China, India Boost Military Ties as Border Tensions Ease

By Subir Bhaumik 27 August 2013

KOLKATA, India — After months of much border tension caused by alleged Chinese troop “incursions” across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India and China are now on course to resume joint military exercises and sign a treaty to reduce chances of conflict.

The Indian army alleges that Chinese troops have crossed the LAC, which refers to the two countries’ hazily delineated Himalayan border, at least 600 times in the past three years—sometimes staying put for weeks.

This summer, the two armies were involved in a face-off for 21 days at Depsang Bulge in eastern Ladakh, facing China-controlled Aksai Chin, through which Beijing is building a strategic highway connecting its restive Xinjiang and Tibet regions.

But India’s threat to cancel the May 9 Beijing visit of its External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid led to a Chinese pullout from Depsang and Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India soon after was accompanied by his offer of a “handshake across the Himalayas.”

Since then, the two Asian giants have worked out a border pact that aims to control tensions and are now preparing to resume military exercises that began in 2007-08 but were called off soon thereafter over border tensions and spats over visas.

After a gap of five years, the Indian and Chinese armies will resume their ‘Hand-in-Hand’ (HiH) counter-terrorism exercise this November. This will be the third HiH exercise involving the world’s two largest land armies.

It will be held in China’s Chengdu Military Area Command, which controls Tibet and almost the whole of the disputed border between the two countries.

“It will be a 10-day exercise between November 4-14, with a company each of Indian and Chinese troops,” said an Indian official.

The first HiH exercise was held in Kunming (China) and Belgaum (India), but the military cooperation was later suspended.

“The exercises are largely symbolic because only about 100-150 soldiers from each side participate. But it is a useful confidence-building exercise,” said former Maj-Gen Gaganjit
Singh, who commanded a division along the two countries’ 4,057-km Himalayan border.

The decision to resume the HiH exercises was taken during Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony’s visit to China last month.

India is also set to sign the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) with China, aimed at preventing tensions on the desolate frontier that has not yet been demarcated. The agreement will be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in October, after he returns from a trip to the United States in September.

The BDCA lays down Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) between the two armies, which includes provisions prohibiting troops from tailing patrols of the other nation’s military, a practice that has led to past face-offs, and stipulating that soldiers are not to open fire under any circumstances.

China proposed the agreement in January this year but India objected to a clause in it that called for a freeze on the building of military infrastructure on the border.

India says China has already beefed up its forces and New Delhi is seeking to catch up. Facing Indian opposition, China has dropped that clause and paved the way for the agreement.

“This proves both leaderships are serious about controlling border tensions and going ahead with other positive aspects of the relationship,” says Binoda Mishra of the Kolkata-based Center for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD).

The next round of the K2K (Kolkata-Kunming) summit to boost sub-regional cooperation between Indian and Chinese frontier provinces will also take place in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) on Nov. 21-22. More than 50 Chinese companies will join the summit to explore investment possibilities in eastern India as Delhi pushes Beijing to prioritize mutual investments and trade to help India trim its widening adverse trade balance.

The K2K summit is also pushing for a “land corridor” between Kunming and Kolkata that would pass through neighboring Bangladesh and Burma on a route once known as the Southern Silk Road.

China has proposed to develop the area around this highway, which was used for a four-nation car rally earlier this year, into an economic corridor—a proposal that India has committed to exploring.

“If this happens, it can turn the frontier regions of all these four countries into areas of growth from the conflict zones they have long been,” says Ren Jia, who heads the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming.