Beyond ‘Hand-In-Hand’: Enhancing Sino-Indian Military Cooperation – Analysis


By Bhartendu Kumar Singh*

Against the backdrop of a competitive and often conflictual relationship, China and India recently concluded the fifth joint ‘hand-in-hand’ anti-terrorism exercise at Kunming in Yunan Province of China. The two neighbours have differential perspectives on many security issues. China, for example, finds nothing wrong in fraternizing with Pakistan, hitherto, a hotbed of terrorism and in many cases, exporter of terrorism. The ‘hand-in-hand’ exercises, even if at a small scale, are therefore laudable, since they provide an opportunity for experience sharing. However, these exercises also represent the complexity of the Sino-Indian relationship and the inability of the two militaries to engage each other towards a larger, mutually gainful relationship.

The logic of a past war and border differences apart, there are many reasons why China and India should be talking larger military cooperation. First, military engagement has enabled ‘relative peace’ along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), institutionalised and augmented through a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs). Compared to the troublesome Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, the LAC is relatively peaceful, though Chinese keep crossing the Indian side off and on.

Second, the two countries have differential border infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China is way ahead and it will take India at least a decade to catch up with the network of roads and railways spread across the LAC. Engaging the Chinese PLA is the best way to maintain peace in the interregnum. That would also do away with misperceptions and miscommunications that played a crucial role in 1962 war.

Third, little is known about China’s actual combat capability since it does not have any major war experience over the last 50 years, save some skirmishes with its smaller neighbours. In fact, even today, China is not very confident of waging and winning a war against Taiwan, a minnow in military parlance. Such exercises, therefore, offer India an opportunity to see Chinese combat preparations in what they call as military operation other than wars (MOOTW).

Fourth, China and India are also great powers with their own geopolitical ambitions in the Indian Ocean and Africa. Regrettably, China has been a reluctant partner in the Asian security project and the multilateral joint military exercises involving other regional powers since it prefers bilateral ventures. Sino-Indian partnership in these ventures can not only contain mutual rivalry but also provide better resilience against maritime piracy and the security of sea-lanes in the region.

However, there are few avenues for military cooperation and engagement between China and India. The LAC does not see many friendly interactions between the two militaries. Elsewhere too, China and India hardly interact in a friendly environment. The number of friendly exchanges between the two militaries is insignificant. A look at the Ministry of Defence Annual Report for 2014-15 shows that New Delhi has engaged many countries quite actively in different areas of defence cooperation commensurate with its status of a rising great power. Similarly, as the Chinese White Paper on Military Strategy (2015) reveals, the PLA would explore “new fields, new contents and new models of cooperation with other militaries, so as to jointly deal with a diverse range of security threats and challenges.” This policy toes what President Xi Jinping declared in January this year that China will place greater emphasis on military diplomacy as part of its overall foreign policy strategy. Therefore, small-scale military cooperation between the two countries does not make sense.

The two countries must, therefore, explore bigger themes for joint military exercises. Despite having perceptional differences on security, the two countries do have many common areas of concern. The Chinese for examples talk of “small scale wars, conflicts and crises” as recurrent themes. The world still faces, according to them, both immediate and potential threats of local wars. Regional terrorism, separatism and extremism are (still) rampant and have a negative impact on security and stability along China’s periphery.

Consider similar narratives from India’s MoD Annual Report (14-15): “large parts of the world continue to be affected by conflict and violence. Though the probability for a full conventional war has receded, a number of drivers have catalysed new challenges in the regional and global security landscape. The transnational threats posed by the activities of terrorist organisations have been exacerbated by the dynamics of intra and inter state conflicts and pose a danger to regions beyond the primary theatres.” In doing so, both countries can learn from each other’s best practices. India, for example, can learn from manpower reforms in Chinese military modernisation that has been achieved without any compromises on combat capabilities. Similarly, China can learn from India’s experience of handling state-sponsored terrorism and proxy wars.

The joint military exercises have been a major initiative in institutionalising dialogue between the militaries of China and India. These exercises have also enabled the two militaries to gain new knowledge about each other, indirectly supplementing the peace efforts on the LAC. There is, therefore, space for the two countries to expand the basket of cooperation for larger bilateral peace.

* Bhartendu Kumar Singh
Indian Defence Accounts Service

The views expressed are the author’s own.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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