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The intent behind the PLA’s ‘Joint-Military Exercises’

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 30, 2007

    A China Daily news item on November 22, 2007 states that both China and India will hold their first joint-army exercise in Yunan province of Southwest China in December. The piece titled “China-India Plan Joint Military Exercise” highlights the pledge of both the Chinese and Indian Prime Minister’s intent to push the Sino-Indian strategic partnership to a “new level”. Given the political value and media attention, the nature of this forthcoming exercise is seen as a “need” to fortify a sense of confidence between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

    Strategic observers in India are anxious to compute the benefits that the Indian army can generate given the PLA’s calculative and well-planned strategy of pushing its military diplomacy through “exchange” and “joint-exercises” with other militaries. Importantly, it remains to be seen whether this proposed first joint-army exercise would bring any difference to Sino-Indian strategic relationship at all.

    The recent upswing in military ties between China and India focus upon two contentious issues: counter-terrorism and joint-army exercise. It was decided earlier this year during the Army Chief J.J.Singh’s visit to China that 100 Indian soldiers will be sent to China to participate in the proposed “counter-terrorism” drill. While the two navies have previously conducted a handful of joint-exercises, this will be the first time the two armies will rub shoulder to shoulder since the 1962 war. Given the recent Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh, China’s close proximity with Pakistan army and the unresolved border dispute, this proposed “counter-terrorism” drill is seen in many quarters as a Chinese eagerness rather than a totally bilateral initiative. In fact, the first proposal for a joint military exercise in Sino-Indian defence engagement came from the Chinese side in January 2001 when Li Peng visited India.

    The contours of Chinese military diplomacy which rests on “joint-exercises” and “military exchanges” in recent times is clearly evidenced in various writings of the Chinese scholars and official papers. For example, in an editorial piece in the People’s Daily on 27th September, Yang Chengjun, a researcher with the Second Artillery Force of the PLA wrote, “…exchanges with foreign armies will expose China’s military forces to other types of military expertise, ideas and technologies”. This corresponds to a similar piece on 2nd July in the military newspaper PLA Daily which quotes Sun Haiyang, an expert from the unit of the Second Artillery Force that “through joint military exercise, we can learn from foreign armies and get acquainted with their advanced military theories and equipments and then we will try to find our own weakness and deficiencies…” Likewise, defending its military engagements with other countries, the official 2006 Chinese defence White Paper mentions that ‘China has military ties with more than 150 countries and has placed its military attaché offices in 107 countries’.

    As per the Chinese official estimation, from 2002 to the end of 2006, PLA had 16 military exercises with 11 countries. However, PLA’s ability to continue to foster these “joint-military” exercises speaks about a two-pronged approach of its military diplomacy. On the one hand, PLA has taken initiatives to reassure others of its “peaceful” intentions through “exchange” and “joint-exercises” and on the other, it is cultivating ‘multi-talented’ young commanders to familiarize with foreign militaries and cope with the necessities of China’s new military revolution. In fact, one could say that in order to alleviate worries and criticisms of the “opaque” nature of its defence modernisation, PLA’s tactics is to use “joint-military” exercises as a diplomatic tool. Added to this, PLA’s current focus is on enhancing joint-training to advance the integrated joint operational capabilities of different services and arms.

    Over the years, the military leaders have given priorities to a range of “joint-military exercises” which falls under their military modernization and reforms package. As a result, special interests have been given to search and rescue operations, training for high-tech wars, counter-terrorism, etc., to advance the interests of the PLA. In terms of intention, the PLA is interested for greater interactions with other well-trained soldiers to get a sense of their training and skills. In fact, going deeper into the “joint-exercises” practice, a salient feature of the Chinese military diplomacy is to allow PLA to participate in countering non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, and maritime piracy issues.

    The proposed joint-exercise initiative between China and India is a carry-over of the first defence MoU signed on May 29, 2006 which explicitly mentions important contacts such as “frequent exchanges”, “an annual defence dialogue” and “joint-military exercise” in the fields of search and rescue, anti-piracy and counter-terrorism”. In fact, the proposed “counter-terrorism” drill serves the Chinese interest in primarily two ways: first, China’s own concern regarding separatist activities in Xinjiang and Tibet; and second, China’s counter-terrorism preparedness just before the 2008 Olympics. From the Chinese perspective, this exercise would go a long way in learning the Indian military’s tactics and methods in countering the insurgency in Kashmir. However, it has to be seen whether the exercise would reflect an evolving Sino-Indian security framework or simply a routine engagement at the defence level.