Forces from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian Army on Thursday will wind down a multi- day joint military exercise being held in the southwest city of Kunming, China. Codenamed “Hand-in-Hand 2015” (HiH), the exercise is an annual exchange program between China and India meant to enhance military proficiencies in select operational areas and foster cooperation and understanding. While the overall actual experience gained from this rather small exercise can be debated, it does allow for cooperative contact between PLA and Indian Army forces and in so much, serves a beneficial purpose. While China has been on the receiving end of criticism for perceived provocative actions it has taken in the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, its continued involvement in exercises such as HiH show that Beijing is aware that it must cooperate in the region to ensure peace and stability. The importance of collaboration with its more powerful northern neighbor is not lost on New Delhi either.
Chind and India: Hand-in-Hand exercise 2015
This year’s HiH exercise which started on October 11 is the fifth annual HiH to be held since 2007 and is primarily focused on anti-terror drills. HiH 2015 has been divided into three distinct phases: armament display and military demonstration, troop training, and integrated anti-terror exercises. The final two days of the exercise are devoted to joint training in intelligence planning and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations culminating in mock attacks on terrorist camps.
The size of the exercise is rather small with less than a half thousand military personnel directly taking part. The PLA contributed 175 personnel from the 14th Group Army of the Chengdu Military Region while India sent an equal size detachment of soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of its famed Naga Regiment. Undoubtedly, additional forces also took part in logistical and command operations related to the exercise. Past HiH drills were held in southwest China’s Yunnan Province in 2007, Belgaum, India in 2008, southwest Sichuan Province, China in 2013, and in the western Indian city of Pune in 2014. Each year different contingents of soldiers from varied commands take part to allow for greater exposure between the two militaries.
The Chengdu Military Region is one of the PLA’s seven military districts and covers the southwest part of the country, notably the Tibet Autonomous Region and the disputed Kashmir border with India. The 14th Group Army is based in Kunming. The Naga Regiment is the first infantry regiment to be raised in post-independence India and has distinguished itself multiple times in battle during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and the 1999 Kargil War.
In a first, Indian Ambassador to China, Ashok K Kantha addressed the participating troops and praised the purpose of the exercises. Ambassador Kantha stated “Under conditions when terrorism has emerged as a major threat to humanity, the counter-terror cooperation between the two militaries has added significance.” He added “India and China have agreed that peace and tranquility in the border areas is an important prerequisite for continued growth of bilateral relations.”
Deputy Commander of the Chengdu Military Region, Lieutenant General Zhou Xiaozhou said “The joint military drill is becoming a normalized practice for us and a new development model for military cooperation, particularly on counter terrorism. And both sides are getting more familiar with each other. For instance, our Indian partner arrived late in the evening and went straight into the training program with the Chinese troops.”
Meanwhile Lieutenant General Surinder Singh, head of the Indian Observation Group and Commander of the 33 Corps of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command commented, “The India-China joint exercise is being done in the background of counter-terrorism operations within the United Nations. So, any time if both countries have to operate together in a United Nations situation, both armies should be able to understand each other and operate together.”
Benefits of HiH
The anti-terror exercises that HiH 2015 is culminating in are undoubtedly of importance to both countries. While the overall real military merits of HiH are debatable, anti-terrorism cooperation exercises are always beneficial on any scale. Bear in mind, India and China have been forced to deal with terrorism for years. India regularly confronts Islamic militants in Kashmir and just earlier this month four Indian soldiers were killed in a gun battle with terrorists in Kashmir. Meanwhile China has been battling separatists and terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in its predominantly Muslim, western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for years. Last month separatists were blamed for a coal mine attack in the region that saw 50 killed.
There are benefits to the HiH drill that are far beyond tactical exercises. In September, tensions between the two countries arose as a result of the construction of a watchtower by the PLA in a disputed region along the Line of Actual Control, the demarcation line between Indian and Chinese controlled Kashmir. A brief stand-off ensued between the PLA and Indian Army forces on the night of Friday, September 11th and was only resolved on the following Tuesday. The Kashmir region is but one of several thorns that prick the relationship. Ambassador Kantha stated the importance of the exercise in light of this recent event when he said “..the two countries have put in place several Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and the joint military exercises are an important component of the CBMs.”
The importance of such exercises for confidence building is not lost on the Chinese. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at the commencement of the drills “We [China-India] will continue to strengthen our cooperation on national defense and inject more positive energy to our bilateral ties.” Earlier this month Zhou said, “the exercise aims to improve China-India military communication and enhance mutual trust.. It does not target a third party and is not related to regional events.” The reference to “regional events” by Zhou can mean any number of things such as the India-China dispute in Kashmir or the trilateral India-U.S.-Japan Malabar Naval Exercise that took place concurrently with HiH 2015.
HiH 2015 should serve as a positive example of China-India cooperation. At a time when New Delhi is concerned by China’s advances into the Indian Ocean and Beijing wary of India’s burgeoning relationships with countries such as Vietnam and Japan, such an exercise provides an ideal opportunity to set aside differences and collaborate. At the least, bilateral exercises like HiH allow opposing forces the opportunity to interact with and gain an understanding of each other. Such an understanding is vital to assisting in defusing tensions like those that emerged in Kashmir last month.