from Lhasa to Kathmandu and further onward to Lumbini in Nepal. Survey work for the railway line from Shigatse to Kyirong on the Sino-Nepal border has been completed and construction work has already begun. Survey work is reported to be underway for extending this railway to Lumbini via Kathmandu. PLA railway engineers will be involved. PLA engineers can similarly be expected to be involved in construction of the second airport at Lumbini just across India’s border, for which a US$ 60.7 million contract has been awarded to the Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group of China. China’s military presence along India’s borders and Beijing’s involvement in India’s immediate neighbourhood will be further strengthened consequent to the award of these contracts by Nepal. 

 

An analysis of the military exercises conducted by the PLA in the last two years, except for the recent major exercises, is revealing. It suggests that the number of exercises reported to have been conducted by the Lanzhou MR slightly exceeded those by the Chengdu MR’s Tibet Military District (TMD). During the military activities and exercises held since 2013 especially noticeable was the use of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft and helicopters. Since November 2013, helicopters were noticed for the first time being used for regularly patrolling the borders across the Ladakh sector in the Ali MSD.  Also, in December 2013 new recruits were for the first time flown by chartered civil aircraft from Kashgar to the Ali MSD with official reports publicizing that henceforth troops will travel to this region only by air and not by road. From August 2014, PLAAF aircraft of the Lanzhou MR were reported to be engaging in ‘combat confrontation’ exercises including in ‘low meteorological conditions’. Beginning April 2015, J-11 and SU-27 aircraft of the PLAAF of Lanzhou MR came to notice regularly conducting exercises. A regiment of J-11 aircraft of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) commenced night combat training in Tibet on August 9, 2015. China's official media reported that groups of J-11 heavy fighters were seen taking off from Lhasa's Gongga airfield at twilight on August evening to engage in a confrontation drill. China's official media additionally reported that the regiment ‘has begun paying much attention to the training of air battle at night’, which has become a routine training program in its annual training plan.

China also recently flight-tested its latest Z-18 (White Heron) military transport helicopter developed by the Changhe Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) in Tibet when it broke a record by attaining an altitude of  9000 metres and flying above Mount Everest. Capable of carrying 27 passengers with a 2-man crew, the Z-18    is the second Chinese military helicopter after the Sikorsky S-70C, that can operate in the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Similarly regiments of the Second Artillery, Rocket Artillery and Armoured Brigade deployed in the Tibetan Plateau conduct regular training and ‘live-fire’ exercises under conditions of ‘informatisation’. On July 28, 2015 a Regiment of the Second Artillery conducted a live-firing exercise with "new artillery guns" at a location in the Tibet Plateau and at heights between 3700 metres and 4800 metres. The troops “prepared an environment for actual war situations” and conducted an "exercise to address the problems of Combat unit mechanical failure, electrical problems, battle damage repair, and to enhance the soldiers ability in battlefield command and also in practical use of equipments and to support the proper use of artillery. They also carried along 300 electrical equipments".

Apparently expanding the scope of the exercise, the PLA General Logistics Department (GLD) started its materials and POLs supply drill codenamed "Supply Action-2015" in the Tibet Autonomous Region on August 8, 2015. Separately, China's official news agency Xinhua reported on August 10, 2015, that the PLA Chengdu Military Area Command started a joint military drill code-named "Joint Action-2015D" in late July 2015 that entered its 'live fire' stage on August 10, 2015 "in a plateau area in southwest China's Sichuan Province". It disclosed this would be the first of five similar drills that will involve a total of more than 140,000 soldiers from over 140 PLA regiments of various types.

Continuing its emphasis on Joint Integrated Operations (JIO)’s, designed for the rapid deployment of self-contained troops equipped with heavy power to areas along the border, the PLA plans to complete more than 100 joint exercises involving over 50 army corps this year. He Qimao, head of the Joint Drill Bureau of the PLA General Staff Department's Training Department was quoted as saying that a "joint operation system" will be formed by the Chinese armed forces including army, navy, air force, artillery, armed police, intelligence, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

The unsettled, disputed border with India, restiveness in Tibet and Tibetan areas and Beijing’s determination to appoint a person of its choice as the XIVth Dalai Lama’s reincarnation are factors that will contribute to China continuing to keep its focus on Tibet.                                                                          

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(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)

 

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