The Kunming Joint Military Exercises and Sino-Indian Relations

28 Dec, 2007    ·   2451

Bhartendu Kumar Singh evaluates the first joint army exercises between the two nations

India and China have often been described as two rising great powers with potential for mutual competition and rivalry, if not open conflict. Political pundits cite the unresolved border dispute, a history of war and the economic and military empowerment of China to paint a not too optimistic future for bilateral relations. Yet, the way the two countries have managed the bilateral relationship is commendable. Not only have the two militaries managed peace with each other, they have also crossed many a milestone in mutual confidence building. The just concluded joint exercise of the Indian and Chinese armies at the Kunming Military Academy in China's Yunnan province is perhaps another step.

Although the two countries have held a series of joint naval exercises earlier and sent their observers to each other's army exercises, this was the first-ever joint exercise between the ground forces of the two countries. Its significance should not be lost just because the magnitude was limited to hundred-odd participants from each side or because the objectives were limited in terms of experience-sharing in anti-terrorism. While a policy decision on regular joint military exercises had been taken in 2006 by the defence ministers, procedural issues delayed this maiden exercise, initially slated for October 2007.

The Kunming exercise, nicknamed 'Hand-in-Hand 2007' has certainly raised the military ties between the two countries to a new level. It signifies that the two sides are willing to become partners in a globalized set-up where the threat often comes from non-state actors such as terrorists, fundamentalists and secessionists. When there is a common threat perception, it does help if both sides are familiar with each other's military procedures, combat tactics and war traditions. It was only logical that both sides decided to institutionalize these exercises to maximize future gains.

However, the Kunming exercise does not mean that the Indian Army is as good as its Chinese counterpart in handling emerging threats. While the Chinese PLA participates in over a 100 joint military exercises per year, India has just started engaging other countries in military diplomacy. Naturally, India has to engage more countries to enrich its experience. Also, the Indian Army is less pampered than its Chinese counterpart. The military infrastructure and logistic support is far better on the Chinese side than on the Indian side. Finally, while the Chinese PLA is financing its modernization through sustained double-digit growth in the defence budget, Indian forces remain victims of multiple constraints, the budget being just one of them.

The Kunming exercise should not be interpreted as a sign of any decline of the Chinese threat to India, either. In fact, there are many experts who view China as a bigger threat than Pakistan. The completion of Qinghai-Tibet Railway and plans to bring it to Nepal have only added to such apprehensions. Whether or not the border dispute is resolved, China will remain a latent threat to India. Even a domestic political crisis in China could lead to a war with India to divert public attention.

While India's preparedness against a hypothetical Chinese attack is debatable, its engagement with China's military through various mechanisms has paid off. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is far more peaceful compared to the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan and has relieved India from the prospects of a 'two-front war', at least in the near future. Clandestine activities by the Chinese PLA near LAC are reportedly far less than by the Pakistan army near the LoC. Instead, the LAC is known for a series of interactive activities that are absent astride the LoC.

Kunming symbolizes the willingness of both countries to trust each other while dealing with global issues. In the just concluded UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Bali, both countries teamed up to thwart plans to dump the existing climate pact. The long-proposed 'Kunming Initiative' or the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) initiative, if executed, has the potential to give a further fillip to Sino-Indian trade that has crossed the US$30 billion mark. Once infrastructure is further developed in this part of the world, Kunming can also serve as a bridge between the populations of India and China.

The finer lessons from the Kunming military exercise will surely be debated and analyzed by the military leadership in the two countries. In all probability, the next joint exercise slated to be in India sometime next year would be on a larger scale. Given the mirror images that people have in India and China about each other, such exercises will surely help in bringing the two civilizations closer together.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Government of India.