India and China on Tuesday began a 10-day joint military drill on counterterrorism — the first such exercise between the neighbours in five years — in southwestern China, with around 300 soldiers from both countries taking part in exercises aimed at boosting trust between the militaries.
The drills began on Tuesday morning in Miaoergang, a town southwest of Chengdu — the provincial capital of the western Sichuan province — with displays of Kungfu by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contingent and the Gatka martial art, from Punjab, by Indian soldiers. Soldiers also conducted weapons displays with the objective of allowing the other side to become more familiar with the characteristics of weaponry used across the border.
Over the next 10 days, the two contingents — comprising around 160 soldiers each, according to Indian officials, from the 16 Sikh Light Infantry and the 1st Battalion Infantry division of the PLA — will conduct counter-terrorism drills involving tactical hand signals, arrest and escort, hostage rescue, joint attacks and “a comprehensive anti-terror combat drill”, the Chinese State-run Xinhua news agency said.
The drills — the first held in five years — take place only a week after both countries signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) to expand confidence-building measures.
Chengdu is the headquarters of one of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) seven Military Area Commands (MACs). The Chengdu MAC holds responsibility for the entire Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), as well as the middle and eastern sections of the border with India.
The drills, analysts say, are more symbolic than substantial: the counterterrorism drills are nowhere near as comprehensive as a full-fledged exercise between two armies. The larger objective is to expand confidence and trust between two militaries, which are often grappling with tensions along the border.
At the same time, the 10-day counterterrorism drill has been seen as being particularly significant in China for two reasons. For one, the exercise follows the recent signing of the BDCA during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit in late October.
Also, the issue of terrorism has come under renewed attention in China in recent days, after last week’s incident in Tiananmen Square where a jeep carrying three Uighurs from the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region drove into a crowd, killing two tourists and injuring 40 others.
This was the message highlighted at Tuesday’s opening ceremony by PLA Lieutenant General Yang Jinshan and Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, who headed the Indian Army observer group.
Lieutenant General Yang, the deputy commander of the Chengdu MAC, highlighted terrorism “as a global challenge” and said, in unusually direct remarks from a Chinese senior official considering China’s “all-weather ties” with Pakistan, that India and China “face similar threats”.
“It is a signal to both sides that the militaries can do something to improve the bilateral relationship,” said Lan Jianxue, a South Asia scholar at the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS), a Beijing think-tank affiliated to the Foreign Ministry, in an interview with The Hindu. “As a result of the historical background, it is good for the two militaries to communicate more with each other directly. The resumption of exercises will help to increase confidence about the other side.”
Lieutenant General Yang was quoted by Xinhua as saying the training was intended “to exchange anti-terror experiences, enhance mutual understanding and trust, and boost cooperation between the Chinese and Indian Armies”.
Lieutenant General Bhatia said the exercise was “a perfect beginning” for renewed bilateral cooperation. “We intend on learning best practices of each other, which would be mutually beneficial for both the Armies,” he said.
Echoing that message, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters the drill “showed the enhanced political mutual trust between our two countries”.
The 10-day exercise is the third round of the “hand-in-hand” drills that the two countries initiated in 2007 in Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan province. The second round was held in Belgaum, Karnataka, the following year.
Defence exchanges were suspended for more than a year, in 2009, after China refused to host the then head of the Northern Command, citing its “sensitivities” on Kashmir. The move came amid a disputed over China’s issuing of stapled visas to Indian residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
India agreed to resume defence ties after China withdrew the stapled visa policy, following the former Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2010, and agreed to host senior officials from the Northern Command in several subsequent delegations.
Military ties were further strained earlier this year following a three-week-long stand-off between troops along the border in Depsang, Ladakh, triggered by Chinese soldiers pitching a tent on disputed territory.
Last month, both sides signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) aimed at expanding confidence-building measures and preventing the recurrence of face-offs, by formalising rules such as no tailing of patrols and widening direct contact between military commands.