One wonders about the relevancy of such military diplomacy when border incursions have continuously been on the rise and the latest incursion of some 150kms is happening at a time when the Tibetan railway has ruffled many a feather in the Indian establishment.The military in dialogue
India and China appear to have come closer to each other in the post-Cold War period as their political relations graduated from correct to cordial levels.
The renewed friendship in the 1990s is evident from the various delegations that exchange visits between the two sides from time to time. As a corollary to improved political relations, a unique military interaction has also evolved between the two Asian neighbours.
Lt General Liao Xilong, Commander Chengdu Military Region (MR), accompanied by Foreign Affairs Bureau officials, visited India last month. The visit gains significance as Chengdu MR covers Tibet, the potential staging post for any military venture against India, owing to the contiguous border. Prior to this Lt General V.P. Malik, Vice-Chief of Army Staff, went to China and met the military top brass there.
Indian military planners' preoccupation with China persists despite the improvement in New Delhi-Beijing relations. It arises from China's association with Pakistan and its fast developing ties with Myanmar. The Defence Ministry Annual Report 1996-97, highlights New Delhi's concerns regarding Chinese defence cooperation with Pakistan, its assistance to Islamabad's clandestine nuclear programme and the missile sales to that country.
It further states: ``The progress that China has made in recent years by augmenting her nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities will continue to have relevance for India's security concerns. Upgradation of China's logistic capabilities all along the India-China border, for strengthened air operations has to be noted. China's posture in the South China Sea has implications for the region.''
Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul, former Chief of Air Staff, during his tenure, had gone on record about a potential Chinese threat at a strategic level. The Chinese have built five military airfields in Myanmar which can facilitate the use of their Su27 heavy fighter aircraft against neighbouring nations. These airfields allow China to provide combat air support to their naval forces for effective deployment against Indian defences in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Similarly, the expansion of existing airfields in Tibet can also prove detrimental to Indian security interests. For instance, the Chinese Army's 149 Airborne Division was moved from its base in Sichuan to Lhasa (Tibet) in 36 hours owing to the Gonkor airbase runway extension to 4,000 metres during March 1989. A Chinese fighter has to fly only 300 km over Indian airspace for an airstrike on New Delhi.
The Chinese imperative for tranquil borders, particularly with India, could also be linked to the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1990. China has a substantial Muslim population in Sinkiang and is not keen on Islamic fundamentalism spilling over into this territory from the bordering Central Asian Republics. Perhaps, such a vulnerable situation makes China adopt a neutral policy on Kashmir which explains the resultant upswing in political relations with India.
For India the advantage of better relations has more to do with internal requirements than external developments. In the post-1962 phase the Army had committed 11 mountain divisions on its northern border against China. Since 1991, however, certain elements of these divisions were re-deployed in Punjab and Kashmir on internal security duties. Thereafter some degree of troop reduction has taken place on the Chinese border.
Essentially, force levels differ vastly between peace-time border management and wartime deployment. The Chinese are reported to have six divisions in Tibet comprising both regular troops and militia totalling up to 90,000 men. India has a larger troop density and better level of operational readiness in comparison to China. This is due to an improved defensive posture with additional air fields and logistic bases.
Indian military commanders feel confident that it would be possible to de-induct troops from the Chinese border and re-induct them on the Indo-Pakistan border when required. Clearly, the fledgling New Delhi-Beijing military diplomacy conditions such thinking.
The Chinese naval and air power projection capabilities are a cause for concern. Particularly, Beijing's naval cooperation with Myanmar and availability of base facilities there gives Chinese warships access to the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Chinese attempts to develop airborne early warning technology through Western defence electronics companies, if successful, can neutralise Indian airpower strengths derived from the recent Su30 aircraft acquisition.
The problems along the border arise primarily due to differing perceptions regarding alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Over the years, sensitive spots along the border have been the Trig Heights, Yakla, Barahoti and the Ladakh region. Given that these are disputed areas, both sides have attempted to establish their administrative/military control over them, and so the problems of territorial transgressions persist. During Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to New Delhi last year the political agreement signed incorporates safeguards to de-escalate military tensions, which includes violation of airspace.
Broadly, the definition of peace connotes the absence of military tension along the international border. This would entail management of problems at the micro-level through maintenance of force levels and flag meetings wherever the troops are eye-ball to eye-ball. These measures are aimed at preventing excessive deployment due to faulty intelligence assessments and clashes between the two sides.
Military interaction helps personnel from both sides shed stereotyped images of each other and gives fresh insights into the others' mind. Today, three decades after the 1962 war, the Indian Army has a different outlook towards their Chinese counterparts as most of those who fought the 1962 war have retired. Likewise, on the Chinese side too, a new generation has replaced the older lot. To a certain extent, perhaps, time has helped heal wounds.General K. Sundarji, former Chief of Army Staff, who visited Beijing in 1991 and discussed nuclear issues with the Chinese says: "Military interaction, like political or diplomatic linkages, ought to be a positive step assuming both sides have honest intentions of improving bilateral relations."
The result of New Delhi-Beijing military diplomacy has seen some de-militarisation along the border during October-November 1995. The neighbours withdrew four posts, two on each side, in the Sumdorung Chu Valley on the Eastern Sector. The disengagement is without prejudice to the respective positions of the two sides on the LAC's alignment in the area.Today, the two countries exchange military delegations and visits twice every year which indicates a new trend in their bilateral relations. The relevance of military diplomacy arises because a conflict of national interests could eventually manifest in a hot war. So far, military interaction has proved valuable in ensuring the absence of tension along the border.
Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.
The military in dialogue
Is China really keen on maintaining tranquility on her southern borders or is she contemplating another shooting war?