Indo-China military relations: The present and the future

Prabhakar Gupta


Over the past decade, there has been a growing fear of a “China Threat” within Indian strategist circles. Many in India feel that Beijing is engaged in encirclement and containment of India. Responding to this perceived threat, New Delhi has gradually been undertaking a combination of internal balancing by increasing its military capabilities on land and at sea and external balancing by military cooperation with states in East and Southeast Asia and the west.

India’s internal balancing is reflected in the increasing defence budget which was announced as US $ 41 billion for 2012-13, a 17% increase on the previous year. There have been some significant hardware purchases and consistent upgrading of military capabilities along the border with China and also in the naval realm.

Military cooperation with other states extends across the realms of both land and sea. India has invested with Afghanistan with the intention of establishing a strategic relationship following the planned 2014 withdrawal of coalition forces. Indian interaction with the security forces of Tajikistan has seen an increase with the funding and upgrading of the Farkhor and Ayni air bases and construction of a military hospital and logistics depot over there. India had signed a defence cooperation agreement with Mongolia as far back as 2001which led to the positioning of radar systems enabled to monitor Chinese missile tests apart from holding of joint military exercises. India’s relations with Tajikistan and Afghanistan in particular have the potential of undermining China’s use of Pakistan as a proxy state against India.

With regard to the maritime potential, Indian relations with Singapore have particular geopolitical importance as Singapore is at the western approaches to the South China Sea and eastern approaches to the Strait of Malacca, both vital sea lanes of communication. The close security relationship allows India to threaten the closure of the Strait of Malacca, exacerbating Beijing’s “Malacca Dilemma”. The next stop along India’s maritime encirclement of China is Vietnam. Strong ties with Vietnam date back to a 1994 defence agreement and include military training and bilateral naval exercises. These have drawn much criticism from Beijing not helped by the talk of India providing BrahMos missiles to Vietnam. Last, but not the least is the growing Indo-Japanese security relationship. Ties between India and Japan are continuously growing and have expanded further into the security field with the Malabar naval exercises. These relations are further complemented by expanding ties with Japan’s old ally and China’s greatest threat, the United States.

Despite the international posturing, defence ties between India and China have seen considerable momentum in the last few years. In the past one year four military delegations visited each other’s military establishments, including in Tibet. A growing understanding has developed between the two navies operating in the Gulf of Aden; they have begun to combat piracy jointly by coordinating the escort convoys. An Indian flotilla of four ships visited Shanghai en route to Japan, reciprocated by the visit of a Chinese training ship to India.

A process of Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) was established in May 2006 as a forum to institutionalise military exchanges, delegation level visits and exercises between the two countries. Naval exercises between the two countries were held in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and Exercise Hand-in-Hand between the two armies was held in 2007 and 2008 before being abruptly stopped post China’s denial of visa to a senior Indian Army commander. The fourth meeting of the ADD was held in New Delhi on December, 09, 2011 indicating a resurrection of the process.

The recent visit of Chinese Defence Minister General Liang is significant in many ways. Firstly, it has come at a time when defence exchanges and relations are on an upswing, recovering from a period of turbulence in 2009-2010.Secondly, as the Chinese leadership is undergoing a transition this visit could set the course for engagement with the new dispensation. Thirdly, the visit coincides with changing equations caused by US rebalancing towards the Indo-Pacific region and its draw down from Afghanistan.

During the delegation level talks the two defence ministers decided to resume bilateral military exercises and agreed upon high-level official exchanges and maritime security cooperation. The leaders touched the situation in South Asia and Asia Pacific region, with specific reference to the US plans to enhance its presence over there. The sensitive issue of presence of Chinese troops in POK and the long standing border dispute also came up for discussion.

Today, India and China both realise the need for military strength commensurate with their security requirements and the anxieties of the neighbours. Both have realised the need for cooperation and for moving away from old animosities through negotiations and mutual agreements. China is adding a healthy dose of “Idealist” balance while India is introducing an element of “realist” pragmatism to their respective policies. Both are thus going beyond the constraints of the past when conflicts were not of nations but between states following different policies; now the two neighbours are in a better environment for a “realist-idealist” mix.

The border dispute should now be formally and finally settled. This will need accommodation from both sides and that should not be an insurmountable problem. The larger issue of weapons rivalry also requires urgent attention. China should also reassess the support that it is providing to Pakistan in the context of the negative effect that this has on its relations with India and the fact that Pakistan is being looked upon as an international terrorist pariah. If these vexing issues are taken in hand, the way ahead in the 21st Century would be free from the compulsions of the past and the military perspective which so dominated the India-China relations would be balanced by the larger contexts of economy, trade, and international cooperation. China and India should be partners in providing a lead through the principles of Panchsheel; this would be a condition which both Kautilya and Sunzi would approve of.

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