Assessing the Impact of the Sino-Indian Army Exercise on Bilateral Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 15

The recent upsurge in military exchanges and cooperation between China and India has focused upon two contentious issues: counterterrorism and joint military exercises. The decision to conduct a counterterrorism drill in October 2007 between the two armies was announced by Indian Army Chief of Staff J.J. Singh following his visit to China in May (The Hindu, May 22; China Brief, June 13). By positioning the joint military exercise as the centerpiece of Sino-Indian defense ties, both countries seek to utilize the drill to improve upon their confidence in each other. Just before leaving for China, Singh stated, “In principle, the Chinese have agreed to the holding of such an exercise…both armies are interested in expanding military-to-military ties” (The Hindu, May 20). Furthermore, after the completion of Singh’s China tour, an Indian defense ministry statement announced that “the visit marked a decision in the engagement and mutual confidence building mechanism by seeking to hold periodic joint military training exercises between the two armies” (India’s News.Net (IANS), May 28).

Though these initiatives are seen as a significant step toward improving bilateral relations, a strain of mistrust, stemming from the long-standing unresolved border disputes and China’s arms sales to Pakistan, continues to pervade Sino-Indian military relations. Two additional issues—the recent Chinese claims of Arunachal Pradesh and China’s visa-denial to an Arunachal Pradesh official—have added a new twist to overall Sino-Indian relations. With this backdrop, observers question whether the proposed joint military exercise between China and India will bring any difference to the overall course of the bilateral relationship. Moreover, doubts compound in regard to the significance of this joint military exercise in comparison to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) overall strategy of holding joint exercises with other major military powers in the region; how does this joint military exercise differ from China’s routine joint military initiatives with other nations?

Chinese Military Diplomacy

From the Chinese perspective, a striking aspect of China’s military diplomacy in recent years has been to establish defense links by conducting joint military drills. Chinese military leaders have given priority to a range of joint military exercises, specifically to search and rescue and counterterrorism operations, to advance the interests of the PLA, provide their soldiers with exposure to foreign training and expertise, and foster its comprehensive modernization program. As a result, the PLA’s annual defense consultations are conducted with both global as well as regional powers such as France, the United States, South Africa, Pakistan, Thailand and Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states. The PLA hopes that by pursuing greater interaction with other well-trained soldiers, it might be able to obtain valuable lessons and intelligence as well as develop Confidence Building-Measures (CBMs), which are the priority of Chinese military diplomacy. These practices fall squarely within Beijing’s strategy to build a secure neighborhood before gradually extending its influence throughout the world [1]. Indeed, this is evident in China’s efforts to enhance CBMs, reduce troops and military forces along the common borders, enforce disarmament in the border areas and increase the transparency of border defense [2].

From the geopolitical perspective, China has increasingly relied on its military diplomacy—establishing a wide variety of security dialogues, joint maneuvers and military exercises—to advance its strategic ambitions. China’s defense collaboration with India, however, started to improve only in 2006. The current joint exercise initiative is a carry-over of the first defense Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed last year. The May 29, 2006 defense MoU between China and India, explicitly mentions important contacts such as “frequent exchanges,” an “annual defense dialogue” and “joint military exercises in the fields of search and rescue, anti-piracy and counter-terrorism.” This MoU insists on observing “balance and reciprocity” in such military exchanges between the two countries [3]. This does not mean, however, that there is a willingness from both the sides to build a bilateral framework to confront the problematic issues. Moreover, the critical question remains whether the exercises reflect an evolving Sino-Indian security framework or if they are simply a routine engagement at the defense level.

Despite these developments, it appears that serious obstacles to normal relations still persist at multiple levels. Undoubtedly, many view these defense ties, and particularly Singh’s recent visit to China, as a positive development. One can see a greater emphasis on “pragmatism” in defense exchanges between the two countries. In support of this, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has stated, “We hope to work with India…to improve and press ahead with the strategic partnership oriented towards peace and stability” (Times of India, May 22). Perhaps, the significance of these exchanges is their unprecedented nature; not even in the prime days of the “bhai-bhai” Sino-Indian relations did this type of relationship exist. It seems that the proposed “joint military operations” are intended to bridge the communications gap between the two militaries. Both armies are in favor of inviting observers to their exercises, which suggests a “degree of comfort” with each other more than anything else.

Counterterrorism as the Locus

In the forthcoming October bilateral joint-exercise, counterterrorism drills will dominate the engagement. It is reported that 100 Indian soldiers will be sent to China to participate in the proposed training operation. This operation should be seen more as a reflection of China’s interests rather than as a bilateral initiative. The first open suggestion to include counterterrorism as an issue in Sino-Indian engagement came from China even before September 11, 2001 when Li Peng visited India in January 2001. In his interview to The Hindu, he said, “China is willing to cooperate with all countries which are against terrorism. Of course, India is one of them. China supports every effort to combat international terrorism through the formulation of international conventions and hopes that the international community will take further steps to improve the anti-terrorism international legal framework” [4].

September 11 provided China with the opportunity to revisit the sensitive issue of terrorism and express its interest in cooperating with India on counterterrorism efforts. On January 12, 2002, during his India visit, Zhu Rongji said that “China and India have much common ground on counter-terrorism. The Chinese side is ready to step up exchanges and cooperation with India and other relevant parties in this field” [5]. Since then, counterterrorism has often been discussed as an issue in bilateral relations. The current proposal for counterterrorism exercises, however, should be considered as an important development from the Chinese perspective on two accounts: first, China’s own concerns regarding separatist activities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and second, China’s counterterrorism preparations before the 2008 Olympics. Given these considerations, Chinese authorities have expressed an interest in learning from the Indian military’s tactics and methods in countering the insurgency in Kashmir. Concurrently, India appears eager to improve its counterterrorism capabilities for its 2010 Commonwealth games by gleaning lessons from China’s 2008 Olympics security preparations.

The Impact of the Exercises

Despite these complimentary interests and the increase in cooperation, it seems that the exercises are unlikely to bring about actual confidence at the bilateral level. This is partly due to the ambivalent stance China has taken on the issue of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Since September 11, when both the Kashmir conflict and terrorism in the region came under severe international scrutiny, the region has become an area of international strategic significance. Nevertheless, the conflict in Kashmir is inextricably linked to inter-state relations. The issue is further complicated by the rivalry between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute, and to an extent, the India and China-Pakistan nexus. Moreover, counterterrorism operations in the Kashmir valley are further compounded by the constant tensions between India and Pakistan, leading to a continued anxiety with the occasional direct or indirect involvement of China. Whereas China’s role in the “war against terrorism” after September 11 has been praiseworthy from the Western perspective, Beijing’s equivocal stance on the issue of “cross-border terrorism” in Kashmir raises questions about its credibility and intentions as a counterterrorism partner of India.

In addition, while terrorist incidents in Jammu and Kashmir have been termed a “cross-border” issue—attracting consistent condemnation from all major international powers—China, though a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and an immediate neighbor to the region, has thus far avoided taking a clear stance. To China, the situation in Kashmir is a result of “ethnic problems and the sharp disparity between the rich and the poor, which offers soil for the long term existence of terrorism” [6].

Competing Concerns

China’s unwillingness to position itself on either side of the dispute stems largely from its conflicted interests. As terrorism and religious extremism remain major problems in the Kashmir valley, Beijing’s strong stance against terrorism would be diplomatically useful, especially in shaping public perceptions in India that both countries have much in common in the fight against terrorism. For example, international terrorist and jihadist groups have separately attempted to build separatists movements in various forms both in Xinjiang and Kashmir. Militants from Xinjiang fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the porous mountains borders converging between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China make the region difficult to secure [7]. A joint effort based on the common recognition of terrorist groups would encourage greater understanding between China and India. China would also benefit considerably from India’s counterinsurgency experience, given its own struggle against Uyghur militants in Xinjiang [8].

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of reservation from China in terms of taking a position on cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. China’s silence clearly stems from its interest in Kashmir, which is largely a result of the October 1963 Sino-Pakistani border agreement. An additional reason for China’s interest in Kashmir is “the restive Islamic population in its Xinjiang autonomous region bordering Kashmir, which creates both a geographical and Islamic connection between China’s internal security and both India and Pakistan” [9]. Historically, this larger region served as the crossroads of the evolutionary flow of Islamic influences among Central-South-Western Asian Islamic cultures [10]. In fact, the constant indulgence of China in Kashmir affairs was aimed, on the one hand, at ensuring the security of the Xinjiang area bordering Kashmir by befriending the neighboring Muslim countries and, on the other hand, to check India by supporting Pakistan on Kashmir affairs [11].

On the domestic front, China is known for its tight constraints on religious freedom, and this is clearly evidenced in its recent actions against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It is important to reiterate that in Xinjiang, Islam is perceived as feeding Uyghur ethnic identity, and so the subordination of Islam to the state is used as a means to ensure the subordination of Uyghurs. Yet, China does not want to take a stance against the Islamic issues that have always been the cornerstone of terrorism in Kashmir. Beijing’s challenges lay in its attempt to brand the Uyghur separatists as “terrorists,” on the one hand, while avoiding any civil unrest that might occur in Xinjiang, on the other.

Chinese Posture and Indian Reluctance

While the two navies have previously conducted a handful of joint exercises, this will be the first time that the two armies have held drills with each other. It seems that these military exercises are signals from Delhi implying that it is uninterested in “containing” China, as the United States might have hoped. Indeed, considering the Indo-U.S. nuclear negotiations, some might argue that the United States is in favor of a possible containment of China. Yet, this is unlikely to be an Indian strategy, as it is in the midst of assuring China that it desires better relations—even in spite of the repeated failures to resolve the border disputes and the occasional Chinese claims of Arunachal Pradesh.

Although there have been several contested issues in the current military MoU regarding the adjacent areas of the border, both nations have shown a substantial inclination to move in a “positive and forward-looking” manner. At the moment, the current military exchange appears to be a progression toward greater pragmatic cooperation, regardless of any significant change at the bilateral level. Overall, the proposed “Sino-Indian military exchange” is seen as a welcome development in the context of regional peace and stability.

Among Indian observers, however, there is also a consensus that regardless of the progress in military exchanges, there remains a need to monitor China’s joint military exercises with the countries within India’s proximity. Indian officials express anxiety regarding China’s efforts to modernize its military and supply arms to regional countries. Though both India and China have adopted a unified stance on the need for a “multipolar world,” there remains a strain of suspicion that permeates the Sino-Indian joint military exercise. It is viewed as being more favorable to the interests of China, allowing it to gain a better understanding of India’s defense plans. Moreover, the scope of the forthcoming joint exercises has its own limitations. This was proposed and initiated by the Chinese despite India’s constant reservations regarding certain Chinese activities—namely, the Chinese presence in the Coco Islands, where a Chinese listening post monitors India’s missile-testing center at Balasore in eastern India.

Considering the instability of this defense engagement, a great degree of practicality governs both sides. There remain significant limitations in China’s relationship with India’s defense establishment in terms of the breadth and depth of potential exercises. Furthermore, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the changing South Asian strategic landscapes have led both Beijing and Delhi to proceed cautiously in building their strategic relationship. Since China’s ties with India involve boundary disputes—especially given China’s recent claim of Arunachal Pradesh—it is expected that the military ties will remain tenuous in the years to come.

Notes

1. Vice-Admiral (Ret.), G.M. Hiranandani, “China and the Indian Ocean Region,” Defence Watch, November 2006, p. 6.

2. Mohammad Monir Alam, “China’s Strategic Engagement with Central Asia,” Security and Society, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2006, p. 107.

3. Srikanth Kondapalli, “Indian Defence Ministers Visit to China: New Beginnings,” China Report, vol. 42, no. 4, October-December, 2004, p. 406.

4. B. Raman, “Sino-Indian Cooperation on Counter-terrorism,” c3s Paper, no.15, May 25, 2007, available online

at http://www.c3sindia.org/terrorismandsecurity/91/sino-indian-co-operation-in-counter-terrorism/.

5. Ibid.

6. Cheng Ruisheng, “The Situation in South Asia After ‘September 11’ and China’s Policy,” Foreign Affairs Journal, The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, 68, (June 2003), p. 34.

7. Udayan Chattopadhaya, “India and China: The Need for Radical Strategic Realignment,” Perspectives, vol. 3, no. 6, September 30, 2002, available online at http://www.oycf.org/perspectives/18_093002/Indina_China.htm.

8. Ibid.

9. Jing-dong Yuan, China and the Kashmir Problem, Paper presented at the 4th Annual Conference of the International Convention of Asia Scholars, August 20-24, 2005, The Shanghai Exhibition Center: Shanghai.

10. Ibid.

11. Swaran Singh, “Remembering a War: The 1962 India-China Conflict,” The Rediff Special, October 22, 2002, available online at http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/oct/28chin.htm.