Could China and India turn their post-Doklam thaw into a spring?

  • As ‘Hand in Hand’ Sino-Indian military exercises began, it fell to China to allay India’s suspicions about its largest trading partner, Mohan Guruswamy writes
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 11:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 10:20pm

The Indian and Chinese militaries have resumed their annual interaction, with an Indian Army team arriving in Chengdu this week for the “Hand in Hand” exercise.

This is the seventh exercise, but its import lies in its being the first after Doklam.

Although as such exercises go, these are very small, particularly given the sizes of the two militaries, their tokenism is of importance. They suggest we may now be closer to the thaw that was spreading till Doklam put a freeze on relations.

The two armies keep an eyeball-to-eyeball vigil on the frigid and un-demarcated borders of the two countries. The notions of where the lines of control are overlap and both armies have worked out an arrangement which allows them to patrol up to their perceived lines without actually confronting each other.

This modus vivendi has been in place since 1967, when the two armies engaged in a skirmish near the Nathula pass.

This area, incidentally, is not very far from Doklam, which is near the Indo-Bhutan-China trijunction.

Doklam, a small plateau, lies between Tibet’s Chumbi valley and Bhutan’s Ha valley, and traditionally has been used by Tibetan and Bhutanese graziers.

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While the dispute was between Bhutan and China, possession of the Doklam plateau has security implications for India as it gives the PLA a commanding view of India’s troop dispositions, which are mainly to guard the strategic “chicken’s neck” sliver of land that joins mainland India to its northeastern states.

India also has treaty obligations to ensure Bhutan’s security. The PLA movements here caused major consternation in India, and seemed to once again reinforce the national mood against China.

Considering the intensity of public opinion, the speed with which the two armies deployed their forces into confrontational postures and the length of time – 73 days – it took to defuse the crisis, the recent exercise, small though it may be, signals that we are headed to another period of dormancy on the borders.

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With its evocative name, the Hand in Hand exercise has the potential to become something bigger and more meaningful. For instance, the Indian and PLA navies are both engaged in anti-piracy operations off the East African coast. While the Indian Navy regularly takes part in exercises with the Western and Russian navies, it has had little more than ceremonial contact with the PLA Navy. There is scope for joint exercises in humanitarian and rescue operations that can foster inter-operability.

With a rebalancing of the global financial and military power centres now underway, China and India are now important pillars of the new global architecture. Western nations have two platforms, G6 and Nato, through which they jointly advance their interests. The Russia, India and China association (RICS) that was envisaged as a counterweight to this scaffolding has never really taken off. Thus, the trilateral leaders’ summit on the sidelines of the G20 in Buenos Aires is also a good sign that India and China are coming to a better understanding of their global roles.

Sino-Indian relations remain somewhat frigid, with the smaller power, India, suspicious of China’s intentions and objectives. Thus responsibility falls to China to ensure the thaw turns into a spring.

China is now India’s leading trading partner, but the growing trade imbalance is cause for much concern in India.

India would prefer to see Chinese investments in India. We have see some signs of this investment happening with companies like Huawei and Haier increasing their presence in India, which helps ease the worries.

But much more needs to be done. India too still needs to become more welcoming to Chinese investment. President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have built a personal rapport.

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But that now needs to expand into a greater economic integration, and military understanding.

India and China need to go “hand in hand” in more ways than just taking part in military exercises bearing that name.

Mohan Guruswamy is a distinguished fellow at the United Service Institution of India in New Delhi