Sino-Indian Joint Military Exercises: Out of Step

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 21

Chinese and Indian troops conduct a joint counter-terrorism exercise in 2008. (Credit: Xinhua)

The Indian and Chinese militaries will participate in joint counter-terrorism exercises on November 16–27, in the western Indian city of Pune. The exercises will quickly follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to India in September, which was intended as an economic summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but was overshadowed by a tense standoff between the two militaries for over a fortnight at Chumar in Ladakh along their disputed border. While the decision to go ahead with the exercises as planned in November is welcomed by Indian analysts and military officers as a signal of some calming in bilateral tensions, there is deep skepticism in India over the benefits of joint military exercises with China.

The upcoming exercises are the fourth since the “Hand-in-Hand” bilateral military exercises began in 2007. The two militaries have exercised together so far at Kunming and Chengdu, China in 2007 and 2013, respectively, and in Belgaum, India in 2008. The Kunming joint exercise generated considerable interest in the Indian media in 2007, as this was the first time that the Indian and Chinese armies, which fought a war in 1962, exercised together. Prior to 2007, only the two navies had participated in joint maneuvers. Interaction between the two armies was previously limited to border meetings, joint mountaineering expeditions and attending courses at each other’s military training facilities, making the Kunming military exercises in 2007 historic. At the outset, some in the Indian army were cautious in their assessment of the exercises’ likely impact, emphasizing that it would “not lead to any settlement of the border issue,” but the general mood was positive (Outlook, December 10, 2007). It was viewed as a sign of “thawing relations,” with some even hailing it as marking a return to the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (in Hindi, “Indians and Chinese are brothers”) phase of   Sino-Indian relations in the 1950s (The Tribune, December 20, 2007; Rediff, December 20, 2007).

However, seven years and three military exercises later, Indian skeptics appear vindicated. Indian security analysts now have marginal expectations of the process in building confidence or enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation with China.

Underlying Motives

The joint military exercises were conceived primarily as a confidence-building measure (CBM) between the two militaries, especially in the context of the mutual suspicions that have clouded Sino-Indian bilateral interaction for decades (Author’s interview, Senior officer of the Indian Army’s South-Western Command, New Delhi, October 22). Although Sino-Indian relations have improved in recent decades with the two sides cooperating in an array of fields, the 1962 war continues to cast a long shadow over the relationship. The dispute over the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—their de facto border and the cause of the 1962 war, as well as the bloody skirmishes at Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdorong Chu Valley in 1987—remains unresolved. [1] In the absence of a commonly delineated LAC and no shared understanding of where it lies, even routine troop activity—patrolling, road repair, and constructing border posts—has resulted in the two sides accusing each other of incursions.  The LAC has frequently bristled with tension.

To prevent escalation of tensions along the LAC and to ease mutual suspicions, India and China established a carefully crafted architecture of CBMs, especially in the military field. In May 2006, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding providing for “joint military exercises and/or training programs in the fields of search and rescue, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, and other areas of mutual interest.” [2] The counter-terrorism focus of the joint military exercises was announced subsequently (Daily News and Analyses, June 6, 2007).

Beijing requested that counter-terrorism be the focus of its joint military exercises with India, following China’s military exercises with other nations (see China Brief, July 27, 2007). The roots of this “singular focus on counter-terrorism” can be traced to the Chinese government’s concern over secessionist aspirations among ethnic minorities dominant in the border regions of the country, primarily Tibet and Xinjiang. Determined to stamp out the unrest and secessionist aspirations in these regions, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is eager to learn from other militaries’ operational techniques for countering terrorism. In this context, the PLA is interested in drawing from the Indian military’s rich experience in tackling terrorism and insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast (Author’s Interview, Col. R. Hariharan, a former military intelligence specialist in the Indian Army, Chennai, October 23).

Despite doubts on the practical value of counter-terrorism exercises with China, Delhi went along with the terrorism focus of the exercises, hoping perhaps that this would nudge China into expanding cooperation with India on terrorism-related issues.  Between January 2001, when the Chinese government first indicated willingness “to cooperate with India in countering this menace [terrorism] to regional security and stability” and 2006–2007, when the two governments were discussing joint counter-terrorism exercises, there was some progress (The Hindu, January 14, 2001). The two sides were engaging in annual talks within a counter-terrorism dialogue mechanism set up in 2002. Besides, concern in China was growing over the religious radicalization of Uighurs in Xinjiang and Pakistan’s role in this process. These developments opened up the possibility, however small, of some empathy, if not cooperation, from China over India’s troubles with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Indeed, such hopes may have played a role in India giving in to some Chinese requests for counter-terrorism exercises in the hope that Beijing would reciprocate. [3]

For India, participating in joint military exercises with China helped counter criticism at home and abroad over its excessive tilt toward the United States from 2005­ to 2007. India’s interest in the Quadrilateral Initiative, an “axis of democracies” proposed by the Japanese government that was to include India, Japan, the United States and Australia, and India’s hosting of a massive naval exercise in 2007 in the Bay of Bengal involving these countries, caused concerns: Left parties at home argued that India was being drawn into the United States’ orbit, and Beijing alleged that these moves were aimed at containing China. The Sino-Indian joint military exercises were useful to counter such criticism (Frontline, September 8, 2007; Outlook, December 10, 2007; The Hindu, June 14, 2007).

Building Confidence?

Despite the joint exercises’ origins as an important part of bilateral CBM measures to tackle mutual suspicions over the border dispute, the exercises have not only failed to prevent or even reduce escalating tensions along the LAC—there has been an increase in the frequency and magnitude of flare-ups here in recent years—but they have fallen victim to the border dispute itself. For example, India suspended the joint military exercises and other exchanges between 2010 and 2013 when Beijing refused a visa to the Indian army’s Northern Area Commander, Lt. Gen. B. S. Jaiswal, in 2010 because he “controlled” a “disputed area,” Jammu and Kashmir  (The Hindu, August 27, 2010). Clearly, the border dispute determines the fate of the joint exercises, rather than the joint exercises contributing to easing suspicions over the border. According to one retired Indian military officer, given the “limited say” the Indian military has in determining the bilateral CBMs, even on security and strategic issues, and the “peripheral role” that the joint exercises play in the larger confidence building between the two countries, the joint exercises are more of a “barometer of the progress of CBMs” between the two countries, rather than a major influence in shaping it (Author’s Interview, Col. R. Hariharan, a former military intelligence specialist in the Indian Army, Chennai, October 23).

The utility of the exercises is greatly hindered by the size and deployment zone of the participants. While the joint exercises have contributed to building trust between participants at a personal level between the two militaries, evident in the bonhomie and camaraderie visible at the exercises, the troops participating are not actually those deployed at the border, meaning tensions and mistrust along the border have yet to be addressed (The Hindu, December 27, 2007). Furthermore, the number of troops participating in each exercise is too small to even begin having a positive impact on the two armies—the upcoming exercise, for instance, is expected to include around 130 soldiers from each side. Unlike the joint exercises between the Indian and Chinese navies, which are more substantial in content as well as productive in results, the joint army exercises have been disappointing so far. [4]

Elephant in the Room

As for facilitating learning from each other’s tactics and best practices, the value of the Sino-Indian counter-terrorism exercises is limited by their basic content. Compared with the content, frequency, regularity and magnitude of its joint military exercises with Russia, China’s counter-terrorism exercises with India are miniscule and marginal. The low-level counter-terrorism exercises with India are a reflection of the limited cooperation on terrorism-related issues between the two countries, which is an outcome of the complex India-China-Pakistan relationship.

While China and Pakistan are close allies and have what their governments refer to as an “all-weather relationship,” India’s relations with Pakistan, in contrast, have been acrimonious, especially over Islamabad’s support and sanctuary to anti-India terrorist groups. On terrorism-related issues which impact India, China has preferred to stand by Pakistan. For instance, Beijing repeatedly blocked United Nations Security Council (UNSC) action against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The LeT, which is a Pakistan-backed terrorist organization that the UN outlawed in 2002, has carried out several attacks in India. It was only after the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, where the JuD and LeT’s involvement was laid bare, that China, fearing global isolation on the issue, voted in the UNSC to declare it a terrorist organization and impose sanctions on its leaders (First Post, Aug 2, 2011).

China is unlikely to cooperate with India on terrorism-related issues, as this would “impinge on its ‘special relationship’ with Pakistan,” according to an Indian terrorism analyst. Indeed, Beijing has been careful to ensure that its joint counter-terrorism exercises with India do not ruffle feathers in Islamabad. The venue of the upcoming exercises was originally Bhatinda in the northern Indian state of Punjab, which borders Pakistan. The location was changed on China’s request, as Beijing was concerned that Bhatinda’s proximity to Pakistan’s border would send the “wrong message to its all weather friend” (Author’s Interview, Ajai Sahni, Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, October 22). This “sensitivity” to its relationship with Pakistan rather than to India’s concerns has prevented counter-terrorism cooperation from deepening.

Some Indian analysts are drawing attention to China’s unease with Pakistan in the context of growing evidence of terrorist groups in Xinjiang receiving sanctuary and support from Pakistan. They point to cracks in the Sino-Pakistani relationship opening up space for greater Sino-Indian counter-terrorism co-operation (First Post, October 19). However, this is unlikely. China’s traditional approach to Pakistan’s role in Xinjiang has been to resolve these issues directly with Islamabad. Beijing seems “confident” of this approach, as it has yielded results: On several occasions, Pakistan has picked up and handed over Uyghur terrorists to China (Author’s Interview, Ajai Sahni, New Delhi, October 22). Consequently, the possibility of the joint counter-terrorism exercises leading to operational cooperation, especially in the case of terrorist attacks that have Pakistani linkages and origins, seems rather remote.

The Road Ahead

India’s approach to counter-terrorism cooperation with China is pragmatic. While Delhi would have liked more meaningful joint counter-terrorism exercises and more robust cooperation, it is aware that these are unrealistic expectations given the Sino-Pakistan relationship. Therefore, Delhi has set its sights low and India has not challenged China’s reluctance to cooperate publicly on counter-terrorism issues. India has also not pressed China to publicly acknowledge Pakistan’s support of terrorist groups. Yet, India hopes that China will prod Pakistan in private to halt such support, driving India to continue its counter-terrorism cooperation with China, including the largely symbolic and marginally fruitful counter-terrorism exercises.

The joint military exercises, along with other military CBMs, were put in place to ease mutual suspicion and build confidence. Yet the absence of confidence on multiple fronts has resulted in the two sides putting in place weak, insubstantial and ineffective joint exercises. Thus the joint exercises are caught in a dangerous cycle of suspicion. The process needs to be institutionalized, and Delhi and Beijing can draw inspiration and ideas from the far more successful Sino-Russian joint military exercises. The joint military exercises could facilitate a more potent CBM if the two sides act to step up its content, participation and frequency. Most importantly, joint exercises and other CBMs can only do so much to prevent conflict escalation. The underlying cause for the tension—the border dispute—needs to be addressed, as even the most robust CBMs cannot be a substitute for a long-term resolution of the border dispute.


  1. The two sides also differ on how long the LAC is. While India puts the length at 4,056 kilometers (km), China holds the length of the disputed boundary to be approximately 2,000 km, which implies exclusion of the section that is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
  2. For an analytical overview of the Sino-Indian bilateral agreements and CBMs, see Jabin T. Jacob, "Bilateral Agreements and Sino-Indian Confidence-Building Measures," in Dipankar Banerjee and Jabin T. Jacob (eds), Military Confidence-Building and India-China Relations: Fighting Distrust (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2013), pp. 151–161).
  3. For instance, India had objected to holding the 2007 joint counter-terrorism exercises in Chengdu. The Chengdu military region is responsible for security in Tibet and adjoining regions and India did not want the counter-terrorism exercises to appear focused on Tibet. However, India agreed to hold the 2008 exercises in Chengdu.
  4. Relations between the Indian and Chinese navies have been far less acrimonious in the past. This is partly because the navies played a defensive role in the 1962 war, unlike the two armies and air forces, which engaged in combat. However, this less hostile past and the present cooperation in joint exercises must not be over-stated, as rivalry between the two navies is rising rapidly. The navies have benefitted from the fact that maritime trade is central to the economies of the two countries. The need to secure sea lanes from piracy and maritime terrorism has strengthened the possibility of operational cooperation between the two navies. This has not been the case with the joint army exercises.