WASHINGTON - Hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers met in a tense standoff on their disputed border just two months ago. This Sunday, the two countries will carry out counterterrorism exercises -- together.
The decision to go ahead with joint maneuvers offers insight into the complexity of Sino-Indian relations and is an indication the nations are willing to manage their differences and engage in mutually-beneficial plans, despite serious disputes.
Since both India and China have identified terrorism as a major threat, it suits their national security interests to participate in such a exercise, according to Srikanth Kondapalli, Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
China considers the threat from radical Islam to be one of its main security concerns, especially in Xinjiang province, which has been rocked in recent years by deadly attacks. Chinese authorities also are alarmed by reports of Chinese fighters joining the ranks of the extremist Islamic State, which revives longstanding fears. As far back as 2004, then President Hu Jintao identified “separatism, extremism and terrorism” as “three evil forces” that need to be dealt with.
India has been facing Islamist militancy even longer, suffering decades of extremist actions. It now considers cross-border terrorism its main national security challenge.
The exact details of the 10-day exercise, to be held in Pune in western India, are not public. But both sides will tackle insurgency and terrorism scenarios, according to India's defense ministry.
Past experience shows they will likely identify a target such as a terrorist hold-up and try to neutralize the situation, said retired Lieutenant General Vasantha R. Raghavan, president of India-based think tank, Center for Security Analysis. He added that the two sides will then exchange notes on how they approached the problem and how it worked.
A spokesman for India's defense ministry said such scenarios will help both sides in “developing joint strategies of conducting operations in a counter terrorism environment.”
The exercise is planned at the company level, which means about 120 troops from each side will participate. Some observers believe that indicates a very low-level engagement and interaction between the two sides will be limited.
Raghvan concedes the scope of the drill is modest compared to exercises India conducts with the U.S. He insisted, though, that “working with the military of a totally different kind is a significant military gain.”
Both sides are unwilling to raise the size and complexity of the exercises because of their historically suspicious relationship. India and China went to war in 1962 over their disputed frontier and other issues.
This is the fourth joint training exercise between the armies of the two countries. The first was held in 2007. India called it off in 2009 when China refused to issue a visa to an Indian general, part of continuing unease in the relationship.
The exercise resumed in 2013 after a gap of five years.
William Antholis, author of "Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global," said India wants better economic ties with China to achieve its developmental goals. But, he added, India remains suspicious of Chinese intentions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India in September showed many Indians their suspicions were well-founded.
On the day of his arrival, Xi said that “China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral relations in the 21st century” in an editorial published in the Indian newspaper "The Hindu." But even as he was warming up to Indian leaders and promising a robust economic partnership, hundreds of Chinese soldiers crossed the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries. India's media frantically reported a Chinese incursion.
One month later, India appeared to retaliate, announcing it will build some 1,800 kilometers of road in the contested region along the border.
China reacted sharply to India's plans and warned that it will further complicate the boundary problem.
According to retired Lieutenant General Raghavan, who has commanded troops along the Line of Actual Control, the project was long overdue as India lags far behind China in border infrastructure. He said in some places Indian soldiers can take days to reach the Line of Actual Control. Without improvement, he said, India could seem helpless in the face of a Chinese incursion.
Both countries have moved forward in a number of areas following the 1988 decision to separate the boundary issue from the rest of the relationship. But the recent standoff was a stark reminder the boundary dispute needs settling, according to Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser of India.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Menon said Chinese incursions along the unmarked Line of Actual Control do not constitute a military threat. But he added, it is a political issue with potential to cloud the rest of the relationship.
China wary of regional encirclement
China is apprehensive of India’s growing ties with other Asia-Pacific countries as well as the U.S.
In September, India and the US raised the issue of the South China Sea, where China is locked in a territorial dispute with many Southeast Asian countries, in a joint statement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. The statement “called on all parties to avoid the use, or threat of use, of force in advancing their claims” in South China Sea.
Antholis, who interviewed extensively in China and India for his book, said “many in China are suspicious that greater U.S.-India cooperation is meant to counterbalance China.”
India’s signing of a deal last month with Vietnam to cooperate on oil and gas exploration in the contested South China Sea appears to have made matters worse.
The deal with Vietnam “only confirms the view that India is working with those who are trying to encircle and constrain China,” said Antholis.
Indian analysts dispute the notion that India aims to become a balancing force in Asia.
According to Shivshankar Menon, who also has served as India’s foreign secretary, India just wants a security architecture that is inclusive and addresses India's concerns.
India has a strong interest in the South China Sea as 55 percent of its trade passes through those waters. Srikanth Kondapalli said, “there is no guarantee that China is willing to promise a secure passage for the Indian trade.”
Despite the tensions, most analysts believe there are compelling reasons India and China will avoid crisis.
They argue China knows it is in its best interest to project a peaceful image as it strides forward on the world stage. As for India, the analysts say a peaceful environment is critical if it is to realize its development goals. Also, they point out that both are nuclear powers, a strong deterrent to engaging in conflict.
Going forward, experts believe China and India will place a strong emphasis on economic relations; they will manage the border dispute, even though they're unlikely to solve it. Menon said future generations may well have to deal with an issue that seems too complicated to be tackled now.
Until then, activities like the upcoming joint exercises are a way to navigate troubled relations and build some trust.