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Sino-Indian defence dialogue: should India be worried?

Fifty years after the 1962 war which left bitter memories and pending border issues, relations between China and India seem to be once more under strain. With both countries caught between the wish to negotiate and to compete, the bilateral relation appears entrenched in larger security issues

Bhavna Singh
15 February 2012

India and China held their fourth Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) on 9 December 2011 after a two year break in their military relations. These talks were kept in abeyance due to the apparent reluctance shown by the Chinese authorities in issuing proper visas to Indian military personnel hailing from disputed territories in India. The dialogue was instated with the view that better military ties would eventually benefit both countries. Yet it is difficult to be sure about the momentum and the trajectory of these talks.

It is worth asking what the security dilemmas are that these neighbours face, and what geo-strategic compulsions have led to an ongoing trust deficit on military and border issues in the recent past. Such an analysis of the strategic concerns guiding developments in the Asian region will allow us to assess the prospects for cooperation or non-cooperation in the military field, and the implications for the future of Asia.

Military dialogue

China and India have both struggled to overcome the memories of their 1962 war. In an effort to overcome the military schism between the two countries, the visit of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in December 1988 was followed by a stream of high level political visits in the 1990s. Since then, the militaries in both countries have largely maintained a non-confrontational posture along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or the McMohan Line (established on 7 November 1959 and not to be confused with the Line of Control that defines India’s border with Pakistan on the western side), which gave an impetus for dialogue and putting an end to bilateral squabbling. Disagreements on the LAC or the McMohan line stem from disputed historical claims on the borders between India and China, especially in Tibet.

Some military interactions were initiated around the late 1980s and early 1990s, condoning the clashes during the ‘Chola Incident’ in 1967 at Nathu La and in 1987 at Sumdurong Chu. It was largely Indian Foreign Minister N.D. Tiwari’s visit to Beijing in May 1987 en route to North Korea that prevented the development of a warlike standoff between India and China in the late 1980s. “There was no intention on New Delhi's part to aggravate the situation in Arunachal Pradesh,” he said. The first formal flag meeting to discuss “the freezing of the situation” since 1962, was held soon after on August 5, 1987 at Bum La, in the aftermath of the Wangdung affair.

However, the first major step in military diplomacy came only with the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in September 1993, followed by the 1996 Agreement on confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LAC. As a follow up to the 1993 agreement, a senior level Chinese military delegation made a six-day goodwill visit to India in December 1993 in order to foster CBMs between the defence forces of the two countries. The visit was reciprocated by Indian Army Chief Gen. BC Joshi who visited China in July 1994. Despite these two agreements, several incidents of Chinese intrusions at Asaphi La and at several places in Arunachal Pradesh were reported in the media. Various occasions are remembered when Indian and Chinese patrols met face-to-face in areas like the two “fish-tail” shaped protrusions in the north-east corner of Arunachal Pradesh.

Again during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi in April 2005, additional CBMs were supplemented to the 1996 agreement. These included provisions like border meeting points at Kibithu–Damai in the eastern sector and Lipulekh Pass in the Middle Sector; exchanges between the relevant military regions of China and army commands of India; and exchanges between institutions of training, sports and culture of the two armed forces. Most importantly, in these declarations, both sides had agreed that neither would undertake specified levels of military exercises in mutually identified zones (Article 3) and each side would be expected to give prior notification of military exercises near the LAC while agreeing that references to the LAC should not be understood as shifts in their respective positions on the boundary question. The scope for cooperation was further broadened to include a dialogue on counter-terrorism exercises.

Implemented in true faith, these agreements would have allowed the two sides to reduce their military expenditure and the significance attached to their positioning in these areas, but to date, these have not led to the withdrawal of armed forces from the bordering regions. Though the air force troops were mentioned in the agreements, there were hardly any exercises conducted between the two sides. And the maritime rapprochement between the two sides only amounted to ‘good-will’ gestures. The navies of the two countries participated in joint exercises off the Shanghai coast in China in 2003 for the first time. The second exercise took place in the Arabian Sea off the Malabar Coast and in 2007 off the coast of Qingdao. 

Besides this, the Chinese were also invited as observers during the Indian Army’s war game exercises in the western sector in 2005, while India sent observers to the China-Russia joint exercises in August 2005 at the invitation of the Chinese. These CBMs then set a stage for a more constructive dialogue between the armed forces of the two sides. The stress on the LAC as a reference point in these agreements has come to bind military relations between the two countries inextricably with the border/boundary question.

China India border west

Wikimedia/Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. China - India western border depicting disputed areas in red. Some rights reserved.(Click image to see map in greater detail).

Building on this momentum, the first Annual Defence Dialogue was institutionalized during the Indian Army Chief Gen. J J Singh’s visit to China in 2007. In accordance with the MOU (Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of Defence) signed in May 2006, the two sides resolved to hold periodic joint-military training exercises. The Chinese PLA was in fact much more willing now to hold anti-terrorism exercises with India hotfoot from dealing with such problems in its northwest that is the Jammu & Kashmir region and the northeast regions. The move was abetted by the bonhomie created through the previous political and diplomatic negotiations between the two sides.

China India border east

Wikimedia/Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. China - India eastern border depicting disputed areas in red. Some rights reserved.(Click image to see map in greater detail).

The second round of dialogue took place in India in December 2008 despite much media speculation around the alleged sympathy on the part of India to the Tibetan protests in March 2008 and criticism of the Indian military exercise ‘Dakshin Shakti’ along the Sino-Indian border conducted the same year, which was seen as a major anti-China move targeting most of its cities. This brought some respite to both the establishments. Sino-Indian relations had particularly gone sour in early 2008 as Chinese media and think-tanks continued to lavish criticism on India’s support to the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader and China’s refusal to have a dialogue with him.

The Chinese media also took offence at Indian initiatives to enhance maritime security measures and counter-piracy exercises with the US and Japan. China had previously sent demarches to all the participants of the five-nation naval exercise held in Bay of Bengal in 2007 alleging that India was trying to establish mechanisms along with other East Asian powers to counter China. The fear was reinforced by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue established between India, the US, Japan and Australia in 2007 with the aim of ushering in an era of ‘democratic peace’ in Asia, which was also seen as ideologically challenging for China. (It was only after the India-threat perception calmed down relatively in Chinese media circles that India allowed Japan to participate in the Malabar series in 2010 and 2011).

The two countries tried to assuage their political misgivings by demonstrating their will and solidarity during the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ exercise held in Belgaum in 2008. This was a welcome step as the common perceptions between the two countries had been completely dominated by a China and India-threat scenario. Many even compared the animosity to the 1962 levels (Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 22, 2008) citing increased nationalism on both sides. In an effort to intensify military communication, the PLA General Wu Quanxu visited India’s Eastern Command and an Indian Army delegation visited Tibet and the PLA base in Chengdu in 2009.

The third round was held in Beijing in January 2010 following a thaw in their bilateral relations after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Sanya, China, to attend the first meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2010. The dialogue was particularly significant as it took place after a period of strained relations between the two neighbours, with a number of media reports in India suggesting increased incursions by Chinese troops along the disputed border. It was also the first ever visit by an Indian defence secretary (Pradeep Kumar) to China. In view of the border incursions, the meeting was the culmination of an increase in local-level brigadier meetings and regular exchanges against the LAC as well as effective demarcation of the border. 

Yet, the platform created by these exercises became outmoded as differences cropped up about giving visas to military personnel hailing from disputed territories. The most recent case is that of Indian Air Force Officer, Group Captain Mohonto Panging, who was denied a visa on the grounds of belonging to Sikkim. This led to the scaling down of the Indian delegation from an initial 30 to 15 members. Another obstacle to the smooth functioning of the dialogue was China’s objection to the conduct of a Buddhist conference in November 2011 in New Delhi. The Dalai Lama continues to remain an irritant in the normalization of Sino-Indian relations and Beijing yet again used this opportunity to make its reservations known. The Indian Prime Minister as well as the President refrained from attending the conference, bearing China’s sensitivities in mind and thereby demonstrating a conciliatory approach on part of India.

Meanwhile, China is persistently harping on about India’s attempts to contain its rise in the region and its attempts to check China’s advance into Indian territories. Its stance has been accusatory even with regard to the implementation of previous agreements. For instance, India currently has around 40,000 troops in the Northern sector (Pakistan occupied Kashmir/PoK) of the disputed areas. It has been hinted that it intends to deploy another 1, 00,000 troops in the region.  China has vehemently criticized this initiative and is believed to have commented that ‘concentrated troops can be easily eliminated’ and hence it would be imprudent of India’s to adopt such a measure. Chinese military gestures have been interpreted to assume that it is planning for short duration conflicts in the event of any future military entanglement.

Current geo-political exigencies

The fourth round of the dialogue held between Chinese Deputy Chief of General Staff, General Ma Xiaotian and the Indian Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma is being largely seen as constructive for both sides. The press release from the Ministry of Defence mentioned that the “Indian and Chinese sides shared regional and global security perceptions. Both sides agreed that enhancement of defence exchanges between India and China would contribute to better understanding and mutual trust and confidence building.” Both sides also discussed the programme of defence exchanges during 2012 and agreed that the range and scope of exchanges at various levels should be gradually enhanced. India put forward its intention for confidence building measures along the Line of Actual control (LAC) based on their 2005 protocol for maintaining peace and tranquillity and the Chinese side agreed to consider these propositions. Sources also indicate that India had requested China to consider relocating some of the border posts along the LAC.

Though hailed as a procedural success, this meeting came at a great diplomatic cost for India. The repetitive denial of visas to India officers from J& K and Arunachal Pradesh is a strong indication by China that it will not allow any political or diplomatic concessions on territorial issues. These denials also have to be seen in the context of other socio-economic developments on the bilateral front. Burgeoning economic relations are being constrained by instances of social rivalry as suggested during the controversy over Indian traders in Yiwu (China) who were held captive by local Chinese traders. This shows that despite the huge potential for economic exchange between China and India, their interactions are marred by immature diplomatic handling as the two countries are still attempting to gauge each others’ strategic depth.

The fact that India responds to Chinese postures by including the name of defence personnel from its north-eastern region is highly indicative of this immaturity. Though it was aware that visas have previously been denied to Indian defence personnel, yet it included defence personnel from Arunachal Pradesh. It is possible that it was not merely testing the waters, but trying to steal a diplomatic advantage. This was not to be.

However, the fact that India heavily scaled down its delegation from the original numbers should not be read to construe that the Indian government is conceding to China’s position. Rather the government perhaps wanted to express a genuine desire for dialogue, even if, internationally, this might not be seen as a pragmatic move. Yet the climbdown presents an opportunity for ‘amicable’ talks since the Chinese government would see this as a pacifying gesture. The Indian government is likely to face more pressure domestically as civil society and public opinion will be driven by nationalist concerns. The nature of the talks, however, will not be affected since they would be guided by the normative considerations of the two countries and based on the agreed agenda.   

Geopolitical implications

Sino-Indian defence relations are to a large extent determined by the instability amongst their smaller neighbours. While India is concerned about political instability in Pakistan, China wants to see more stable Koreas. The situation in Afghanistan in a post-US withdrawal scenario is also on the priority list of these two countries. Withdrawal would imply that China and India needed to put mechanisms in place which would facilitate their economic engagement with the region. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is believed to be pursuing comprehensive transformation of its army from that of a military based on mass soldiers designed for protracted wars of attrition on its own territory to one capable of fighting and winning short duration, high intensity conflicts along its periphery against high-tech adversaries. China refers to this approach as preparing for “local wars under conditions of informatization.” An analysis of China’s military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests that Beijing is also developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as conflict over resources or disputed territories. Though the main driver for this modernization is seen as the US, this military capability build-up can also provide a major deterrent against India at the same time

China’s assertiveness is already visible in its stance on the South China Sea issue which it considers as its backyard and regarding which it is unwilling to concede economic concessions let alone political ones. Secondly, by sustaining the mere rhetoric of a ‘US-threat’ or ‘India-threat’, China is able to justify its high expenditure on defence to a domestic audience. China’s military modernization is also driven by its aspirations of establishing itself as a global and regional power. Thus, India’s attempts to gain allies in its neighbourhood are seen as inherently competitive and detrimental to its interest in Asia.

This is even true for countries where these two Asian giants pretend to harbour similar objectives; the case in point being Afghanistan. The recently signed strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan, the first of its kind, has created apprehension in Chinese military circles. The agreement includes provision for training Afghanistan’s military and police, the establishment of social and cultural exchanges and measures to enhance economic ties. This is given the fact that though China and India share the overall perspective of strategic stability in Afghanistan, they are likely to compete for the same markets and economic resources within its geographical precincts. Moreover, the agreement was reached against a background of growing Afghanistan-Pakistan estrangement, implying a disagreement with the Chinese administration.

The US dimension in Sino-Indian military ties is particularly significant as India’s future role is largely determined by the perceptions of these two major powers. The US has identified India as a critical ‘swing state’ while China tends to identify it as a relatively weak neighbour which is trying to hedge China in by demonstrating a rising international clout through multilateral bloc formation.  For India, the modernization of its military has become critical to ward off future threats and also again as a tool for the domestic legitimization of its role.  

The road ahead 

Whatever their attitude to each other’s participation in regional and sub-regional multilateral cooperation processes in Asia, China and India have been engaged in an implicit competition with regard to their military might. Though China clearly states that its national defence is aimed at safeguarding national sovereignty, security and interests of national development and it will never pursue hegemony irrespective of its positive economic growth; only a strong military organization can provide it with enough space for manoeuverability in the Asian context.

Second, in terms of the Sino-Indian Annual dialogue there is not even a comprehensive mention of what the LAC exactly means. In a recent response by the official spokesperson in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to a question on Headlines Today calling for the Indian Army ‘not to challenge Chinese aggression,’ he declared that “such reports were factually incorrect and misleading… there is no commonly delineated LAC in the border areas between India and China. The two countries have put in place elaborate mechanism to resolve any situations resulting from this reality.” This reflects some confusion on the part of the bureaucrats, as the press comment aimed at the citizens is to say the least imprecise.

Another problem that India faces while dealing with its domineering neighbour, is the lack of infrastructure in its border regions. Infrastructure development in the disputed areas is highly skewed as China is in a position to place its armed forces near the LAC in a fraction of hours given the high connectivity with its interior areas. For India this presents a major challenge as the roads in the border areas remains abysmally poor. It is impossible to reposition its troops in these areas at short notice in times of need. Moreover, the military gap between India and China is growing at a rapid pace. While India’s pace of military modernization has not been aimed at any of its neighbours, it has been construed by the Chinese policy-makers as threatening.

There have been repetitive voices from the Chinese strategic community claiming that India’s aggressive mood is evident from its stationing of troops along the border and increased level of exercises with other Asian powers and the US (Ta Kung Pao attributed the Indian defence build up to the need to counter China, citing India’s “strategic defence” needs, that is, ‘using defence for offence and vice versa). Recognizing the weak position of India militarily, China is looking at its military build-up as one that is opposed to and aimed at China, thereby, legitimizing its own military power acquisition to create a balance in South Asia. Chinese scholars have openly criticized India’s behaviour in the Indian Ocean region and continue to assert that India has intentions to control the oil and energy supply routes through the Indian Ocean. At the same time they acknowledge that most of India’s military posture has so far been driven by the insecurities presented by its belligerent neighbour Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the international community has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China’s military modernization. China’s leaders have yet to explain in detail the purposes and objectives of the PLA’s modernizing military capabilities. For example, China continues to promulgate incomplete defense expenditure figures, and engage in actions that appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies.  The National Defense White Paper 2010 also states the aim of militarization to be merely – “To meet the new and changing needs of national security, the PLA tries to accentuate modernization from a higher platform.” The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.  This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown. These dialogues might be the only way for India to gain an insight into its actual capabilities.

Current Sino-Indian interactions suggest an element of coercive diplomacy being played out where China is trying to extract maximum concessions from the Indian side. How far China will be willing to alienate the Indian leadership or mass opinion in pursuit of its aggressive territorial strategy remains to be seen, but the two neighbours are incredibly cognizant of the huge stakes involved in case of war. In the short-term “military-to-military contacts and exchanges” will be the likely mode of cooperation; confidence building measures (CBMs) will be strengthened by both sides to promote strategic relations. For instance as regards nuclear CBMs, defence personnel exchange at the Defence College levels and cooperation through interaction between defence related think-tanks in the two countries will be sought.  

The primary obstacle to a pragmatic resolution of the boundary dispute is the strong emphasis on national narratives in both countries that posit a tight link between sovereignty and territoriality and enlist nationalist fervour in defense of these ideas. For China, along with this national narrative is added the question of regime survival, rendering it difficult domestically for Chinese leaders to co-opt India. However, the border talks which have become intertwined with military dialogue will continue to provide a pivot for manoeuvering. While India will try to minimize its losses by not letting China make head way in Arunachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir (Aksai Chin), China would possibly try to exploit its advantageous position to gain territorial benefits. While the establishment of military CBMs will try to ensure lesser incursions and intrusions along the border, any permanent settlement is less likely anytime soon, that is if India’s aspirations on its national territory are not to be compromised. On a positive note, a Sino-Indian military engagement in earnest holds the potential for constraining the visions of an Asia-led century while allaying the misperceptions of more than half the world’s population; setting a non-western perspective internationally and redefining the geostrategic focus of the world.

So far China’s approach to India has been construed as that of strategic ambivalence, but until and unless it begins to co-opt India’s aspirations both military and strategic, its ascendance in Asia will not be smooth.  As far as India is concerned, the opportunity lies in both engaging with and hedging itself against China at the same time. As a less powerful player during the 1960s and 1970s China effectively utilized its position vis-à-vis US and Russia to gain benefits from both parties. India could also perhaps utilize the present circumstances to engage with both the US and China in ways which would allow it to function with leverage in the international arena.  Meanwhile, India should also keep in mind that the current military diplomacy through dialogue does not address the security dilemmas projected by China, and hence other means also need to be explored. Now with India and China reaching an agreement to put their signatures to certain modalities on the Sino-Indian border, the need for a pragmatic evaluation of their bilateral relations is even more essential.

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