The reality is that there is great mistrust between the two militaries on the ground, which cannot be overcome by cosmetic exchanges of visits and personnel

by Jabin T Jacob

Chinese defence minister General Wei Fenghe’s visit to India last week is an occasion to consider the state of India-China military exchanges.

While military-to-military exchanges are important, there seems little to them in the India-China case beyond merely keeping up appearances. Wei’s visit was preceded by the late July visit of General Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) with charge of the border with India and in mid-August, of the head of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, Lt General Abhay Krishna.

Even the business of familiarisation as is the case with these visits of theatre commanders does not mean much because these visits do not have any regular schedule and can be easily disrupted. For instance, in July 2010, after China denied a visa to the head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command on the grounds that he held command over ‘disputed territory’, it would take over five years before another head of the Northern Command would visit China.

India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Wei decided to expand engagement between the two militaries in terms of training, joint exercises and other professional interactions. In fact, Chinese officers are already attending courses in some higher-level Indian defence institutions, but these need to be scaled up in order to actually have any impact.

Nevertheless, the mere conduct of such interactions now seems to be seen as an unalloyed good without considering that they remain at a sub-optimal level.

At the same time, the reality is that there is great mistrust between the two militaries on the ground, which cannot be overcome by cosmetic exchanges of visits and personnel.

One has to be particularly thick to imagine that what obtains at the present juncture between India and China is anything but a temporary détente. Or that there will not be another significant boundary transgression by the Chinese before long, even if one were to ignore China’s current activity in Doklam as an issue between it and Bhutan.

Meanwhile, a hotline between the two militaries, first proposed in 2013, remains mired in protocol issues. The Chinese believe it should be their deputy commander of the WTC who should operate the hotline while the Indian side, which has proposed their director-general military operations to run the hotline, is arguing for a Chinese equivalent in Beijing to take charge.

New Delhi — rather than tying itself into knots over perceived slights from Beijing regarding the hotline proposal — ought to first address the service and protocol inequalities between its own civilian officials and military officers that is the source of much greater heartburn within the Indian military.

Instead of half-baked attempts at military diplomacy — or at least alongside it — India should impart greater clarity of expression and purpose to its military relationship with China. Is China a ‘strategic partner’ as our diplomatic documents indicate or a ‘strategic competitor’ as our military planners and sections of the policy making elite believe it is? Can it be both?

In the case of Pakistan, India’s domestic political dynamics and convenience end up aligning the message with the actions that the military has perforce to undertake on the ground. In the case of China, however, the messaging from the government is more complicated, even confused, as far as the military is concerned.

Does the Indian Army co-operate and follow the rules as laid down in the bilateral confidence-building agreements of 1993, 1996 and 2005 or does it do as the Chinese do with their salami slicing strategy (where a larger goal is achieved through a series of small actions at various fronts) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and other deliberate violations of the agreements?

While there is absence of capacity — in terms of infrastructure, equipment, etc. — on the Indian side of the LAC, there are still ways of countering or making up for weaknesses in one front by action elsewhere, whether on land or at sea or by implementing the necessary reforms in force restructuring and indigenous defence production that India requires.

But the several official reports and notes on these issues gathering dust in government ministries tell their own story.