Features | Security | South Asia

India, China Show Military Grit

The latest defense dialogue between the Chinese and Indian militaries had some constructive ideas for improving military ties. Can they follow through?

By Nitin Gokhale for

For all the tension generated by the last-minute cancellation of border talks at the Special Representatives level, India and China not only held their annual defense dialogue in New Delhi on December 9 and 10, but also decided to move forward in strengthening military-to-military contacts.

The defense delegations were meeting after a nearly two year break, with the last such gathering having taken place in January 2010. The extended gap was prompted by Beijing’s denial of a visa to one of India’s top army generals because he was commanding troops in Jammu and Kashmir, a region China says is disputed territory between India and Pakistan.  

But the bitterness that has been evident in the past couple of years appeared to be on hold when the two delegations met this time. Led by Indian Defense Secretary Shashikant Sharma and Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the Chinese military’s most visible face, the two sides decided to take incremental steps in improving their military contacts, rather than aiming for big ticket announcements.

Accordingly, two mid-level delegations will visit each other in successive months starting in January. India also proposed that some of the border posts along the 4,000 kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the border is officially known, could be relocated for administrative and logistical convenience, a request Beijing’s military delegation agreed to consider.

The largely un-demarcated LAC runs along some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Troops are deployed there at altitudes in excess of 12,000 feet all along the Himalayas, where temperatures frequently dip to anything between minus 20 to minus 40 degrees Celsius between November and April.

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While infrastructure along the border on the Indian side is continuously being improved under a comprehensive plan, Indian troops have to spend at least a month acclimatizing to the extreme weather conditions after a steep climb from the plains of northern India. Some posts in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are still accessible only on foot, after a two-day trek. Chinese PLA troops, on the other hand, have the advantage of being deployed on the high altitude Tibetan plateau, which boasts much better infrastructure.

Although the disputed boundary has largely remained peaceful, transgressions by troops from either side into each other’s territory have been a major irritant in a relationship that’s increasingly marked by rising trade, but a corresponding increase in mutual suspicion over military matters. While China views India’s developing ties with countries around the South China Sea – and its intention to develop a 5,000 kilometer range missile capable of hitting deep into Chinese territory – suspiciously, India regards China’s overt and covert assistance to Pakistan and other countries in the region as aimed at tying India down in the sub-continent.

It’s with this reality in mind that both sides see deeper military-to-military ties as a way of reducing suspicion – and the chance of miscalculation.

To start with, military teams will work out a mechanism for institutionalizing the nomination of officers to each other’s defense establishments to attend various courses.

So far, China and Pakistan are the only two countries whose officers don’t attend a range of courses at the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force War Colleges or the prestigious National Defence College (NDC). It’s not yet clear, however, if the Chinese officers will be allowed to participate in the year-long Higher Command Courses or the NDC course meant for brigadiers and equivalent rank officers from the other two services, or whether they will only be allowed only on a six-week course at the Indian Army War College at Mhow in Central India.

This Higher Defense Orientation Course (HDOC) is meant for colonels and brigadiers or their equivalents in the navies and air forces of armed forces friendly to India. Started in 2006, about 35 officers from countries as diverse and distant as the Philippines, Mozambique and Nigeria undergo the course during the summer months.

Officers spend six weeks working to understand how the Indian military operates, as well as studying geo-strategic developments in India’s immediate and extended neighborhood and the finer points of military-media relations in democratic India. Attendees also learn about the pressures that come with coping with a pro-active media that’s often heavily focused on the military’s operations.

In the past, scenarios and discussion have often centered on India-China competition in Asia and the dynamics of relations between India and its neighbors vis-à-vis China. It will be interesting to see, therefore, how much the HDOC course is altered if and when Chinese officers start participating.

Despite the positive progress this month, there’s been no decision yet on restarting the annual joint exercises that the two countries launched in 2007. Called the Hand-in-Hand series of company level exercises between their two armies, one exercise was held in December 2007 in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, and another was held in Belgaum in southern India in 2008.

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No such exercises have been held since, but leading analysts see Ma’s visit as significant. As Srikanth Kondapalli, a noted Sinologist, argued in a recent article published by Rediff:

“Ma is believed to move up the ladder in the Chinese military next year in the crucial reorganization of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the 18th Communist Party Congress, possibly in October 2012.

“If all goes according to the plan, Gen. Ma is expected to become air force commander, and the current commander of the air force could become vice chairman of the CMC. In this context, interactions with Ma could be worthwhile.”

Sino-India interactions have undoubtedly had numerous ups and downs in recent years. However, the very fact that both sides have agreed to continue such contacts underscores the welcome commitment on both sides to keep talking at any cost.