Sino-Indian Defense Dialogue: A Panacea for the Sino-Indian Security Dilemma?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 6

The PLA Navy Training Ship Visited Kochi Last Year

Defense diplomacy may not be an important tool in international relations but the Sino-Indian relations stand exception to it. Beginning with the landmark treaty on maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 1993, defense diplomacy became the “central dynamics of the complex relationship between China and India” where both the countries have institutionalized a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) along the LAC in the last two decades [1]. The fifth round of bilateral defense dialogue, held in Beijing recently, was part of this process (Xinhua, January 15; Times of India, January 15). Given the tone and tenor of the dialogue process, it has an optimistic future. Is it a panacea to India’s security dilemma against China? Can it bring an end to enduring rivalry between the two Asian giants and induce a strategic partnership between them for seeking Asian security? The Beijing round could not provide an immediate answer.

Gains from the Beijing Round

Given the unresolved border between the two countries and very little progress on other aspects of bilateral relations, there are not many expectations from such dialogues. The LAC, however, is also known for relative peace and despite Chinese forces’ frequent incursions into the Indian side, the two militaries deserve credit for mature behavior towards each other. Further, 2012, the ”Year of India-China Friendship and Cooperation” was an eventful year for bilateral defense cooperation. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited India and a “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India China Border Affairs” was established. In addition to the high level and academic defense exchanges, four Indian Navy ships made a port call at Shanghai and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy training ship Zhenghe stopped in the Indian port of Kochi (“India China bilateral defense cooperation in 2012.” Beijing round in January, therefore, had excellent atmospherics to consolidate the gains. During the talks, the two countries decided to resume joint military exercises. This may not be a big outcome, but, as the leader of India’s opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sushma Swaraj put it, “if the armies of our two great countries forge an understanding, the future generations are assured of peace and stability. Much bad blood has flowed, its time to begin anew for the sake of future” (Khabar South Asia, January 25). Beyond these tangible gains, the dialogue provided the Indian delegation an opportunity to PLA perspectives—an important opportunity given that it wields considerable influence in Chinese foreign policy making, more so, when not much is known about the new members of the Central Military Commission. 

The Inadequacies in Sino-Indian Defense Diplomacy

In reaching out to China, Indian defense diplomacy faces a number of handicaps, both generally and in some cases specific to engaging China. First, despite a rich history of peacekeeping, India does not have comprehensive experience in defense diplomacy. New Delhi has yet to develop another partnership akin to the previous relationship with the former Soviet Union. The existing strategic partnerships with South Asian countries like Nepal and Bhutan are crumbling apart and countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives are opting for strategic defiance. On a comparative note, India is no match to China that is a lead player in defense diplomacy and has practically engaged most countries in Asia and Africa (“PLA Steps Up Military Diplomacy in Asia,” China Brief, May 6, 2011).

Second, as Professor C. Raja Mohan points out, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) do not appear to be on the same page when it comes to defining the objectives of India’s defense diplomacy. While the leadership of the MEA has come to value the possibilities of defense diplomacy, the MoD remains deeply conservative [2].

Third, the existing civil-military equilibrium does not have a pivotal role for military in defense diplomacy or for that matter foreign policy decision making. With the exception of providing training to foreign delegates and visit by service chiefs to other countries, India’s military does not get enough exposure in reaching out to other militaries of the world. Logically therefore, knowledge deficiencies hinder taking advantage of military-to-military engagement—a problem Beijing, conversely, has demonstrated that it is trying to correct (China Military Online, March 11).

Fourth, India still does not have a primary database on the Chinese PLA and its combat capabilities. The intelligence inputs are many a time derived from Western sources that may not cater to India’s national interests, especially in terms of their geographic coverage. Far more foreign studies are done on PLA activity related to cross-Strait and maritime periphery issues than on Chinese military activities near the LAC. [Editor’s Note: The distribution of China Brief analyses of Chinese military modernization is a good example of this imbalance.]

Fifth, resource constraints also hinder effective penetration of defense diplomacy. India does not have any strategic bases outside its territory. It offers training facilities to only select South Asian countries. Indian military hardware supplies to other countries are minimal. This lack of resources reduces the opportunities the Indian military and MoD can leverage to engage with and learn about the PLA at the strategic and operational levels. These factors may combine to bring down the efficacy of diplomatic initiatives with Chinese PLA.

Factors that Undermine Bilateral Defense Diplomacy

India’s initiatives to engage China in a cobweb of engagement matrix including defense diplomacy have not yielded effective results because of the peculiar trend of Chinese military modernization and strategic behavior. First, while the rest of the world is busy interpreting China’s military modernization having long-term balance of power consequences in Taiwan Straits or South China Sea, Indians are concerned about Chinese force mobilization and capacity building in their own backyard. The ultimate victim of Chinese PLA could once again be India, rather than Taiwan or one of the Southeast Asian countries. Second, the power relations between Chinese and Indian militaries are getting increasingly asymmetrical in all matrices. China spends much more on defense, has made rapid strides in military modernization, and above all, its power projection is visible as far as the Gulf of Aden. Third, China’s military has fraternized all other South Asian countries against India with variable degree of success (For example, “Sri Lanka: Beijing’s Growing Foothold in the Indian Ocean,” China Brief, June 12, 2009). While Chinese presence in many of these countries may not be specifically targeted toward India, it does undermine India’s security interests. Fourth, in recent times, the Chinese leadership also has resorted to certain petty tit-for-tat activities against India. These include visa refusals to senior military leaders from India, map distortions and military confrontations with Indian merchant vessels in South China Sea (Indian Express, February 18; Hindustan Times, November 23, 2012; Daily Times, August 28, 2010). Fifth, China is still perceived an aggressor in Indian psyche and has done little in the last five decades to overcome this perception. On the contrary, it has been boxing India both within and outside South Asia. Moreover, in futuristic terms, China still is considered an important long-term threat.

Defense Diplomacy and the Sino-Indian Security Challenge

In the face of a rising China, the most fundamental concern of Asia-Pacific governments (including India) is how a stronger China affects their own security. While China could achieve a reasonable amount of security and prosperity playing within international rules, there is reason to expect Beijing to use its expanding economic, military and diplomatic influence to press neighboring governments to account for Chinese interests on political issues [3]. India, thus, faces a two-fold security dilemma with China. First, there has been no dilution in China’s needling of India all along the LAC with its troops continuing to transgress regularly into Indian territory. As reported in the Indian media, there were more than 550 cases of Chinese incursions across the LAC from January 2010 to August 2012 (The Times of India, September 19, 2012). Further, as Mohan Malik points out, China has put in place a sophisticated military infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region adjoining India: five fully operational air bases, several helipads, an extensive rail network and thirty thousand miles of roads—giving them the ability to rapidly deploy thirty divisions (fifteen thousand soldiers each) along the border, a three-to-one advantage over India. China has not only increased its military presence in Tibet but also is ramping up its nuclear arsenal [4]. India’s recent initiatives (including creation of a new corps near China border) notwithstanding, it remains concerned about the Chinese posture on the border and fears a limited conflict with the PLA in future (Times of India, February 1, 2012). Second, India’s security challenge also extends to the immediate South Asian neighborhood where China seems to be extending its hold. In fact, from New Delhi’s point of view, China appears to be able to play almost at will within India’s backyard and is involved with most of India’s neighbors. While China has “strategic ties” with Pakistan, it has engaged other South Asian countries through a network of projects like funding of transport corridors, gas pipelines and deep water ports. India is deeply frustrated by these Chinese initiatives, feeling surrounded but is powerless to do anything about it [5].

Defense Diplomacy and the Issue of Strategic Partnership

One of the thematic propositions from the Beijing round of defense dialogue was “creating a new type of military relations” between the two countries. This was simply a reiteration of the past commitments to build strategic partnership between the two Asian giants. As things stand, both the countries are strategic rivals having not only an unresolved border, but also competitors for power and influence in South Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region. It is debatable, for various reasons, if the bilateral investments in defense diplomacy can replace this rivalry with partnership. First, the unresolved border issue means that the two countries must resolve this contentious issue, thereby, eliminating the biggest hurdle in normalization of bilateral relations and opening the possibility for other partnerships. The border talks have been a painful process with little indication of moving toward a logical outcome. Second, the bitter memories of 1962 war supplemented by Chinese strategic consolidation in Tibet still create doubts about Chinese intentions amongst Indian strategic thinkers. China has done little to ameliorate these feelings and encourage a perceptional shift about China’s image in India. In fact, there is near unanimous opinion in India about China being the number one threat. Third, there has been little evidence of cooperation between the two countries on contemporary strategic issues. Be it nuclear issue, terrorism or any issue of Asian security, the strategic perceptions of the two countries have been at quite variance with each other. From India’s perspective, China has been trying to contain India within South Asian subcontinent and, elsewhere, thereby seeking an advantage in the competition for power and influence in Asia-Pacific region. The question of any strategic partnership between the two countries, therefore, is likely to remain a utopian proposition.


While the current process of defense diplomacy may not resolve the major issues between the two countries, it does have the potential to improve the relations between the two militaries. Both countries are likely to benefit through better border management on LAC where the CBMs are likely to proliferate and sustain the relative peace between them. Since the Sino-Indian bilateral relations will continue to be plagued by strategic uncertainties, defense diplomacy offers a cost-effective way of managing relations with China. Perhaps for this singular reason, India should continue to invest in defense diplomacy; engage China in a robust military-to-military engagement plan; and expand the number and size of these diplomatic initiatives.


  1. John W Garver, “The Security Dilemma in Sino-Indian Relations,” India Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, October 2002, pp. 1–38.
  2. C. Raja Mohan, “From Isolation to Partnership: The Evolution of India’s Military Diplomacy,” ISAS Working Paper, No. 144, February 20, 2012.
  3. Denny Roy, “More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?” East-West Center, Asia-Pacific Issues, No. 106, January 2013.
  4. Mohan Malik, “China and India Today: Diplomats Jostle, Militaries Prepare,” World Affairs, July/August 2012.
  5. Sandy Gordon, “Nation, Neighborhood and Region: India’s Emergence as an Asian Power,” South Asian Survey, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2010, pp. 199–217.