INDIA CHINA MILITARY RELATIONS
ENIGMATIC BUT THAWING
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi
Defence relations between countries are strengthened, diluted or broken depending on the overall relationship between them. Relations between India and China - the two biggest and populous countries of Asia had soured within a decade of their coming on the world scene as independent nations. This was mainly on account of misperceptions on both sides, especially relating to the alignment of the northern borders and China’s suspicions about Tibet. This culminated in the war of 1962 on the northern borders. Negative connotations between India and China commenced in the mid 1950’s, peaked in 1962 and continued till the late 1970’s. Relations between the two countries remained frozen for years on account of India’s inability to shake out of the major defeat it had suffered in 1962.
Relations started improving from the 1980’s but the trust deficit remains on both sides, although for different reasons. These reasons are mostly strategic in nature. From the viewpoint of China, these are related to activities in and about Tibet. From India’s viewpoint, the lack of any forward movement on the finalisation of the alignment of the northern borders is the major reason. Other factors are the inability of the two countries to correctly read each other’s intentions in the political, economic and diplomatic fields. Notwithstanding these imponderables, relations are improving slowly and it can be discerned that both sides are trying to reach a modus vivendi, whereby the current misperceptions are sought to be narrowed down, including in the field of defence. Apparently, there is a desire on both sides to build a more robust and longer lasting relationship between the two countries and the two militaries.
India and China have a 5,045-kilometer (km) long undemarcated border in the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. India claims that China is illegally occupying 38,000 square-km of its territory in Ladakh, while China asserts ownership over a 90,000-square-km area encompassing the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Although there has been an upswing in diplomatic, political, economic, and even military ties over the past decade—intensifying from 2004 onward—no resolution of the border dispute is in sight. China’s continuing military modernisation and upgrading of its military posture in Tibet, especially its rapid force deployment capability, backed by credible logistics and highly improved infrastructure, are worries for India. Repeated incursions by the PLA across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) add to India’s perceptions of a credible threat from China. These actions are read as coercive tactics by India, which keep tensions alive.
Following the 1962 debacle, India’s political leadership and its diplomatic and bureaucratic advisers remained wary of China for many years and could not visualize how the relations could be normalised. It was only in the early 1980’s that the then Army Chief, General K V Krishnarao was able to persuade Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to agree to moving the troops back to the northern borders, which had been vacated in 1962 during the India-China War. This deployment of the Indian Army close to the LAC had both positive and negative connotations. The negative aspects related to near clashes between patrols of the two sides, which were launched to ensure periodic presence by the troops in areas claimed by both sides. At the same time, interactions between the two armies commenced. Such interactions were initially at border meetings with local commanders.
Two incidents of importance occurred after the 1962 war. The first was in 1967 at Nathu La in Sikkim, where the Indian Army thwarted a major attempt by the Chinese troops to push our troops back and occupy the heights. The second was in 1987 in Arunachal Pradesh, where quick and strong action by the Indian Army forestalled an encroachment by Chinese troops across the Sumdrong Chu. These two incidents deterred the Chinese from attempting such encroachments for a number of years, as the message went home about the capabilities and resolve of the Indian Army. In recent years, however, the Chinese have re-started such activities, sensing the reduction in the deterrent value of Indian troops on account of both lack of modernisation and the lack of political will displayed by the government of India.
Parallel to the actions on the border areas, trade was revived between the two countries and it soon began to rise at a rapid rate, although the balance of payments continued to favour China. China is India's largest trading partner now and trade between the two exceeded $75 billion last year; it is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015.
A warming trend in relations between the two countries commenced after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in Dec 1988, wherein it was decided to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary issue. Between Dec 1988 and Jun 1993, some progress was made in reducing tensions on the border via Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), including regular meetings of local military commanders and advance notifications of military exercises. Seven rounds of JWG talks were held during this period.
During Defence Minister Sharad Pawar's visit to Beijing in July 1992, it was agreed to develop academic, military, scientific and technological exchanges. A senior level Chinese military delegation aimed at fostering CBMs between the defence forces of the two countries made a six day goodwill visit to India in Dec 1993. The visit was reciprocated by Indian Army Chief General BC Joshi's visit to China in July 1994. Bilateral defence interaction since then has been growing. Peace and tranquility along the LAC in the border areas is being largely maintained by both sides in accordance with the agreements of 1993 and 1996. Thereafter, bilateral visits have continued at both political and defence levels. In Dec 2004, Gen NC Vij, the then COAS visited China and both countries agreed to deepen defence cooperation.
In May 2005, the CGS of China visited India, which was a further sign of warming relations between the two militaries. The Indian Defence Minister visited China in May 2006 and signed the first ever Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defence exchanges. In May 2007, Gen JJ Singh, in his capacity as the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) visited China, marking it as a first visit at this level. In Nov 2008, the Chief of Air Staff paid an official visit to China while the Commander of PLA Navy also visited India at roughly the same time. In Apr 2009, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chairman COSC visited China and participated in the International Fleet Review to mark the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of PLA Navy.
2012 was an eventful year, as the number of interactions increased during the year. On 01 March 2012, during the visit of the foreign minister of China, the two countries decided to set up a maritime dialogue between the Indian Navy and PLA Navy.
The Chinese Defence Minister visited India in Sep 2012 and a “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India China Border Affairs” was established. A meeting followed in Nov 2012. The other important high level visits from India to China in the year 2012 were visit by Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Naval Command in June 2012, along with visit by four Indian Navy ships to Shanghai; visit by National Defence College (NDC) delegation in Sep 2012; visit by an Indian Multi Command delegation to Beijing and Chengdu Military Regions in Jul 2012 and visits by Defence Services Staff College and Indian Air Force delegations in Sep 2012. The important visits from China to India included port call by PLA Navy Ship Zhenghe to Kochi in Jun 2012; visits by delegations from National Defence University (NDU) and Nanjing Army Command College. There was also a visit by a six member delegation for DEFEXPO 2012.
2013 has not been a good year in the relations between the militaries of the two countries so far. The PLA’s ingress in the Depsang Plains in Ladakh in April this year was not a case of inadvertent ingress, but had all the marks of a well planned move. The matter was ultimately resolved through a mixture of strong military response and diplomacy. A number of earlier scheduled visits of leaders of the two countries also helped as neither side wanted to derail them. Such events tend to negate other achievements made in the past.
Bilateral defence interactions have been growing during the last few years but there are cases of patrols straying into areas claimed by the other side, either by design or on account of lack of clarity about the alignment of the LAC.
The range and depth of interactions between the militaries of India and China can be gauged by the following events:
· In the last 10 years, Defence Ministers of India have visited China four times and the Defence Ministers of China have visited India thrice.
· The first Annual Defence Dialogue between India and China was held in Beijing in Nov 2007. Thereafter, three additional dialogues have taken place. The fourth round was held in New Delhi on 09 December 2011 and was co-chaired by India’s Defence Secretary and the China’s Deputy CGS.
· Joint training exercises are also being held since 2007, mainly relating to counter terrorism.
· The aerobatics display team of the Indian Air Force participated in the 7th International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (Zhuhai Air Show).
· A number of Confidence Building Measures (CBM’s) are in place between the two countries. These are listed at Figure1below.
China’s Latest Defence White Paper
On 16 April 2013, China’s State Council published a White Paper titled The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces. Its central message is that there will be no compromise with China’s sovereignty and the pace of China’s military modernisation will only increase in the future. In addition, the PLA, now a formidable force by international standards, will remain the most important instrument of governance in the hands of the Chinese communist party.
India needs to take note of the core assertions of the paper, which include the following:
· The reach of the PLA is becoming global and extends to areas where India has interests. The Chinese PLA is carrying out exercises in far flung regions, with the PLA navy and air force also carrying out joint exercises with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.
· The professionalism of the PLA is growing rapidly. There is major emphasis on training and combined operations. The focus on winning “local wars under conditions of informationalisation” continues.
· China’s Second Artillery Force (in charge of nuclear and conventional missiles), is being modernised. For the first time, the paper does not explicitly mention the “no first use”doctrine, but lays emphasis on strategic deterrence and counter attack.
· Chinese military forces will be used in combating the three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism. The indirect reference here is to Xinjiang and Tibet regions.
· Tensions between China and the United States, and between China and Japan, can be expected to increase. Both Japan and the United States are India’s strategic partners, so India needs to take note of this. ASEAN countries have also been issued a veiled warning not to “complicate or exacerbate the situation”.
· China’s military doctrine is taking up a distinctly superpower flavor, stating that it will develop armed forces commensurate with its international status.
· The emphasis on inter-operability, rapid reaction, mobility, joint endeavours and command and control aspects continues
The White Paper provides specifics of modernisation of the various components of the PLA as under:
· PLA Army, with 18 combined corps and strength of 850,000, is concentrating on mobility, special operations forces and digitalised units, while enhancing air-ground integrated operations and long-distance manoeuvres.
· PLA Navy, with strength of 235,000 officers is organised into three fleets, each equipped with aviation divisions and marine brigades. The navy has lately acquired an aircraft carrier, submarines, surface vessels, naval aviation equipment, etc.
· PLA Air Force, with strength of 398,000 is organised in seven Military Area Commands. It is developing a variety of reconnaissance and early warning, air strike, air and missile defence, and strategic projection systems.
· The PLA Second Artillery Force has improved the capabilities of strategic deterrence, nuclear counter-attack and conventional precision strike. Equipped with a variety of "Dong Feng" ballistic missiles and "Chang Jian" cruise missiles, it has a number of missile bases.
The White Paper is obviously a document of an increasingly confident, emerging, super power. The strides made in military modernisation are impressive.
Prognosis for India
India needs to understand the implications of the continuing modernisation of all wings of the PLA, especially in the context of the increasing incidents on the LAC. China’s belligerence can be seen in the South China and East China Seas, where the PLA navy is playing an increasingly assertive role. China is backing its aggressive assertions with a steady buildup of its military capability. Its military budget has grown annually by double-digit figures for over two decades, with the 2012–13 fiscal year (FY) outlay crossing $100 billion. At the same time, China is also conscious of projecting a clean and benign image to the world.
India needs to develop credible hard power as a dissuasive strategy against China. It must not bank totally on political and diplomatic instruments, as it seems to be doing now.Indian response to incidents on the northern borders must be firm and no weakness, especially from the policy makers, should be discerned by China. While diplomacy has its place, it is firm military resolve that is even more important. A weak response will hurt India’s national security interests immensely.
The military dimension continues to be critical to the India-China relationship. Unlike other facets of India-China relations, which are generally irritant-free, only the military element remains problematic on account of its linkage with the long-standing border dispute. Our slow and at times irrelevant decision-making has made us lose many initiatives in the past. Two examples should suffice. The army projected the dire need for infrastructural improvements repeatedly decades back. It was finally accepted a few years back but the pace of improvements continues to be slow on account of bureaucratic delays. The need for enhancement of force levels on the northern borders was also projected years back. Now, a decision has been taken to raise a strike corps for the mountains, but it is unlikely to materialize for a minimum of seven yeas, perhaps more. We can not afford to be so lackadaisical in handling such urgent security issues. The Indian Military needs to also modernize and focus on cyber and space domains, for which we have sufficient expertise. What is now needed is to build up a military interface in these domains, so that we are able to match if not surpass the capabilities of China’s PLA in these fields.
Notwithstanding the economic downturn in recent years, India and China are emerging economies and rising powers in Asia. They need to ensure that military-to-military relations between both sides remain at an even keel. This is being done by military diplomacy and bilateral discussions. In addition, the Indian government needs to ensure military preparedness, so that deterrence prevails and China is not tempted to unilaterally attempt to change the situation on the ground.
Both India and China need to avoid war, pursue diplomacy but India must become militarily strong. This will not only permit the two nations to grow but would also add to a peaceful world.
CBMs between India and China
· Maintenance of Peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border on September 7, 1993.
· Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas on November 29, 1996
· Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question on June 23, 2003
· Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question on April 11, 2005
· Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of Defence
· Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India on June 25, 2006
· Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs on January 18, 2012.