New Delhi is staging a massive military exercise near the Chinese border, just as Xi and Modi prepare for their second informal summit. This is no coincidence – as history shows, Sino-Indian military muscle-flexing is a standard feature before diplomatic engagements

by Yogesh Joshi

As Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepare for their second informal summit in the southeastern coastal town of Mamallapuram this weekend, the Indian Army has begun a massive military exercise 100 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border between India and China – in India’s northeast.

Code-named “Him Vijay”, this multi-phase exercise will test the battle-readiness of the Indian Army’s newly minted Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) at an altitude of 4,572 metres. The MSC, which has been raised since 2013, is a dedicated quick reaction and counteroffensive force to deal with military contingencies across the Sino-Indian border.

Though New Delhi has categorically denied any links between the military exercise and the visit of the Chinese president, its timing is no coincidence. Delhi intends to communicate that it is fully prepared to meet any military pressure on the border. Indeed, Sino-Indian muscle-flexing on the LAC has become a standard feature before any high-level diplomatic engagement between the two sides.
In April 2013, before the Indian foreign minister visited Beijing, the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engaged in a major stand-off near Daulat Beg Oldi, on the disputed border. In September 2014, when Xi visited India, Chinese and Indian forces were again deadlocked over the construction of a road by the PLA inside Indian territory near Demchok.

The most explosive incident, however, was the 2017 stand-off between the Indian Army and the PLA at Doklam, the trijunction between India, China, and Bhutan. Troops from either side physically jostled with each other as Indian soldiers formed a human chain to stop the PLA from constructing an all-weather road in the disputed area.

This eyeball-to-eyeball encounter lasted for more than two months and required some high-level crisis management. It almost scuttled Modi’s attendance at the August 2017 BRICS summit in Beijing.

Part of the reason for such impasses is simply the fact that India and China have differing perceptions of the border. Even after 21 rounds of border negotiations, the two countries have not been able to delineate their territorial limits. However, both Beijing and Delhi have devised confidence-building measures and institutionalised crisis management to the degree that even after such recurrent military confrontations, not a single bullet has been fired between the two sides.

However, military manoeuvres are also a strategic tool as they signal resolve to the adversary and self-confidence to domestic constituencies. If Beijing intends to test India’s military preparedness, Delhi aims to indicate its readiness in meeting the PLA’s military challenge. Delhi believes that only by signalling military capacity and resolve can it bring China to the negotiating table. Indeed, diplomacy through defence has been a staple ingredient of India’s China strategy.

Delhi first learned this lesson after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the origins of which have been attributed by Indian decision makers to the country’s military inefficacy. It was only after the September 1967 Nathu La clashes between the Indian Army and the PLA, in which China suffered heavy losses, that then prime minister Indira Gandhi opened back-channel talks with Beijing. These secret negotiations broke down due to the 1971 Bangladesh War.

In 1976, India’s new-found military superiority in the region allowed Delhi to re-establish diplomatic ties with China, despite the Soviet Union’s displeasure. By the time the two nations started negotiating the border dispute, after Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua’s visit to Delhi in April 1981, India had more forces along the Sino-Indian border.

This military strength allowed the Indian Army to effectively deter a massive PLA probe in Sumdorong Chu in 1987. As suggested by Shivshankar Menon, India’s former envoy to China, that stand-off “served a political purpose”. It also paved the way for the political settlement of the territorial dispute.

The eighth round of border talks in November 1987 was the first time the two countries stressed the need to avoid any armed confrontation along the border. In 1993, they signed their first-ever confidence-building measure, the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement.

History shows that there exists a deep-seated belief in Delhi that vis-à-vis China, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, diplomacy flows through the barrel of a gun. China’s massive military modernisation, amassment of firepower and improvement in military logistics over the past two decades have weakened the capacity of India’s military to act as a deterrent across the countries’ shared border.

The MSC was purposely set up to address this gap. The military exercise on the LAC is no coincidence; it is an integral element of India’s diplomatic repertoire.