PLA: Reading Tea Leaves1
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Any study of PLA gets hit by the wall of opacity or broad based sources, lacking as it is of military transparency and accountability. Xinhua or People’s Daily or Global Times tend to enjoy official patronage and state the official line in terms of content and credibility with clear limits of secrecy. There are but only very selective infringements by the uniformed fraternity on social media and leaks about internal deliberations are extremely rare. Typical secrecy fetish and a façade of showing all is hunky dory, especially at the top echelons, is the foundation on which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA rests. This may be also to allay any internal anxieties of the rank and file. It is important though to try to figure it out by piecing together and analysing snippets of information, as can be fused together.

The decision making apparatus in PRC lacks transparency, especially the civil-military chain. Who ordered the intrusions and aggression across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 and its continued unyieldingness to reason? It could be from the PLA’s military chain of command from local up to the Western Theatre, the political commissars chain, the Central Military Commission (CMC) or the State Council, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) or the President himself! One might query as to how it matters, however, in managing crises to prevent escalation and interpret the resolve, it is essential to comprehend how the adversary makes decisions. Since casualties have taken place on the LAC (15 June 2020), the military forces are opposing face-to-face in many sub-sectors and bullets were fired after many a decade, it is essential to delve into the PLA. Indeed as this is a wholesome exercise, hence only four major issues are being taken up.

Firstly, general unawareness about the foreign and security policy-making apparatus can worsen or enhance the lack of trust. As it is, CCP has seemingly become more powerful under President Xi Jinping, than the State Council - China’s cabinet. Parallel to the Central Military Commission (CMC), the Central Foreign Affairs Commission CFAC (previously the Central Foreign Affairs Leading (Small) Group) exercises oversight and takes decisions on matters related to foreign affairs since established in the National People’s Congress of March 2018. This CFAC is chaired by CCP General Secretary and President Xi Jinping, assisted by Premier Li Keqiang as deputy director and PBSC member Yang Jiechi (the previous State Councillor). It can be construed as enlarged CCP control over foreign policy. With Chairmanship of both CMC and CFAC under one head, the President, the decision making on foreign and security policies remain under singular control. Hence, the decision for Eastern Lakakh intrusions or the Five Point Consensus signed in Moscow in September 2020 would have origins in these organs.

Secondly, PLA, a fundamental part of the Chinese Dream, is an armed wing of the CCP rather than a national military.2 President Xi Jinping has unfolded since 2013 a vicious, vigorous and unprecedented anti-corruption campaign in the PLA. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng of General Services Department was dismissed for suggesting nationalization of the PLA by placing it solely under the People’s Government (State Council) instead of the CCP. A great purge has been on in the PLA over the last six years. In January 2015, Chinese Ministry of Defense made public a list of 16 high ranking corrupt PLA officers. The eight major areas, which account for over 90 percent of cases of military corruption are, personnel (in other words, bribes taken in exchange for promotions), financial management, construction, fuels, procurement of goods and military equipment, health services, real estate and hospitality. Among those removed are many high-ranking targets, most notably two former CMC vice chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, because of corruption. The National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) accepted the resignations of Lt Gen Rao Kaixun and Maj Gen Xu Xianghua for "serious disciplinary violations" - a euphemism for corruption. China's former PLA Chief Gen Fang Fenghui and was also member of CMC, will be prosecuted for corruption. Gen Zhang Yang also a member of the CMC, committed suicide as he also faced an anti-graft probe.

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) Chairman Hu Wenming was also arrested recently. Critics say that the anti-graft campaign also helped Xi consolidate his power in the military and the party. In a report it was stated that PLA has overseen the punishment to more than 13000 PLA officers, including 100 generals, for giving and accepting bribes. This corruption cleansing can be examined in three ways:

  • One. Though there would have been rampant corruption, it is likely that the primary goal is also continued expansion and consolidation of the President’s personal power over any challengers in China’s political and military bureaucracies. While there are valid reasons to move aggressively against rampant corruption, which has involved serious problems such as the buying and selling of promotions within the military, sidelining potential opposition to organizational change could turn out to be one of the most important. Targeting political rivals as financial miscreants, bribe-takers, or power-abusers is a time-tested way of dealing with them.
  • Two. What about the factions in PLA loyal to so many three and four star Generals? Having a substantial following comes but naturally in military service. Obviously many of the lower ranks would also have been removed due to factional considerations and other linkages. Hence, it is axiomatic to consider that this flushing out would have been far deep-rooted than that has been publicly reported. In any case, negative news rarely finds it to media in China; the closed legal system would consign the aberrant to lifelong obscurity.
  • Three. Would such an extensive purge, 13000 officers including 100 Generals, not affect army's morale, or make them ultra-cautious or all the time looking over one’s shoulder? Indeed so, as it is human to be wary, this should have imposed extra-ordinary caution and curbed initiative. The Army could easily get mired in a political loyalty campaign, administered through the military’s political commissar system. It may deprive military leaders creativity and shift their focus inwards.

Thirdly, a reason for anti-corruption campaign in the PLA is also to ensure the President’s absolute authority over the PLA, so that the military restructuring plan could be executed. In a speech on 03 September 2015 President Xi had announced that China would reduce the number of troops in the PLA by 300,000 to improve PLA’s ability to deter or coerce potential adversaries, and if necessary, to fight and prevail in future wars. In the theaterisation that followed, the PLA Army (PLAA) got the maximum cuts, as the others kept expanding, and hence lost in importance vis-à-vis the other forces. The powerful, army-led general departments (zongbu, in charge of operations, promotions, procurement) and military regions (junqu, regional army commands) were replaced by joint departments (lianhebu) and theatre commands (zhanqu, also joint). This implies a major shift in the prosecution of war fighting as planned in China henceforth.

Fourthly, though often repeated, there is indeed a lack of experience for the PLA. Much of the PLAA’s experience comes from peacekeeping, cooperative exercises some bilateral and multilateral, and disaster response, which cannot compensate for realistic experience in actual combat. A large body of evidence in China’s official military and party media indicates the nation’s senior civilian and uniformed leaders recognize significant shortcomings in the war fighting and command capabilities of the PLA. The Chinese media frequently urges the troops to overcome the “peace disease” (hépíng bìng, 和平病), “peacetime habits” (hépíng jīxí, 和平积习), and “peacetime practices [or problems]”. Troops, units and formations are invariably located in plush barracks, garrisons and military complexes, in proximity to cities and large townships. President Xi had made a call to the PLA to become able to “fight and win” and “cure the peace disease.” Though PLA has been restructured, there ought to be shortage of officers with in depth knowledge of joint combat operations. PLA has deployed many cutting-edge weapons (like the Type15 tank), but would there be units and formations experienced to use many of those advanced weapons? Best equipment does not function on its own, requires best soldiers with knowledge and expertise to make the best use of it. The PLA has not officially released a new generation of operational regulations - their euphuism for Doctrine.

Should Indian forces be sceptic about the PLA’s ability to win a local war with their slogan of “be able to fight and win wars”? Relevant herein would be the immense experience of the Indian forces in war fighting in super high altitude or the inhospitable terrain and weather. It is argued that with a lack of confidence in PLA capabilities, especially on matter of land wars, Chinese leadership would prefer to achieve China’s national objectives through deterrence and actions short of war. PLA could seek to augment its deterrence posture, by its large strides in technological warfare and stand-off weaponry, in a manner to achieve China’s political objectives without fighting, conducted by a combination of civilian, government, paramilitary, and military forces.

Hence, having read this situation, and in hindsight of Eastern Ladakh, the CCP/ PLA leadership would take cognisance and based on its stated timeline, would undertake doctrinal and training experimentation and structural adjustments until 2035 when, the military modernization has to be completed. However, in the interim, should deterrence and coercion not produce the expected results, and a conventional war - limited or total ensues; the CCP leadership will have to prove their march towards modern warfare. PLA then will perforce have to undertake war fighting using an admixture of existing capabilities, combined with modern high and disruptive technologies as tested and available, integrated with civilian assets to prove the point. Kinetic and non-kinetic warfare may be planned well beyond force-on-force engagement on the territorial sphere. It may utilise potent precision guided munitions, hypersonic weaponry, drone swarms, autonomous systems and stealth operational capabilities delivered by multi-modes- ground, air or projectiles. The wars prosecuted may also be wholly non-kinetic in nature, given the modern warfare domains of information warfare, space, cyber and electronic spectrum.

For India, we have to build on our strengths, and accept the all importance of disruptive technologies in modern warfare. Salience and preparations for modern conventional kinetic war cannot put on back-burner; substantive offensive capabilities, duly acclimatised, trained and kitted force, must be available for achieving ‘across the hump’ success and consolidation. This requires India to harden its systems against premature destruction and create redundancies. Indian Armed Forces needs to focus on acquisition of modern kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, to withstand the onslaught from across, and have offensive capabilities to execute quid pro quo type of operations and more. India has to create ‘sunrise’ offensive kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities across the mountains too, with the corollary that ‘sunset’ capabilities, like the linear war-fighting will have to be retained at least till mid-term. That is, Indian Armed Forces need to create a robust, capable, and adaptable operational system of its own, to fight a modern war.

As a tailpiece, the repeated mention of 1959 Line clarifies quite a few issues of the LAC. This Line is China’s maximalist position on the border, and the transgressions were apparently attempting to reach that Line. In fact, PLA may have reached this Line in Hot Springs Area and North Bank of Pangong Tso. There is transgression in Depsang but seemingly they are still well short of the Line. Also the Spanggur Gaps or Chushul Sector heights occupied by us as a pre-emptive, and also areas of Demchock and Chumar in Eastern Ladakh are areas part of his 1959 Line. Since PLA is not to the end of its claim, the aggression must not be deemed as having finished. This is the reason the Spanggur Gap heights irk the Chinese so much, with the aim under achieved. Obviously, the 1959 Line is not acceptable to us as LAC, period!

End Notes
  1. Loose tea leaves often settle and line the sides and base of the cup in unique shapes. The art of reading tea leaves (tasseography) is that it is then up to the reader to interpret these shapes. It is deemed as a divine or even magical process!
  2. Rakesh Sharma, The ‘Party’ that Controls the Gun, Vivekananda International Foundation, 23 July 2020, available at

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
5 + 15 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us