Indian Troops Join Chinese Counterparts in Unprecedented Military Exercise

Indian and Chinese troops are engaged in an unprecedented joint military exercise near their border in the Chinese province of Yunnan. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi that the number of soldiers involved is relatively small, but the exercise has political significance beyond its size.

The joint exercise, called "Hand-in-Hand 2007," is the first such cooperation between the armies of the world's two most populous nations.

Billed as an anti-terrorism military drill, the exercise has 100 soldiers from each country participating in the week-long maneuver aimed at what the Chinese term "separatism, extremism and terrorism."

Retired Indian army brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal is a director of the military-funded Center for Land Warfare Studies. He says the exercise should be looked at from the perspective of the lingering dispute stemming from the brief but bitter Sino-Indian War of 1962.

"Such contacts between the two armies at the line of actual control help to build confidence, help to reduce the probability of conflict on the line of actual control. And these exercises are aimed at that - getting to know each other," he said.

Ties between the two nations have improved over the last few years, but analysts say China views India warily as a strategic competitor. New Delhi in turn is suspicious of Beijing's alliances and covert agreements with India's neighbors: Pakistan and Bangladesh, and to a lesser degree, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma.

The unprecedented Sino-Indian military cooperation pales in comparison to India's recent military involvement with the United States and its NATO allies.

The U.S. Navy this year sent 13 warships, including an aircraft carrier, to a multinational maritime exercise that India hosted in the Bay of Bengal. Next year, India's air force will participate for the first time with NATO jets at the Red Flag aerial combat maneuvers, hosted by the U.S. Air Force in the western U.S.

Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics and an adviser to India's National Security Council, says the growing relationship between the Indian and U.S. militaries is forcing China to reach out to its former foe, however tentatively.

"They are, in my view, going to give the minimum that they feel is needed, the minimum sops, to prevent India from becoming a military ally of the United States. But (the Chinese) are, as yet, completely unwilling to give up the overall perspective of India as a strategic competitor to China," said Nalapat.

Military analyst Kanwal says tension will exist between the two nations until their territorial issues are settled.

"The territorial and boundary dispute has not been resolved. As long as that dispute is not resolved, suspicion about each other will remain," said Kanwal.

As the Sino-Indian exercise began Thursday, Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon arrived in Beijing for a third strategic dialogue with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to make an official visit to China next month.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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