Indian and Chinese armies hold joint drills in eastern Ladakh. Photo courtesy: ANI/Twitter
Indian and Chinese armies hold joint drills in eastern Ladakh. Photo courtesy: ANI/Twitter

On October 19, soldiers of the Indian and Chinese armies participated in a joint exercise in eastern Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). This was the first time soldiers of the two countries conducted joint drills in J&K.

Part of the Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercises, the day-long drill involved simulating joint rescue, evacuation and relief operations in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake striking a village along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China.

The exercise held in the Chushul-Moldo area on the Indian side of the LAC was a sequel to a similar exercise held on the Chinese side in February.

The drill was significant for several reasons. It was held amid rising tensions in the region. Sino-Indian relations have deteriorated during the past few months over China’s unwillingness to stand by India in its fight against terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Beijing’s obstruction of India’s efforts to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

Additionally, India-Pakistan relations have turned increasingly acrimonious following the recent terrorist attack on an Indian army camp at Uri in J&K, the Indian ‘surgical strikes’ targeting terrorist launch-pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the mounting violations of the 2003 India-Pakistan ceasefire.

That the HADR exercise was held as scheduled is heartening.

However, Sino-Indian exercises have gone ahead in the past too amid tension. For instance, the two sides conducted joint exercises in November 2014, two months after a standoff between their militaries for over a fortnight at Chumar in Ladakh.

The venue of the HADR exercise is equally significant. It was where some of the fiercest fighting took place during the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. A few kilometers away from the exercise site lies Aksai China, the territory that China occupied during the war and over which India lays claim.

That soldiers of the two sides jointly exercised in an area that witnessed a bloody combat only a few decades ago indicates how far India and China have come in normalizing bilateral relations.

China appears to have shrugged off its long-standing reluctance to exercising with Indian soldiers in J&K. In the past, it avoided exercising in areas that would send out the “wrong message to Pakistan.”

In 2014, for instance, joint terrorism exercises were to be held in Bhatinda in the northern Indian state of Punjab, which borders Pakistan. The location was changed on Beijing’s request as it was probably concerned that Bhatinda’s proximity to the India-Pakistan border would irk Pakistan, its ‘all-weather friend.’

In the circumstances, does Chinese willingness to exercise in J&K mean a change in its position on Kashmir? Within days of the HADR exercise, China’s foreign ministry was quick to remove any Indian hopes in this regard. The exercises do “not target any third country nor have anything to do with China’s position on the Kashmir issue,” it said, adding it was “simply a normal exchange between the frontier troops of China and India to properly deal with border affairs.”

It must be noted that it was India that ceded ground in the border dispute with China by agreeing to exercise on the Chinese side of the LAC earlier this year. After all, it exercised on territory over which it lays claim and in doing so, extended a measure of legitimacy to Chinese control over it.

Since 2007, India and China have engaged in joint military drills called the Hand-in-Hand exercises; the HADR exercises complement these. Several rounds of such drills have taken place in Kunming and Chengdu in China and in Belgaum and Pune in India. Aundh near Pune will be the venue of an upcoming joint exercise in November.

Counter-terrorism has been the focus of the Hand-in-Hand exercises. Indian analysts say these exercises have little practical value for India. The main source of terrorism on Indian soil emanates from Pakistan. A hostage situation or hijack in India may be carried out by terror outfits based in Pakistan. In such a situation, the possibility of China joining hands with India against the terrorists can be ruled out, given its reluctance to support India’s efforts to fight terrorism.

Neither have the Hand-in Hand exercises contributed to confidence building between the Indian and Chinese armies as only a few hundred soldiers have participated in the exercises so far.

The HADR exercises did not get much media attention in the two countries. That they involved humanitarian issues and not hard security issues may be the reason behind the low interest.

However, the HADR exercises are likely to have more practical value. Disaster experts have been predicting major earthquakes in the Himalayan region. The Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and the quake in Nepal in 2015 indicate that natural disasters are a real threat to the region. Should such a disaster strike the area, damage would be serious. Affected people would benefit from India and China working together to rescue and provide relief to them.

The latest joint drills may have boosted the confidence of people living in border villages as they may have noted that soldiers of the Indian and Chinese armies can co-operate to rescue and evacuate them in the event of a disaster. But it would require the two governments to summon the political will to engage in such humanitarian operations.

Sudha Ramachandran

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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