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Gradual rise in Sino-India defence ties

India and China have agreed to cautiously move ahead with their military ties but the build up is likely to be a slow and gradual process rather than involving any dramatic advances.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2006 13:27 IST
Vishnu Makhijani (IANS)
Vishnu Makhijani (IANS)

India and China have agreed to cautiously move ahead with their military ties but the build up is likely to be a slow and gradual process rather than involving any dramatic advances.

It's a question of mindsets - and more on the Indian side, conversations with senior officials involved in the strategic planning process revealed.

While Beijing might want to push ahead rapidly, as has happened in the fields of nuclear energy cooperation and trade during the ongoing visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao, it would take a fair number of years before this happens in the military field.

"We will have to proceed with caution, taking small baby steps at a time," said a senior armed forces officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, given the delicacy of the issue.

"We don't want to do anything in haste because we don't want to land in a situation where it may be difficult to reverse from," the officer added.

In fact, even the joint statement issued on Tuesday after talks between President Hu and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was rather guarded on the subject.

This despite a major breakthrough that had been achieved May 29 when then Indian defence minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Chinese counterpart Gen Cao Gangchuan signed in Beijing an MoU that "provides a formal basis for the defence and military exchanges that have been taking place between the two countries in the last few years".

The joint statement said "the exchange of visits in the field of defence cooperation has resulted in building of mutual trust and enhancement of mutual understanding between the defence establishments of the two countries.

"Both sides shall fully implement the provisions (of the May 29 MoU) which provides a sound foundation and institutional framework for further development of defence cooperation," the joint statement added.

The document, however, was silent on an important element of the Beijing MoU: Holding of joint military exercises.

This aspect, an army officer pointed out, was the building block and indeed, the litmus test of bilateral military ties.

As one officer put it: "Given the closeness of ties between China and Pakistan, we would be extremely wary of opening up our defence establishments to the Chinese or giving them an insight into our strategic thinking, particularly since we have an unresolved border dispute with them."

This is not to say that Indian and Chinese military officers have not been invited as observers to military exercises in each others' countries.

This, however, is an entirely different ballgame as observers only get an overview of the action on the ground and not the larger picture - that could involve giving out classified information.

This is because, for the participants, exercises are much more than the name suggests.

They test out doctrines, interoperability of personnel, armaments and equipment - all for possible replication in real life situations in third countries.

Thus, what it comes down to is a matter of trust - or rather, the lack of it.

"It's not that we distrust the Chinese. The question is: How much can we trust them?" an officer asked guardedly, referring to a statement by Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi a week before President Hu's arrival in India.

Interviewed by a TV news channel, Sun insisted that the entire northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, over which the two countries fought a bitter war in 1962, was a part of China.

Officials in Beijing quickly sought to downplay the issue, saying it could be resolved through "mutual compromise".

But, as a defence planner wondered: "Why queer the pitch at this stage when interlocutors of the two countries are engaged on the issue? The Chinese were seemingly sending us a message and it is these messages that make us wonder how far we can go with them in the defence sphere."

Then, there is the Siachen glacier, a 76-km wedge of ice that separates the Pakistani Army on the west and the People's Liberation Army to the east, and where India has grimly hung on to the heights it has occupied since 1984.

The Indian and Pakistani armies were engaged in a two-decade-long bruising conflict at heights that rise to 22,000 feet till a truce was brokered in 2003.

New Delhi is known to favour demilitarising the glacier as part of its efforts to improve ties with Islamabad but the Indian Army has made it clear that it will not be able to reoccupy its advantageous positions if it pulls out and Pakistan sends its forces in.

That is not all. The Indian Army also fears that were it to pull out, the Pakistani and Chinese forces could link up and pose a threat to the southern part of the strategically important Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir.

In spite of all this, there is already a fair amount of interaction between the Indian and Chinese militaries.

Indian observers attended the Iron Fist, Peace Mission and Northern Sword exercises conducted by the Chinese and Russian armies, the first in 2004 and the other in 2005.

Chinese observers attended the Desert Strike exercise conducted in India last year.

Three years ago, two Indian Navy ships visited Shanghai and a Chinese naval vessel called at Kochi in 2005.

There have also been visits to China by delegations of India's National Defence College.

This year, a group of officers doing their Higher Command Course at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington is scheduled to travel to China. A group from China's National Defence University is also expected soon.

There are also bi-annual meetings between officers of the two armies at four points along the border with China in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh to maintain "peace and tranquillity on the frontier".

The highlight, of course, was then defence minister Mukherjee's visit to China in May.

In spite of all this, however, it will be quite a while before India's military ties with China reach the level they have with the US, Britain, France and some other countries.

First Published: Nov 23, 2006 13:27 IST