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Home > News > Columnists > Srikanth Kondapalli

Indo-China army drill is symbolic, more needs to be done

December 31, 2007

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Amid persistent reports about Chinese escalation of the Arunachal Pradesh issue in the last one year and increased transgressions of the border, the joint army training programme code-named 'Hand-in-Hand 2007' has wound up at Kunming Military Academy in southwest China between the 206-strong ground forces of India and China.

Although this symbolic measure has contributed to enhancing confidence building measures, it is difficult to believe whether this drill really enhanced mutual trust between the two militaries, or if it led to ushering in of a 'friendly border' between the two countries. For this to happen, both countries need to do a lot not based on the short-to-medium term convergence of interests currently (vis-�-vis Pakistan and Taiwan respectively) but in a long-term perspective.

While both militaries exhibited diplomatic niceties in praising the event, hard calculations abound on each side. Although India intended Chinese support to counter 'cross-border terrorism' (meaning opposing periodic infiltration from Pakistan) and wanted the drill to be conducted closer to Pakistan, China, keeping in view its 'all-weather' friend's sensitivities, followed a two-pronged strategy.

On the one hand, China successfully elicited concessions from India (as in the November 2006 joint statement) in opposing its version of 'three evils', while on the other hand shifted the geographical focus of joint training to areas far away from Pakistan, that is currently during this drill in Yunnan province. Since reports emerged about some Pakistan-based units' support to Uighur movement in Xinjiang, China also conducted joint counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan.

Interestingly, the main objectives of the current drill between India and China differ in the Chinese decision-making process. While the Chinese military suggested that the aim of this programme is to 'safeguard regional stability and security', the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman suggested that this drill is aimed 'to enhance mutual understanding and trust and strengthen bilateral exchanges in the field of anti-terrorism, deter the 'three evils' [the Chinese code-words to oppose Uighur, Tibetan and Taiwanese movements] and promote the development of the bilateral strategic partnership'.

The Chinese military, which generally depicts India as a hegemon in South Asia and with an alleged intention to control the Indian Ocean in its desire to become a major power in the world, takes a policy position of confining India to the South Asia box through higher levels of interactions with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka [Images]. In conjunction with the 1962 war, these Chinese military positions have vitiated the South Asian regional security situation.

On the other hand, the civilian leadership's position differs, specifically as trade between the two countries increased in the last few years. Also, as Taiwan is preparing to conduct its referendum process to decide whether the island intends to enter the United Nations, China needs to tone down the harsh rhetoric on India so as to focus its energies in the Taiwan Straits.

The subjects in this training programme also indicated that these tasks are 'low level' missions in any military engagement. These included psychological training, crossing hurdles, shooting practices, rescuing hostages and eliminating an imaginary terrorist force of about 56 people and overcoming their plan to destabilise border trading post between the two countries. Interestingly, besides machine guns and mortars, both sides used tanks and helicopters to neutralise the 'terrorist camp'.

This training programme is qualitatively a downgraded version as compared to the Chinese military exercises with others such as with Russia [Images] (in August 2005), Pakistan (in 2005 at Taxkorgan area north of Sakshgam valley and in December 2006 at Abbotabad in Pakistan), Central Asian Republics (in August 2007). Also, comparatively the 'mutual trust' levels between these states are higher than the just concluded India-China drill. For instance, the level of integration and command between China and Pakistan/Russia/Central Asia is higher than compared with India.

This is not the first time that both the India and Chinese militaries are engaging with each other. In November 2003 both navies conducted search and rescue operation at Shanghai; on August 28, 2004, a joint mountaineering activity was conducted between the two armies; in December 2005 both the navies conducted once again a search and rescue operation at Cochin, while in April 2006 Indian naval ships visited Qingdao.

The triggers for this drill came during the then Indian defence minister's visit to China in May 2006 when a MoU was signed with the Chinese defence ministry to conduct joint military operations. This was reiterated during the then Indian Army Chief General JJ Singh's visit to Beijing [Images] in June this year. However, as the Chinese reportedly downgraded the level of military exchanges from Lieutenant General to Major General and as both sides dragged their feet on the geographical location, level of training and integration of command, the current drill was postponed several times in recent months.

With the conclusion of the drill, militaries of India and China are likely to expand such cooperation. Besides the army and navy, the air forces of the two countries could as well be interested in a similar symbolic joint drill, with both sides enhancing mutual visits first. Nevertheless, given the hardening positions on both sides, these could offer short-to-medium term solace as both sides re-invent each other for the 21st Century dynamics in Asia and beyond.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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