New PLA Commander Across Our Northern Border: What Does General Zhang Bring to the Table?

On 18 December 2020, President Xi Jinping promoted four officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force to the highest rank of General.  This includes Zhang Xudong (张旭东) newly appointed Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which looks after the Line of Actual Control with India.  While the exact date when General Zhang took over from Zhao Zongqi is not known, it can be confirmed that General Zhao Zongqi tenanted the appointment till as late as end-September 2020, despite being due for retirement in April 2020. 

Not much is known about General Zhang Xudong.  His date of birth – Mar 1962 and native province – Liaoning reflected in Wikipedia cannot be corroborated from other sources.  This article deals with the knowns before proceeding to the realm of analysis and prognosis.

Knowns

Promoted as Major General in 2012, Zhang commanded the 115 Division which was part of erstwhile-39 Group Army* before being promoted as Chief of Staff of 39 Group Army and was appointed as its Commander in April 2014.  As Commander of 39 Group Army, he is credited with introducing standards for precise evaluation of combat effectiveness and conducted a Joint Campaign Planning Exercise of the 39 Group Army at Horqin, Inner Mongolia in October 2014.

Post-2016 reforms, he was appointed as Commander of Central Theatre Army prior to 18 Mar 2017 and later Deputy Central Theatre Commander in early-2018.  He was promoted as Lieutenant General on 01 Aug 2018 and was Deputy Commander of the Military Parade commemorating the 70th Anniversary of founding of China in 2019.

From the party status perspective, his elevation is unusual as he is neither a member nor an alternate member of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  In fact, other than Wang Chunning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force who is an alternate member of the Central Committee, the other three generals who have been promoted are neither members nor alternate members of the Central Committee. It is also known that he was Deputy Party Secretary of 115 Division and later 39 Group Army. 

He is likely to have co-authored an article titled Use the Party’s Innovative Theory to Focus on Military Education (用党的创新理论贯注部队教育官兵要做到这四点) with Zhou Wanzhu, then Political Commissar of Central Theatre Army, which was published by the PLA Daily on 22 Mar 2017. The article talks about the implementation of party’s innovative theory as expressed through speeches of Xi Jinping, using the Chinese dream to strengthen the Army, improvement of combat effectiveness to meet traditional and non-traditional threats and educating officers and soldiers on the same.

Analysis

PLA officers generally spend their complete career in the same military region. Thus, General Zhang would have spent the bulk of his career in the erstwhile-Shenyang Military Region, which covered the North Eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and was responsible for the Russian Far East and Korean Peninsula. The 39Group Army (including the 115 Division), a Type A Group Army** was responsible for contingencies in Korea and was amongst the first armies to fight UN troops in the 1952 Korean War.  While the terrain and weather are not comparable to North-Western Plateau, the Eastern part of Korean Peninsula is mountainous with sub-zero temperatures in winters and provides adequate experience for operations in mountainous terrain.

His command of 115 Division and 39 Group Army is also significant as Korean Peninsula underwent a period of heightened tensions around the same time, with North Korean nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016, sinking of South Korean naval ship Cheonan by a DPRK submarine in 2010, death of Kim Jong-Il and the political transition in North Korea in 2011, failed satellite launch by North Korea in 2012 and the joint US-South Korean announcement of deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in 2016.  In response, the Shenyang Military Region enhanced its military preparedness to intervene in the Korean Peninsula, if necessary, and both 115 Infantry Division and 39 Group Army under Zhang Xudong would have had a significant role if the PLA had intervened in the Korean Peninsula. 

The Central Theatre Command is responsible for defence of Beijing, providing security to CCP leadership and acts as the strategic reserve.  Thus, General Zhang as Army Commander and Deputy Commander of Central Theatre would be well versed with operational plans of WTC as well as shortcomings identified during the current crisis. It would also attest to his political reliability as the Theatre is also responsible for the security of Beijing.

The Jinan Military Region served as the testbed for PLA Army’s reforms in pre-Reforms era. It is likely that the Central Theatre Command, as its successor, is in the forefront of PLA’s experiments in Joint Operations in the post-reforms period providing him with significant experience in preparing for Joint Operations in addition to his earlier experiences with Joint Command Planning in 39 Group Army.

Change of commanders*** indicates that Beijing does not view conflict as imminent. However, it is likely that WTC would carry out a deep introspection of its operational plans and preparedness based on the current crisis. With the PLA issuing its Outline of Joint Operations recently and the Fifth Plenum Communique stressing the need to improve strategic ability to defend national sovereignty and achieve Centennial goals of PLA by 2027, PLA and WTC will undergo further reforms.

His appointment also confirms two trends observed in China and PLA.  One, of promoting little known personalities to higher levels to ensure their loyalty to President Xi Jinping. Two, of transferring senior PLA officers to other theatres on promotion to ensure that they do not create/ strengthen their power bases.

Prognosis

 

General Zhang brings with him expertise on mountain warfare, joint operations and crisis-management skills, tag of political reliability as well as the backing of Xi Jinping. He is well placed to rectify shortcomings identified in operational plans in the past eight months as well as ensure success of reforms in WTC. Thus, it can be expected that WTC under General Zhang would focus on preparing for a potential conflict with India at short notice****. In the interim, it can be expected that barring misunderstandings, WTC would not trigger a crisis, which it is not capable of handling. Two aspects however, need to be watched out for; one, the de-induction of formations which have inducted from other Theatre Commands to WTC during the current crisis and two, the elevation of General Zhang to the 20th CPC Central Committee in 2022.

Author’s Notes

* The 39 Group Army was redesignated as 79 Group Army and became part of the Northern Theatre Command following the 2016-reforms.

** The 18 Group Armies in the pre-reform era were classified into Type A and Type B Group Armies, with Type A Group Armies, well-equipped and fully manned with a higher state of operational preparedness. 

*** On 13 Oct 2020, Lieutenant General PGK Menon took over as General Officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Fire and Fury Corps, responsible for operations in Eastern Ladakh.

**** This does not necessarily mean war.  However, it must be kept in mind that prior to the 1962 War, formations had inducted as early as 1959 and by 1962, they were well-prepared.  The final decision for war was only taken (p.117) on 6 Oct 1962, just four days prior to the war.

The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely that of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement.  Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author.

A Critical Outlook on PLA’s AI Development Philosophy

Megha Shrivastava, Research Intern, ICS

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists have recognized Artificial Intelligence (AI) as part of the ongoing military revolution, which has immense potential to change the metrics of military power balance in the future and makes AI central to its military modernization plan. Lieutenant General Liu Gouzhi (刘国治), Director of Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, recognized the disruptive nature of the technology and warned that whosoever does not disrupt will be disrupted. Recently, the fifth plenum of the CCP released its Communique (October 2020), which has emphasized completing informatization and intelligentization by 2027, highlighting the applications of AI in its military modernization plan.

PLA defines AI weapon in its official dictionary as “a weapon that utilizes AI to pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets automatically; often composed of information collection and management systems, knowledge base systems, decision assistance systems, mission implementation systems, etc.” Some PLA thinkers anticipate that future warfare may be fought fully with unmanned autonomous and intelligent weapons systems, including robotic weapons.

PLA’s Initial Trajectory and Long-Term Plan

PLA’s careful study and analysis of the USA’s Third Military Offset Strategy has guided its approach towards AI. It has focused on developing advanced capabilities like unmanned swarms to gain a strategic advantage over the Pentagon’s military potential. Having a competing vision with the US, it is actively planning on accelerating and advancing its technological development with the strong support of the civilian sector through its ambitious Military-Civil Integration (军民融合) program to narrow the gap with US defense capabilities.

While the goals of both countries endeavour to reach the ‘Commanding Heights’ ((制高点), their paths are not the same. Rather, the PLA has adopted the strategy of ‘Overtaking on the Curve’ to catch up and bypass the US and Russia. Beijing will strive towards prioritizing defence innovation through military intelligentization (智能化) and Chinese ‘Superintelligence’ (Brain-inspired intelligence), which creates the fear of shaping an entirely new domain of cognitive warfare.

To catch up with its overwhelming aspirations, China’s 2019 Defence White Paper emphasizes early informatization (信息化), which will facilitate intelligentization in warfare (智能化作战). The PLA strategists visualize military applications of AI from intelligentized command and control or support to decision making. Some PLA strategists believe that in the future, the intelligentization of warfare may result in battlefield singularity (奇异), which will help in making the best use of human and machine capability.

Leveraging AI for Warfare

PLA defines war as a scientific concept that can be deconstructed, and AI is more suited to predict calculated outcomes or to identify the adversary’s vulnerable systems. Thus, the asymmetric thinking of targeting adversary’s vulnerability will remain a central theme in leveraging AI applications.

It is likely to leverage AI to strengthen its military capability not only towards intelligentization but also to gradually develop advanced autonomous and unmanned vehicles, war-gaming, and data fusion. Further, it will leverage the potential of associated technologies like 5G, Quantum computing, the internet of things, etc. to assist its strategies related to warfare in general and Information Warfare (cyber and electronic warfare) in particular. It can support and enhance PLA’s psychological warfare capabilities to target combatant’s behaviours and emotions.

PLA thinkers argue that AI should be used both kinetically and non-kinetically to dominate the information domain and target the enemy’s information networks. They believe that a ‘system of systems’ warfare will occur as a result of ubiquitous networks. These networks will diminish the distance between action, decision-making, and perception. With PLA recognizing that modern warfare is “system’s confrontation” (系统浓度) (a system versus system conflict) and information dominance is essential to achieve dominance in other domains, the emphasis on the application of AI to achieve information dominance can be understood. With such an edge, PLA seeks to pursue the style of mosaic warfare with Chinese characteristics. Its ultimate goal of leveraging AI is directed toward achieving a cognitive advantage over its adversaries while being able to defend its system of systems.

AI in Decision Making

On the question of keeping humans ‘in the loop’(在循环) of decision making, it is quite uncertain and may be too early to predict. However, strategic thinking towards AI predicts that PLA might increasingly favour intelligible and cognitive decision making rather than human judgments. They believe that PLA is likely to integrate command-and-control systems into built-in systems by designing and operationalizing plans in advance. Also, the PLA’s historical analysis of warfare is based on its study of military science that is focused upon war-gaming and simulation to arrive at critical military concepts. It will thus incorporate AI to formulate appropriate military theories and tactical decisions. This may also disrupt the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop given by Col. John Boyd, and that is also frequently discussed by PLA thinkers. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Bob Work believes the authoritarian regimes and those who believe in the weaknesses of humans and rely heavily on machines are more inclined to move toward fully autonomous weapons and to keep humans out of the loop. It is likely that the decision to put human ‘in the loop’, ‘on the loop’ or ‘out of the loop’ shall rather be determined based on the lethality and criticality of the system, and PLA may adopt a combination of all three to meet the perceived threat.

The Bigger Picture

At this stage, the extent to which militaries will be able to harness the potential of AI in decision making is difficult to predict. However, the ongoing military modernization process suggests that PLA will emphasize integrating AI in its reconnaissance and surveillance system, weapons systems and, command, control, and communication structures apart from training and supervision of personnel under its efforts to make PLA truly modernized by 2027. The High-End Laboratory for Military Intelligence (HELMI), which was set up at Tsinghua University in 2018, is serving as a breakthrough point for developing what China calls “AI superpower strategy”. Today, China is behind in AI and semiconductors, and present trends suggest that the gap will narrow soon in the future. These are the key government priorities, receiving enormous attention and investment.

Disruptions led by militarized AI will be decisive for the future of warfare. AI is here to stay and develop to surprising levels in times to come shaping military innovation, nature of the conflict, and warfare in the 21st century. Only time will tell whether the disruption will be China-led or American. If the PLA succeeds well in materializing the potential of AI, it will turn out to be a game-changer, thereby placing greater challenges for future military power balance, peace, and stability.

Book Review: Xi Jinping, 2020. The Governance of China III (English Version).

Beijing: Foreign Languages Press

Sreemati Chakrabarti, Vice-chairperson and Honorary Fellow, ICS

Writings and speeches of leaders of countries around the world and mainly in socialist states are normally called Selected Works. President Xi Jinping’s speeches have been  published with a different kind of name ‘The Governance of China’.  Perhaps someday a detailed explanation may come from the publishers and other political analysts about this title, however I will not make any guess why it is so.  This volume comprises mainly of writings and speeches delivered by the Chinese President who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, between October 2017 to January 2020.Very much like the writings and speeches of his predecessors Xi’s style is simple and intelligible to the ordinary person.

 To understand contemporary China such a volume can be a very important primary source material for research as well as to understand the priorities in terms of policies of the ruling dispensation. The volume’s first section is Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress on 18 October, 2017. Many scholars and analysts have already commented about this speech which runs into many pages and covers a wide range of subjects which President Xi considers significant for both the Chinese nation as well as the Chinese Communist Party. All through this Report President Xi refers to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Whereas ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a guiding  principle was upheld since the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping and the communist party of that period but adding the words ‘new era’ shows that Xi jinping wishes to recreate and rejuvenate some old policies taking into account the new and emerging realities of the Chinese social, political, economic, cultural and environmental situation. The long speech which runs into 79 pages in its English translation while covering a whole range of issues from innovations to culture to the armed forces to national reunification and so forth, seems to give a lot of stress on the role and significance of the Party. While it is natural that at the party congress which meets only once in five years the supreme leader will emphasize on party work to inspire and energise the junior most party worker yet the extent and intensity of Xi Jinping’s continuous stress on the party is almost unparalleled in the history of communism. The speech gives due importance to many other aspects of the social, economic and political life of people in the PRC but his call to the youth, I thought, was, remarkable. Towards the end of the speech, he says: “A nation will prosper only when its young people thrive; a country will be full of hope and have a great tomorrow only when its younger generations have ideals, ability, and a strong sense of responsibility. The Chinese dream is about the past, the present, and the future. It is the dream of our generation, but even more so a dream of the younger generation” (p.75).

A young Indian political scientist, Dr. Bhim Subba, who studies politics in China while summing up the Report has made the following comment, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ also called as Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined into the party doctrine/constitution as a guiding ideology. This is a part of a continuum which indicates that Xi like his predecessors wants his ideological innovation to be added to the party charter but after his name. The Report stressed on the party leadership to guide towards socialist modernization and the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Further, the Report also stressed on the Chinese people and the Party not to forget the ‘original mission’ (bu wang chuxin) of the Chinese communists through the alertness of the cadres, continuing by deepening reforms (rule of law) and strict governance (anti-corruption and rectification continues to make waves until this day). However, the most important pronouncement was the mentioning of the Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR) more than five times. This has become the bed-rock of Xi’s grand strategy of economic and foreign relations since 2013 and more vigorously post-19th party congress in 2017.”

Other noticeable points that Xi Jinping makes in his speech include supporting a new generation of entrepreneurs and giving a boost to the private sector (p.315). For readers who may be interested in knowing President Xi’s ideas on diplomacy and foreign policy it is necessary to point out that here also he focusses on strengthening the CPC’s leadership role (pp.489-499). The volume includes Xi’s speeches at all major international events like the SCO, BRICS Business Forum, APEC CEO Summit, G20 as well as the Asian Civilizations Dialogue, (which this reviewer had the opportunity to attend), among others.

In my opinion, however, the most significant, relevant and with far-reaching consequences are the Chinese President’s views and policies on ecology and environment. Speeches  and writings on these issues are in the section called ‘Harmony between Humanity and Nature’.  Speaking at the National Conference on Eco-environmental Protection in May 2018, he states at the beginning of his speech that the major challenge facing Chinese society today “is the gap between the unbalanced and inadequate development and the ever-growing expectation of the people for a better life”. Since people of the country and their support are top priority it is absolutely necessary to promote environmental protection, preserve the ecosystems and provide more quality eco-products (p.417) When it comes to economic development it is important to adhere to the principle of giving priority to “conservation, protection and the restoration of nature. We should not think of taking from nature without giving back, developing without protecting, and consuming without restoring” (p419). One cannot overstress the significance of the above-mentioned statement. Development and progress without adequate precautions to keep the environment healthy is already haunting mankind. At this stage if corrective measures are not taken the future of humanity will be jeopardized. In this speech the President urges and pleads to protect the environment as one protects one’s eyes and life. Insisting that environmental quality cannot be allowed to drop further, it should only improve, he warns that local Party and government functionaries will be held directly accountable if in their areas of work ecosystems are badly damaged and there is deterioration in the quality of the environment (p.420). In this speech he mentions that “each and every individual is a protector, builder and beneficiary and so  should not be a bystander, an outsider or a critic” (p.421). Towards the end he makes a commitment that China will be heavily involved in global environmental governance and actively take part in the transformation to help form global solutions to eco-environmental protection and to sustainable development. (p.423). 

In the same speech President Xi refers to the ever-important issue of air and water pollution. Stating that air pollution is top priority he reminds the audience that China has made a promise to the international community that before hosting the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics air quality will be improved. Specifically targeting the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region and its surrounding area, the Yanztze River Delta, and the Fenhe-Weihe river Plain would be essential for a substantial improvement in air quality which he calls an “unconditional requirement ….to bring back blue skies” To achieve this it will be necessary to eliminate individual coal-fired boilers and suspend operations of outdated coal-fired power plants and then transform and upgrade them. On controlling water pollution Xi Jinping suggests that all urban water bodies need to be cleaned up and in particular the Bohai sea water must be improved and the Yangtze River ecosystem should be protected and restored. In addition, soil pollution control can be done through promulgating and implementing a law to enforce the action plan (pp.427-29).

This section on environment and ecology also consists of the inaugural speech President Xi delivered on April 2019 at the International Horticulture Exhibition in Beijing. Since this event was attended by many foreign heads of governments and other dignitaries he urges all nations to join hands to meet the common challenges, he says “Only together we can effectively address climate change, marine pollution, biological conservation, and other global environmental issues, and achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (p.436). Towards the end of this speech he mentions that China is prepared to work with other countries “to create a better homeland and a global community of shared future.” (p.437). The last sub-section on this subject is the Chinese president’s speech at the Forum on Eco-conservation and quality Development of the Yellow River Basin. Here he emphasizes on improving water conservation and preventing potential hazards due to too much sediment in the Yellow River.

Overall, the selection of speeches on ecology and environment made by the publishers is rather commendable as it gives the reader a very comprehensive picture of the policies and priorities of the Chinese leadership on a matter which has world-wide consequences.