Asia Pacific

India Appoints ‘China Expert’ as New Defense Chief

India has appointed as its new defense chief a general who led forces on its disputed frontier with China, as New Delhi seeks to counter Beijing’s growing military assertiveness.

Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan‘s appointment comes in the midst of a root-and-branch reform of India’s armed forces, and nearly a year after the previous defense chief died in a helicopter crash.

India has been wary of its northern neighbor’s growing troop presence along their immense frontier, and border disputes — including deadly Himalayan clashes in 2020 — have been a perennial source of tension.

Chauhan, described as a “China expert” by local media, had been serving as counsel to India’s national security adviser after his retirement from active service last year.

He will take up the role of chief of defense staff “until further orders,” a defense ministry statement said late Wednesday.

Chauhan commanded ground forces on India’s eastern front — including much of the disputed border with China — before stepping down.

Both countries fought a full-scale war in the region in 1962 for control of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety and considers part of Tibet.

New Delhi and Beijing have regularly accused each other of trying to seize territory at key flashpoints along their 3,500-kilometre (2,200-mile) divide, known as the Line of Actual Control.

Their troops fought a high-altitude skirmish in 2020 along the border dividing Tibet from India’s state of Ladakh, killing 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers, and precipitating a sharp deterioration in relations.

But both countries this month began pulling back soldiers from around the site of that incident after more than a dozen rounds of top-level military talks — and after a two-year stand-off.

New Delhi is also concerned over Beijing’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, seeing the region as firmly within its sphere of influence.

India and the United States are both members of the so-called Quad, a security alliance focused on the Indo-Pacific and aimed at providing a more substantive counterweight to China.

Delayed Succession

Chauhan’s career also included a commanding role in disputed Kashmir — home to a long-running insurgency against Indian rule — and cross-border strikes in 2019 against militant groups in neighboring Myanmar.

His appointment ends months of uncertainty over who would succeed General Bipin Rawat, who was killed in a helicopter crash in December 2021.

Rawat, 63, was the first chief of defense staff and was considered a close supporter of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who created the post especially for him.

While in office, Rawat ruffled Beijing’s feathers by repeatedly questioning its actions at their disputed borders and warning Nepal about China’s growing footprint.

India has been trying to modernize and streamline its 1.4 million-strong armed forces, and is also working to reduce its reliance on foreign arms, unveiling its first locally made aircraft carrier earlier this month.

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