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IDSA COMMENT

China-India Joint Military Drill: Time for a Review

September 02, 2013

Yet another joint military exercise between China and India! What for? Given the recent tensions following the PLA’s border incursion, not many would have expected that the two countries would carry out a joint military exercise so soon. But it’s official now. As part of the confidence-building measures (CBMs), the two countries will hold the third joint army counterterrorism exercise, codenamed “Hand-to-Hand” from 4-14 November 2013, in the Chengdu Military Command Area in Sichuan. The previous two army exercises were held in 2007 and 2008 in Kunming, Yunnan province and Belgaum in Karnataka respectively. The main aim of this exercise is to practise counter-insurgency and counterterrorism drills under the UN mandate.

Joint exercises are an important part of the contemporary military diplomacy. The proposal to have joint exercises between the two militaries was first mooted by Premier Li Peng when he visited India in January 2001. The 2006 MoU stressed a number of facts like “joint military exercises” in the field of anti-piracy, counterterrorism and field search-and-rescue operations, “annual defence dialogue” and “frequent exchanges” of the highest level military officials and leadership visits between the two sides.

Without doubt, joint military exercises between China and India are vital for building trust especially in times of high suspicion and hostility. It needs to be noted, however, that counterterrorism is not currently a priority issue in the two countries relations. Besides, the two previous exercises have not improved trust or confidence between the two militaries. They have been merely symbolic. The 2007 exercise was partially important, given that the issue of terrorism was much discussed in China, which spoke of three evil forces – terrorism, separatism and extremism – particularly in Xinjinag and its adjacent region. That prelude exercise set the momentum for China-India defence ties and a range of trust building activities was noticed at bilateral level in the year 2008.

The year 2008 was important for China-India defence relations, as a series of high-level bilateral exchange of military visits were carried out that year. Also, the IAF Suryakiran Aerobatic Team (SKAT) participated in the 7th International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in the Zhuhai Air Show in China and the two countries held their second annual defence dialogue that year (the first dialogue was held in November 2007 in Beijing). But the diplomatic warmth raised through the military ties suddenly cooled, following China’s visa denial to the Northern Army Commander in 2010. In protest, India suspended the defence exchanges with China. After a gap of five years, the two sides have again decided to resume joint exercises, and during Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit in July 2013, a formal announcement was made in this regard reiterating the need for both the armies to organize counterterrorism exercises and expressed an interest in greater level of interactions at naval and air force levels.

Compared with the “Peace Mission” counterterrorism exercises that are being held between China and Russia almost regularly, the “Hand-to-Hand” exercises is limited and lacks a proper institutional mechanism. The “Peace Mission” exercises, one of the main CBMs between China and Russia vis-à-vis Central Asian countries under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), have been more of an institutional process and have helped the two countries to build military trust and counter terrorism in Xinjiang and the adjacent Central Asian region. These exercises between China and Russia are a reference for many countries on how to carry out effective joint exercises and foster defence relationships.

Two observations need to be made here in the context of China-India joint counterterrorism exercises. First, given the recent incursion on the China-India border, one needs to ask whether these joint military exercises hold any strategic significance for bilateral ties. Besides, there must be a thorough review of the mode and operational details of this exercise. While these exercises certainly help both sides to normalize the tense situation, these have so far been superficial and fall short in building confidence between the two sides. If the two sides decide to resume and persist with these exercises, they must be made an annual affair or even bi-annual. This will keep both the armies engaged at the ground level and help in reducing the tense situation in the border region. Second, as expressed, counterterrorism is not a top priority in China-India relations. Both the militaries have numerous issues to address at the operational level and therefore should raise the level of engagement to include, for example, responding to natural disasters and carry out humanitarian activities jointly. Both are constant victims of natural calamities.

For India, the mode of carrying out these joint exercises with the Chinese army holds utmost strategic relevance. India must take serious note that despite the Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) mechanism, military exchange of visits and joint training exercises, incursions in the border regions have increased over the years. Besides, India must comprehend the mode and ethos behind the Chinese interests in carrying forward these joint exercises. The main contours of the PLA’s military diplomacy in the recent past have been to carry out “joint exercises” and promote frequent “military exchanges” with overseas militaries. For instance, China’s new White Paper titled "The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces", released in April 2013, stressed the pragmatic approach that the PLA has pursued in recent times to understand and carry out joint missions with overseas militaries. The PLA has pursued active military diplomacy in recent times, the main thrust of which has been to conduct all-round military exchanges, intensify CBMs, promote dialogue on maritime security, joint training exercises, counterterrorism operations, participate in the UN peacekeeping missions, etc. The 2013 White Paper states that the PLA has carried out 28 joint exercises and 34 joint training sessions with 31 countries since 2002. The PLA’s stress on joint exercises is also a part of the Chinese military’s sustained effort to push the modernization programme. The idea is to familiarize itself with foreign militaries and give adequate international exposure to the young soldiers. India must see if it can push forward a similar pragmatic approach in its military diplomacy.

It’s time to institutionalize the process of joint exercises between China and India. The navies from the two countries have carried out joint exercises earlier and the air forces from both sides should similarly do so. Military CBMs cannot be promoted half-heartedly or incompletely.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.