SRINAGAR, Jammu & Kashmir – After the 2017 border confrontation between China and India at Doklam – a narrow plateau near the tri-junction border of China, India and Bhutan, which is also referred to as Donglang in Chinese – the armies of two strong countries in the Asia-Pacific region have begun the seventh edition of a joint military exercise called Hand-in-Hand 2018.
The 2017 China-India border standoff also known as the Doklam face-off refers to the confrontation between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam.
Is the latest edition of the Sino-Indian military drill therefore a renewed attempt to forge a long-term partnership between the two countries, or a mere symbolic and regular annual military feature with little to no impact on bilateral economic and diplomatic relations?
The drill began in China’s Chengdu region on December 11 and will continue until December 23.
Media reports said that company size contingents of the Indian Army’s 11 Sikh Light Infantry and a regiment from Tibetan Military District of PLA are participating in the drill.
“The Indian contingent is commanded by Col Puneet Paratap Singh Tomar, Commanding Officer of 11 Sikh Light Infantry, while the Chinese contingent is led by Col Zhou Jun, Commanding Officer from Infantry Battalion of Tibetan Military District of PLA,” according to an Indian Army statement.
The exercise will consist of indoor and outdoor activities and aims to “build and promote close relations between armies of both the countries,” the statement said, adding that it will “involve tactical level operations in an international counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism environment under U.N. mandate.”
In one of the videos aired by several corporate media channels based in Noida and Mumbai in India, personnel from the two armies could be seen singing and dancing together.
Is this ‘bonhomie’ symbolic? What does the joint military exercise mean for the region?
Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army Colonel and a current defense and strategic analyst, believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have managed the Doklam crisis and succeeded in finalizing an agreement earlier this year to maintain a ceasefire.
“After an initially unsettled period that saw several border stand-offs, including at Doklam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have managed to hammer out an agreement at Wuhan earlier this year to maintain a truce on the borders,” Shukla told The Defense Post.
“Neither side wants an uncontrolled escalation of a border stand-off to become a strategic distraction from their respective political preoccupations. It can be said, therefore, that a level of strategic stability has been achieved in Sino-Indian border relations.”
SUBHEAD: China’s strategic ambitions and political preoccupations
Professor Siddiq Wahid, an academic and historian and former vice chancellor at Jammu and Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) currently based in Srinagar, argues that China’s strategic ambition is “to be the only power in Asia and one of the world’s two (maybe three if Russia emerges?) powers today.”
China “senses a power vacuum in West Asia because of Washington’s isolationist policy,” Wahid told The Defense Post. “In South Asia, it sees a muddled region from one end of the Himalaya to the other. Put otherwise, it sees a lack of capacity to challenge Beijing in Delhi, which it sees as a bit player and a proxy for the United States’ policies in the South China Seas.”
The general perception in India is that New Delhi cannot afford to annoy Beijing beyond a point and that is perhaps why the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government preferred diplomacy over belligerence to resolve the Doklam crisis.
Delhi also understands that China is the world’s second largest economy next only to the United States.
Moreover, India is going to general elections early next year.
While Modi has upped the ante against nuclear-armed arch-rival Pakistan he is shying away from mentioning China in his public speeches even when, as India Today reported, Chinese troops had made at least fourteen incursions over a fortnight across the Line of Control in Ladakh, a mountainous region in disputed Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
In the October 2 story, India Today claimed to have accessed a report by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police that said that the Chinese Army in Ladakh had been aggressive in its incursions in August, encroaching some 10-18 km (6-11 miles) into the disputed region.
Chinese troops have furthermore erected tents inside Ladakh region many times, according to a Times of India report.
Meanwhile, Indian Army commander Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh claimed that defense and military attaches of the U.S., Russia, France, Australia and other countries had recently visited forward areas along the China-India border in Ladakh as part of a “familiarization tour.”
According to Singh, the military attaches had “expressed contentment about the security situation there.”
Attaches from over 20 countries were taken on a tour close to the Line of Actual Control with China to “familiarize them” with the security situation, he said.
Last year, China and India could not hold a joint military drill due to the Doklam face-off. Is this year’s exercise indicative of the fact that China has responded positively to Modi’s diplomacy and peace overture?
Ex #HandInHand2018. 'Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal'. Troops of #IndianArmy & #ChineseArmy sharing lighter moments after practicing gruesome Battle Obstacle Course. #Synergy #Interoperability #UnitedNations @SpokespersonMoD @PIB_India pic.twitter.com/A3saAO4T8P
— ADG PI – INDIAN ARMY (@adgpi) December 12, 2018
Rahul Bedi, a defense expert and journalist who writes on strategic affairs, is of the view that “China doesn’t care what Modi thinks or not thinks.”
“When Mr. Modi met Xi Jinping in Wuhan he was seeking peace ahead of the general elections in India due in May. Both sides agreed to not escalate the situation after Doklam standoff and wanted continuation of what used to take place [the annual joint military drills]. I don’t think the Chinese really care what Modi thinks or what India thinks. The Chinese have embarked on a journey,” Bedi told The Defense Post.
It is widely accepted that international relations are largely built on quid pro quo.
Pakistan and China granted each other most favored nation status in 1963, after China attacked India in 1962. It was a reconfirmation of sorts that China and Pakistan treated India as their common enemy.
South Asia experts have argued that Pakistan-China relations are inspired by their mutual rivalry with India. In Pakistan, the perception of China is that of an unfaltering “all-weather friend” and a reliable ally, regardless of regional and global stances.
‘Raising the Tricolor’
Opening Ceremony of the 7th India-China joint Hand-in-Hand joint training exercises was held in Chengdu. Indian Army contingent and Tibetan Military command of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are participating in the exercises.@DefenceMinIndia @MEAIndia pic.twitter.com/O4xmyoQpbp
— India in China (@EOIBeijing) December 11, 2018
It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will overtly object to India-China military exercise for both countries enjoy compatibility of sorts to understand that annual joint military drills do not necessarily mean economic and strategic alliance.
Indian authors Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab in their book “Dragon On Our Doorstep” write that “Let alone China, India cannot even afford to win a war against Pakistan. And this has nothing to do with the possession of nuclear weapons – the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons are separate in the war planning of India, China and Pakistan.”
They argue that India would be at a disadvantage in a war with Pakistan because “while Pakistan has built military power, India focused on building military force.”