There is abundant evidence, from online social media releases of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and state-controlled media, that the Chinese military has intensified efforts to modernize ground units in the Xinjiang Military District.
The Xinjiang Military District is one part of the Western Theater Command. The latter boasts some 90,000-120,000 ground troops, principally divided into the 76th and 77th Group Armies (headquartered in the interior cities of Chongqing and Baoji respectively), according to research by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in the USA.
However, the Western Theater Command does not possess direct ground operational authority in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Instead, both these high-altitude regions have their very own army-directed military districts to control the security situation.
The Xinjiang Military District itself contains some 50,000-60,000 army troops, according to Dennis Blasko, a former US Army attache to Beijing and Hong Kong. Other analysis, such as that by the Belfer Center, believes the PLA has 70,000 ground troops in the district. Whichever figure is true, the fact is that Xinjiang Military District owns more troops than Tibet does, which controls an estimated 40,000 soldiers.
Interestingly, the Xinjiang Military District in the far west of China has perpetually been something of a pauper when it comes to receiving the newest military equipment. This is probably because of a number of different reasons, chief amongst them being that the PLA is geared primarily for a conflict with Taiwan, and so units near that island nation are prioritized for the most modern combat gear. Additionally, Xinjiang’s borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan are relatively secure, with no direct threat of cross-border intrusions.
An order of battle compiled from several sources comes up with the following units in Xinjiang Military District: three motorized infantry divisions (the 4th, 8th and 11th Motorized Infantry Divisions); the 6th Mechanized Infantry Division; a special operations brigade; the 2nd Artillery Brigade; a “high-powered artillery brigade; two infantry regiments (the 1st and 2nd Independent Regiments); the 13th Air Defense Brigade; an engineer regiment; the 3rd Aviation Brigade; an intelligence/reconnaissance brigade; and additional logistics units.
There are also two border defense regiments (12th and 13th Border Defense Regiments). The PLARF has 646 Brigade near Korla. The brigade was known to have DF-21C medium-range ballistic missiles, but it seems likely the brigade has been re-equipped with the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile. PLA units are dispersed widely around Xinjiang, China’s largest province that spans a staggering 1.6 million square kilometers.
Right up till last year, these units were predominantly equipped with older equipment such as Type 88 main battle tanks, Type 63 armored personnel carriers and elderly towed artillery pieces. These are in no way cutting edge, especially compared to some of the flashy new gear appearing in other combined arms brigades in more favored PLA units and theaters.
However, 2021 has been an exciting one for PLA soldiers in the Xinjiang Military District! Waves of new combat systems are rolling in to help modernize key units in the province. Of course, Chinese state media likes to herald such new arrivals, since it contributes to state propaganda efforts. However, it is useful to note in detail what new systems have already been inducted before the first half of 2021 has even concluded.
Most recently, in May, delivery of new PHL-03 multiple rocket launchers was reported. It is likely that these 8×8 truck-based rocket launchers were delivered to the “high-powered” artillery brigade, since the PHL-03 is a key artillery system in the PLA. Video footage revealed ten such PHL-03 MRLs arrayed at a commissioning ceremony, along with four trans-loader vehicles and four support trucks.
Also new in May for Xinjiang appears to be the PCL-161 self-propelled howitzer. The PCL-161 is a 122mm-caliber howitzer installed on a 4×4 lightly armored truck chassis. These have probably been rolled out to one or more of the district’s motorized infantry divisions. The advantages of the PCL-161 are enormous compared to existing lumbering towed howitzers that take time to set up and depart from a firing position.
Just three months earlier, the PCL-181 self-propelled howitzer arrived in Xinjiang. An even more sophisticated artillery piece for the PLA, the PCL-181 is mounted on a 6×6 truck chassis and it boasts a 155mm-caliber gun. This type of mobile, wheeled system would be distributed to artillery brigades to again replace obsolete towed howitzers.
Artillery systems like the PHL-03, PCL-161 and PCL-181 enjoy greater digitization than their predecessors. They are typically accompanied by command-and-control and reconnaissance vehicles, as well as medium-altitude drones in the air. This networked capability results in targeting and fire missions that are far more precise. Taken together, then, these new artillery assets are critical to beefing up the PLA in China’s far west.
What about armored vehicles? Significantly, Chinese Type 15 light tanks – the term “light tank” is relative, for the vehicle still weighs 35 tons – were first observed in Xinjiang in February. Photos showed that at least ten of these ZTQ-15 tanks had been delivered, with the likely recipient being the 6th Armor Regiment of the 6th Mechanized Infantry Division. These tanks are more maneuverable in mountainous terrain thanks to their nimbleness and weight compared to a heavier and larger main battle tank.
Instead of older vehicles like the tracked Type 63 armored personnel carrier, footage of the much more modern ZBL-09 8×8 infantry fighting vehicle with 30mm cannon was finally released in May. A CCTV article said the ZBL-09 type had been issued to a combined arms brigade in Xinjiang, with live-firing practice taking place near the Karakorum mountain range. This Type 09 family of combat vehicles is diverse, with all kinds of variants in service, but the 8×8 wheeled vehicle allows units to move quickly by road.
With Chinese media having announced that a Type 09-based ambulance was already serving in Xinjiang, it was only a matter of time before news of main combat vehicles of the family (like the ZBL-09) be released as well. It is still unclear which unit(s) has received the ZBL-09, but it will presumably be one of the motorized infantry divisions.
Meanwhile, the PLA’s 84th Army Aviation Brigade based in Wujiaqu also has the very latest helicopter types in service. CCTV footage from February showed Z-20 and Z-8G helicopters performing a mission with several Z-10 attack helicopters.
The Z-20, a blatant copy of the American Black Hawk platform, is the newest addition to the PLA helicopter fleet. It was designed for optimal performance at high altitudes, making it well suited to flying in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Z-8G, meanwhile, represents the latest generation of the long-serving Z-8 helicopter family.
When we put all these revelations together, we can sense huge impetus to PLA efforts to beef up its fighting capability in Xinjiang. But why?
It is obviously a reaction to last year’s tensions with India along the Line of Actual Control. Whereas Tibet had been prioritized for new equipment long before Xinjiang was, “ugly stepsister” Xinjiang was finally thrust into the limelight after India refused to back down against Chinese territorial aggression in the areas of Galwan and Lake Pangong in 2020. Instead of forcing the Xinjiang Military District to respond with elderly, and probably dilapidated in some cases, equipment, the PLA has urgently funneled equipment such as artillery, armored vehicles and helicopters into Xinjiang.
One could argue that this equipment was going to trickle down to Xinjiang in any case, but last year’s border confrontation definitely seems to have sped up the process and given it greater urgency. Indeed, it is rather impressive, and scary for China’s neighbors, to see how rapidly the PLA can manufacture and distribute new systems.
Of course, it is possible that China is waging a carefully calculated propaganda campaign to intimidate neighbors like India. It may be that the new equipment is not reaching Xinjiang in large numbers, and that its arrival in small batches of equipment is simply being milked to maximum effect.
Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that the PLA has been rapid in its development, manufacture and distribution of new equipment. While Indian Ministry of Defence procurements remain mired in red tape and bureaucratic inertia, the PLA is forging ahead. Chairman Xi Jinping has prioritized the modernization and mechanization of the PLA, and that this is happening is undeniable even in former forgotten backwaters like Xinjiang.
General Zhao Zongqi, former head of the Western Theater Command, stepped down in December 2020, after nearly five years in the job. He was replaced by General Zhang Xudong, who prior to that had been commander of Central Theater Command ground forces.
Intriguing is the role of Lieutenant General Xu Qiling, who Chinese media reported on 1 June 2020 had taken up the post of commander of Western Theater Command ground forces. Xu, formerly serving in the Eastern Theater Command, essentially swapped posts with incumbent He Weidong. This lateral exchange is a most unusual occurrence, and the fact that it was reported during a time of tensions suggests he may have been called in as a firm hand to oversee PLA activities. Blasko described it as “a strange move in the middle of a crisis”.
Speaking of the border tensions with India, the Belfer Center noted: “This means that China is regularly operating with a permanent Indian conventional force advantage along its border areas. In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theater Command forces deeper in China’s interior. By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position.”
Of course, one way of overcoming this numerical disadvantage along the Indian border is to beef up the equipment issued to Xinjiang Military District with more modern replacements, as we indeed see occurring.
The Nanjiang (Southern Xinjiang) Military District is responsible for the Aksai Chin area along the Indian border. The 6th Mechanized Infantry Division with 10,000-13,000 personnel is important since it is the closest to Aksai Chin, the location where last year’s Galwan Valley bloodbath occurred. Notably, only one Chinese highway (called G219) leads into the area.
Once border defense and other services like the PLA Air Force and PLA Rocket Force are included, the Western Theater Command possesses some 235,000 personnel.
According to Blasko, however, only a “small fraction is deployed near the Indian border, primarily because the restrictive mountainous terrain and high altitude limit the effectiveness, and increase the vulnerability, of large mechanized formations. This terrain favors the defense over mechanized attack confined to valley floors, especially if the defense is from fortified emplacements on the high ground.”