Much of the Sino-Indian relationship is about posturing, in order to keep the ties going smoothly.
Tension was reported to have flared up between India and China on September 11 after troops from the two countries engaged in a scuffle in eastern Ladakh. Quite typically, the face-off began when Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers objected to Indian Army troops patrolling the Pangong Tso (tso means lake) in Ladakh. According to reports, the objections by the Chinese side led to a scuffle that resulted in both sides calling in reinforcements. Two-thirds of Pangong Tso, 134 km long and five kilometres at its widest, is controlled by China and the remaining third by India.
On July 13, Chinese personnel in civil dress protested along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, then part of Jammu and Kashmir state, after some Tibetans hoisted Tibetan flags to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 84th birthday.
Decades long frequent confrontations on the 4,057 km long LAC between India and China — disputed and perception-based, except for a small undisputed stretch in the middle — had greatly reduced since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President XI Jinping met for a summit at Wuhan in April 2018, about six months after the 73-day long standoff between the Indian Army and PLA on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau in 2017.
Clarifying that the July 13 incident was not an incursion, Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat said, “There are different perceptions of the LAC. They have their own perception and we have our own. We patrol up to the borders as per our perception… We have a very good working relationship with the PLA.”
After August 5 this year, when India revoked Article 370 and bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir state into two Union territories — Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir, China had conveyed its objections. The trip of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to India for special representative talks on border issues was reportedly postponed due to scheduling issues. The reason reported in the media is that New Delhi is not happy about Wang Yi coming to India after talks in Pakistan and the hyphenation as such.
The report of tensions related to the Pangong Tso confrontation, which got resolved, came ahead of an expected but yet unconfirmed visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in October 2019 for an informal summit.
The very next day after the Pangong Tso confrontation, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation’s (SCO) first conference on military medicine for member states was held in New Delhi on September 12-13. The conference was also the first military co-operation event hosted by India, under the SCO Defence Co-operation Plan 2019-2020, after it became a SCO member state in 2017. Defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the conference that was conducted by the Indian Armed Forces under the aegis of Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, with the aim sharing best practices in the field of military medicine, build capacities and overcome common challenges. During the conference, there were deliberations between military medicine experts of SCO member countries on rendering combat medical support, humanitarian assistance during disasters and measures to improve patient safety. The SCO member states were represented by senior military medical practitioners. Dialogue partners Nepal and Sri Lanka also sent their delegations to participate in the Conference. The Indian Armed Forces demonstrated the Rapid Action Medical Team and organised a visit for the delegates to the Army Research and Referral Hospital.
The only member state which did not send its representative was Pakistan, which became a member at the same time that India did.
On September 16, news reports began coming stating that Indian Navy's P-8I Poseidon surveillance aircraft recently detected Chinese amphibious warship Xian-32 in the southern Indian Ocean region (IOR) earlier in September. Photographs of Landing Paltrorm Dock Xian 32 were clicked by the P-8I surveillance aircraft before it entered Sri Lankan waters. The Indian Navy was quoted saying, “The P-8I tracked another Chinese frigate that is part of its anti-piracy escort task force deployed in Gulf of Aden to provide security to Chinese merchant vessels from Somali sea pirates.”
In late August/early September 2019, Indian intelligence agencies reportedly warned that China was allegedly spying on Indian Naval bases in the Indian Ocean through its advanced surveillance ship in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. One of these reports stated that China had regularly been sending its surveillance ships in the IOR to gather more details about the Indian naval bases and the warships deployed in the area by one of China’s latest intelligence-gathering ships — the Dongdiao class Tianwangxing. The Chinese spy ship reportedly entered India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and stayed there for a few days and was spotted very close to the eastern sea border near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Also, People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship Tianwangxing intruded into the EEZ and remained close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the east coast of India for nearly two weeks. Tianwangxing of Type 815G Class is China’s most modern of electronic surveillance ships. As per news reports of September 16, at least seven Chinese ships have been detected in the IOR. The presence of Chinese surveillance vessels in the IOR is a cause of concern for the Indian security establishments.
In October 2019, the Indian Army’s newly raised mountain strike corps will hold its maiden exercise, “HimVijay”, at over 10,000 feet in Arunachal Pradesh, in which over 15,000 soldiers backed by tanks, medium artillery, helicopters and transport aircraft will participate. To be conducted away from the LAC with China, it will coincide with the expected visit of Mr Xi also in October.
The exercise assumes greater significance because the Indian Army will for the first time see in action its integrated battle groups (IBGs), the idea of which is reported to have been conceived by Gen Rawat. The news report cited sources stating that three mountain IBGs have been formed from a mountain division, which is part of the newly raised Mountain Strike Corps.
An IBG, which will be a little smaller than a division, will integrate the existing elements of infantry, tank regiments, artillery, engineers and signals. It will comprise six battalions of these elements and will be directly under a corps. Once the IBGs are formed, the formations will be converted into leaner and more efficient fighting units with the ability to strike deeper and faster against enemy targets, the sources said.
The aircraft this exercise will include Chinook helicopters inducted into the Indian Air Force earlier this year, its latest transport aircraft, the C-17 and C-130J Super Hercules as well as the old AN-32 to airlift the army troops from West Bengal and deploy them close to the “war zone” in Arunachal Pradesh. The Army's M777 ultra-light howitzers, inducted about a year ago and ideal for use in mountainous terrain will also feature in the exercise.
The exercise is expected to be widely watched keenly, as the IBGs are reported to replicated in future operations in the theatres of the Western, Northern and Eastern Commands.
Mr. Sun Weidong, the new Chinese envoy to India, reportedly admitted during a public address in New Delhi that for neighbours and major countries, differences are hard to avoid. “The key is to properly handle them. We should look at issues with rationality, put them in the bigger picture, reduce differences through consultation, settle disputes through dialogue, promote peace through development, and enhance mutual trust through cooperation. Only in this way can we lead the trend of our times and meet people’s expectations,” he suggested.
Sharing his views with this writer, Dr Swaran Singh, professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, commented that much of the Sino-Indian relationship is about posturing, to keep the ties going relatively smoothly. If posturing is how some diplomatic-military relationships are to be managed, then the one consolation is that the Indian establishment’s spine is becoming straighter.
Anil Bhat, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi