India’s armed forces, the world’s third largest active military, have set up “China cells” tasked to develop a better understanding of the country’s northeastern neighbour as a new round of border talks have failed to find a lasting solution to the two countries’ territorial dispute in the Himalayas.
A team of army officers has been tasked “to keep tabs on China’s growing capabilities, dig into the heart of its strategic mindset and predict its impact on national security,” the Hindustan Times, a New Delhi-based daily newspaper, said on Monday, citing a military source.
The team has been put together by Chief of Army Staff General Bikram Singh, the armed forces’ highest ranking officer, the report said. The unnamed source emphasised that the move wasn’t aimed at meddling into India’s civilian foreign affairs policy and described the cells as the army’s “in-house think tanks”.
Cells are to be set up in three of the country’s six regional command headquarters. The team at the Kolkata-based Eastern Command will be headed by a one-star general, the report said.
Last week, China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi and India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon met in New Delhi for the 17th round of talks on finding a solution to the border dispute which led to a short war in 1962 and sparked a three-week-long stand-off last year.
China claims more than 90,000 square kilometres in the eastern Himalayas, while India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometres of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau in the west.
It was the first meeting since the two countries signed an agreement aimed at preventing further stand-offs during a state visit by outgoing Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year.
For Dibyesh Anand, head of the department of politics and international relations at London's Westminster University, the timing of the report is not unintended.
"The Indian and Chinese military both see the dispute as useful justification for their own growth and relevance," he said. "China is being represented as the main enemy in order to justify a high military budget."
Ni Lengxiong, a Shanghai-based military diplomacy expert, told the South China Morning Post that India’s move reflected a growing awareness of the strengthening of China’s military since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012.
Both countries already have good intelligence on each other, said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. "China uses its deep pockets for gaining intelligence, while India relies on friendly sources," he said adding that satellite reconnaissance is also central to their intelligence.
For Chellaney, an imminent confrontation is unlikely. "After the spate of Chinese incursions last year, China’s border with India is currently quiet for two reasons," he said. "It is icy cold there, with snow blocking mountain passes; and Beijing’s diplomatic offensive against Japan leaves it little space to ratchet up tensions with India."
Shanghai-based Ni also said he considered further stand-offs with India very unlikely, but he cautioned that unplanned incidents could heighten tensions yet again. “The leadership in both countries must prevent such spontaneous confrontations from happening,” he said.
India’s closer ties with Japan have been watched closely in China, said Ni. In January, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended India’s Republic Day parade as guest of honour. Earlier in the month, Japan’s Defence Minister visited New Delhi to discuss defence cooperation including the sale of a Japan-made amphibious aircraft, making India the first country since the second world war to buy a military aircraft from Japan.
On Tuesday, Mamnoon Hussain, the new president of India’s arch-rival Pakistan, is set to arrive in China for his maiden state visit to his country’s largest trading partner.
In an interview with the Xinhua news agency, Hussain said he would push for an earlier realisation of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, a series of infrastructure projects that could provide China with economic and military access, via Pakistan to the Gulf and crossing through territory claimed by India.