China-India border dispute
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Xu Qiling is the new Western Theatre Command chief, overseeing border areas in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions since last month. Photo: Weibo

China puts rising star in command of forces in border face-off against India

  • New commander Xu Qiling is younger than his Western Theatre Command predecessor and has experience in four of the PLA’s five theatre commands
  • As tensions rise over border disputes, both countries build up troops, weapons and training
A rising star of the People’s Liberation Army has been sent to oversee the ground forces of the Western Theatre Command, where tensions are rising between China and India over border disputes.

Xu Qiling, former ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped posts with his counterpart He Weidong in the west, overseeing border areas in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions since last month, according to a report posted on the Western Theatre Command’s WeChat social media account.

“As tensions with India are escalating over border disputes, the Western Theatre Command needs a younger commander to lead frontier soldiers and officers in this current sensitive period,” a military insider, who requested anonymity, told the South China Morning Post.

“Xu is 57 years old, five years younger than his predecessor, He. The working environment in the Western high altitude is very tough and even young people age prematurely there.”

The insider said that after working for four years in the Tibetan Plateau, 63-year-old He’s new position in the Eastern Theatre Command was a more comfortable job before his formal retirement.

The latest tensions between China and India have further fuelled both countries’ build-up of troops and weapons to assert territorial claims at their disputed border areas in the Himalayas. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up advanced arms testing and training at high altitude.

The PLA and its Indian counterpart held top-level military talks on Saturday to resolve a stand-off between their troops in the Galwan River valley between Ladakh in Indian-administered Kashmir and Chinese-administered Aksai Chin.


China-India border situation 'stable and controllable', Chinese Foreign Ministry says

China-India border situation 'stable and controllable', Chinese Foreign Ministry says

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the latest border tensions meant the Western Theatre Command required someone familiar with joint operations between ground and air forces.

“All the fighting forces Beijing sends to the frontiers were trained for air-to-ground battles, which need a capable commander like Xu to lead them.”

Xu Qiling was chief of staff of the former 54th Army Corps, an elite PLA fighting force. He has worked in four of the five theatre commands. Photo: Weibo

Xu was chief of staff at the former 54th Army Corps, an elite PLA fighting force known for its involvement in the crackdown on a Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

The army corps was merged into the 83rd Army Corps in a military overhaul by President Xi Jinping in 2015.

Xu was one of the young generals promoted by Xi, who also chairs the all-powerful Central Military Commission, after Xi took the helm of the PLA in late 2012.

Xu has experience at four of the PLA’s five theatre commands. He was promoted to lieutenant general last year, one year after being sent to the head the ground forces in the Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the security of Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, as well as the East China Sea.

Tensions between the PLA and its Indian counterpart have heightened since a two-month military stand-off in Doklam – known as Donglang in Mandarin – in the summer of 2017. Doklam is claimed by China and Bhutan, an ally of India. Both Beijing and New Delhi have boosted their border defences.

“Xu’s new position in the Western Theatre Command is also a new test for him,” the insider said.

“If he can handle the China-India border disputes properly, he is very likely to be further promoted to grab a seat in the PLA’s ground force headquarters, or even more senior, in the future.”