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China to fortify border defences with focus on Tibet and Uighur region

December 21, 2015

By Ananth Krishnan

India Today, December 20, 2015 - An on-going reorganisation in China's military that will unify two separate military commands currently in charge of guarding the border with India could see as many as one-third of all China's land troops stationed in this expanded new western zone, a report said on Sunday.

While China's 8.5 lakh land forces are currently spread across seven military area commands - of them two western commands, the Lanzhou and Chengdu regions, are tasked with the western and eastern sectors of the border with India respectively, besides Myanmar, Russia and a number of Central Asian countries - a major on-going overhaul of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is expected to create five new military zones directly under the command of the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping.

The move comes amid reforms to centralise and modernise the PLA to make it a smaller, nimbler and more high-tech military.

While the details of the reorganization are expected to be announced in coming weeks, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday citing military sources that as many of one-third of all land forces may be included in the new West zone.

The new sprawling West zone will stretch across more than half of China's territory: covering frontiers from Myanmar in the south to India and Central Asian countries in the west, and all the way north to Russia, and including the two vast and troubled regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

This zone will be created by unifying the Lanzhou and Chengdu commands, and will for the first time bring both the western and eastern sectors of the border with India under one command.

While the reorganization holds significance for border defences, military sources told the South China Morning Post that internal security considerations were a prime factor in the reorganization.

"The West combat zone will concentrate on threats in Xinjiang and Tibet and other minority areas, close to Afghanistan and other states that are home to training bases for separatists, terrorists and extremists," a military source was quoted as saying.

This could mean fortifying defences in the western Xinjiang region, which borders India, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and other countries. Xinjiang has seen intermittent violence, which China has blamed on separatist Uighurs and suggested some have received training in camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Underlying the importance of Xinjiang in this reorganization, the PLA may consider shifting the nodal centre of its entire western operations from Chengdu and Lanzhou, where two commands are currently based, to Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, which, according to the report on Sunday, could become the new headquarters of the PLA's West zone.

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