Military Diplomacy: The Future of Sino-Indian Military Relations?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 23

Military relations between rising powers are often caught in a conflictual cycle. Yet Sino–Indian military relations is an exception in spite of wariness on both sides of the others strategic intentions. While the two states have been at odds for much of the Cold War following the Sino–Indian border war in 1962, the two sides have fashioned their bilateral relations in a commendable manner during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. Part of the credit should go to on-going military diplomacy, engineered in stages between the two countries, which have allowed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian Armed Forces to manage disputes and maintain peace along the disputed borders. The simultaneous visit by the Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major, to Beijing with the Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), General Wu Shengli, to New Delhi in the first fortnight of November 2008 reinforced the strength of this initiative in promoting Sino–Indian relations. While many more such initiatives are in the offing, it is open to question if such steps ‘alone’ will help in the settlement of the border dispute, remove the perception of China as a long-term threat among Indian defense planners and engender permanent peace between China and India.
Expanding Military Diplomacy

During the Cold War, barring the clashes in 1967 at Nathu La and in 1987 at Sumdurong Chu, the two militaries largely maintained a non-confrontational posture along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988 has been credited as unleashing a period of rapprochement. While there were some military interactions as a follow up, the first major step in military diplomacy was the path-breaking Agreement in Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC in September 1993, followed by the 1996 Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LAC. During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi in April 2005, additional CBMs were added to the 1996 agreement. These included, among others, border meeting points at Kibithu–Damai in the eastern sector and Lipulekh Pass in the Middle Sector; exchanges between the relevant military regions of China and army commands of India; and exchanges between institutions of training, sports and culture of the two armed forces [1].

These agreements laid down the foundations for bilateral engagement between the militaries of the two countries. For the first time, the navies of the two countries participated in joint exercises off the Shanghai coast in China in 2003. They met again in 2005 in the Arabian Sea off the Malabar Coast and in 2007 off the cost of Qingdao [2]. The Chinese were also invited as observers during the Indian Army’s war game exercises in the western sector in 2005. India sent observers to the China– Russia joint exercises in August 2005 at the invitation of the Chinese [3].

A comprehensive push on promoting bilateral military diplomacy was on track after the visit by the former Indian defense minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to China in May 2006. This was the first time New Delhi demonstrated the political will to distance itself from its earlier isolation and inward orientation and reach out to China [4]. The visit led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that called for the institutionalization of frequent exchanges between the officials of the Ministries and the armed forces through an annual defense dialogue, in addition to developing an annual calendar for joint exercises and training programs [5]. As a follow up exercise, former Indian Army Chief General J. J. Singh visited China in May 2007. The first meeting of India–China Defense Dialogue was held in Beijing from November 12-13, 2007 [6]. Also, China and India held their first mil-to-mil exercise ‘Hand-in-Hand 2007’ near the Kunming Military Academy in China’s Yunnan Province in December 2007. The two armies will be meeting again for a follow up joint exercise in December 2008, this time at Belgaum in India’s Karnataka Province. This could be followed up by a joint exercise between the air forces of the two countries [7].

Gains from Military Diplomacy   

It is worthwhile to discuss a few of the visible gains from Sino–Indian engagement through military diplomacy are worth mentioning. First, military diplomacy has led to the graduated reciprocation in tension reduction (GRIT) between China and India. Political relations have become less hostile and the LAC between the two countries has become relatively stable compared to the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan. Vary rarely are there reports in Indian newspapers about cross-fire between Chinese and Indian forces. The relative peace on the Chinese front has allowed India to redesign its force mobilization and redeploy them in Jammu and Kashmir and northeast for counter-insurgency operations. Second, clandestine activities by the PLA near LAC are reportedly far less than by the Pakistan Army near the LoC. While there are cases of Chinese troops making regular incursions into Indian territories, they desist from supporting secessionist elements in crossing the border or in the supply of arms. Third, in the last few years at least, Chinese and Indian forces have engaged each other near the LAC in a series of interactive activities such as mountaineering expeditions, celebration of national days, cultural and sporting activities. Such activities are yet to be inaugurated near the LoC (Rediff, December 31, 2007).  

In the long term, India can benefit from military diplomacy on several fronts. First, not much is known about the PLA’s modernization plans, its funding and budgetary process and its overall strategic objectives. India still relies heavily upon western intelligence and academic sources to develop its perspective on China’s military preparedness [8]. As stakeholders in India’s national security, the Indian defense forces are entrusted with the duty to acquire new knowledge about the PLA’s functionaries, its combat preparedness and operational reach in the Asia-Pacific region. Military diplomacy will facilitate such ‘knowledge development’. Second, Sino–Indian military diplomacy may relieve India from the specter of having to face a ‘two-front’ war with China and Pakistan, at least in the near future. During the 1999 Kargil War, it may have been due to India’s improved relations with China through some confidence building measures on the LAC that kept Beijing from siding with Pakistan [9]. Third, it has given India some breathing space and confidence for a negotiated settlement of the vexed issue of the border. The protracted talks with no conclusion have often challenged the patience of policy makers as well as the public at large, but the relative peace on the borders has enabled diplomats on both sides to discuss the issue without any external constraint. Fourth, military diplomacy has enabled the two countries to move away from the position of bilateral confrontation to explore the potential of being stakeholders in the emerging Asian security architecture. Both the countries have identified terrorism, maritime piracy, drug trafficking, illegal arms trade, security of sea lanes and humanitarian response as issues that require sharing of resources and expertise. In discussing these issues, China and India are willing partners in multilateral military-diplomatic platforms like the Shangri La Dialogue and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

Limits of Military Diplomacy
While military diplomacy has certainly yielded dividends as ‘immediate relief’, too much should not be read into these exchanges. First, military diplomacy is just one of the tools in conflict resolution that provides a congenial atmosphere for other tools such as political and diplomatic corps to carry forward. Second, barring a recent spate of engagements with the United States and other Asian countries, achievements by India’s military diplomacy pale in comparison to those of China, where the PLA has established military contacts with almost every country of any significance [10]. Part of the reason could be that, unlike China, the civilian control of India’s foreign policy decision-making process is complete, with hardly any role available for the military establishment. Third, the extent and the scope of military diplomacy between China and India is limited and has not moved beyond symbolism. Even though the two countries are nuclear powers, there are no institutional arrangements to prevent a nuclear crisis through mutual contact at the top level. Further, China scoffs at India’s diplomatic engagements with the militaries of other countries such as the United States, Japan and even Singapore. Fourth, the Sino–Indian border problem is too vast and complex and military diplomacy may have a limited role. The joint group of military experts that was entrusted to exchange a mutually agreed map of the LAC has not moved beyond the middle sector. The more contentious eastern and western sectors have not been addressed. Fifth, China continues to indulge in regular incursions across the LAC. At times it could be deliberate and other times it is because of differing perceptions of LAC and at times due to confusion among troops on the ground, especially when units change and new units get posted there.

Challenges from China’s Military Modernization

While the two militaries engage one another, China’s military modernization has crossed many milestones, which has caused fresh concerns about China’s strategic ambitions. The functional and geopolitical expansions of the PLA’s army, navy and space modernization are well documented [11]. Yet while New Delhi is keenly aware of the likely implications of Chinese military modernization on India’s national security, it is ill equipped to face another Chinese onslaught on the border. While China’s major force concentration is on the Eastern seaboard facing Japan and Taiwan, its capability to mobilize troops on the LAC is far more effective than India, which has only woken up to the need of developing infrastructure along the border [12]. Despite a bitter history of war, New Delhi’s war doctrine, until recently, was not even geared on the realist lines and was too confident about handling China [13]. Border apart, China’s growing presence in the oceanic waters aimed at treating India as a secondary player and consolidating China’s dominance in the Asia–Pacific poses discreet competition for power and influence between the two rising great powers in the region.

Therefore, the ‘current package’ of military diplomacy, while bringing relative peace between China and India, does not address India’s security dilemma vis-à-vis China. The unresolved border dispute coupled with China’s enhanced military prowess might lure it to seek a military solution for vexing political issues. Border apart, internal problems in China could also force it on a war path with India. China can choose the vulnerable Chicken’s Neck (the narrow Siliguri Corridor connecting Chumbi valley to Bangladesh), the central plains of Bihar and UP or could decide to choke India in the Malacca Straits. Even without a full fledged war, China can constrain India’s power and influence and render it helpless as witnessed though its maritime activities off the Myanmar (Burma) coast.

As China rises militarily, India needs to avoid an open confrontation with China. Hence, the focus should be on expanding the CBMs so that more interactive platforms and communication channels are available with China. In the next 20-25 years, as India enters a crucial phase of economic growth, the defense forces will have a critical role to play in maintaining a peaceful strategic environment in its neighborhood and ensuring unhindered economic growth. Higher level exchanges provide an opportunity to learn from global developments in military technology, weaponry and emerging military doctrines.

Military diplomacy, in the final analysis, cannot be a substitute for India’s military modernization. With so many ambiguities surrounding PLA’s strategic objectives, expenditure and role in foreign–policy decision making, India needs to supplement military diplomacy with concurrent military modernization to retain the option of an ‘alternative future’ with China. Only that will enable India to live in peace with China and compete in the emerging power and influence game in the Asia–Pacific region.


1. See the text, "Protocol between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India–China Border Areas," April 11, 2005,
2. Bhartendu Kumar Singh, "Military Diplomacy and Sino–Indian Relations," Art. No. 2309, June 5, 2007,
3. "Militaries of India, China to Interact More on Border Areas,", February 22, 2006.
4. C. Raja Mohan, "India’s Changing Strategic Profile in East and Southeast Asia," presented at the Regional Outlook Forum 2008, organized by Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, January 8, 2008, Singapore.
5. See the text of "Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of India and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China for Exchanges and Cooperation in the field of Defense," May 29, 2006,
6. The Indian delegation was led by Mr. Bimal Julka, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Defense while the Chinese side was led by Maj Gen Qian Lihua, Director General, Foreign Affairs Office, Ministry of National Defense.  
7. "India, China to Hold Joint Army Exercise in December," November 7, 2008,
8. Bhartendu Kumar Singh, "Whither China’s Military Modernization," Review Essay, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 4, July 2008, pp. 677-684.
9. Bhartendu Kumar Singh and Satyajit Mohanty, "Contexualizing Kargil Within China’s Security Paradigm" in Maj. Gen. Ashok Krishna (Retired) and P.R. Chari,  Kargil: The Tables Turned (New Delhi: Manohar, 2001), pp. 221-232.   
10. The only exception is India’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations since 1953. Presently, India has 9000 soldiers in five missions.
11. See, U.S. Department of Defence, "Annual Report to Congress: Military power of the People’s Republic of China 2008,"; M. Taylor Fravel, "China’s search for military power," The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 2008, pp. 125-141; Ashley J. Tellis, "China’s military space strategy," Survival, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn 2007, pp. 41-72; Andrew S. Erickson, "The Growth of China’s Navy: Implications for Indian Ocean Security," Strategic Analysis, Vol. 32, No 4, July 2008, pp. 655-676.
12. "Annual Report: 2005-2006," Ministry of Defense, India,