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War games first, talks later

New Delhi, Oct. 23: Talks between India and China that began here today with the visit of the Chinese senior vice-foreign minister are being held against the backdrop of military confidence-building measures despite the Indian Army holding an exercise in the eastern theatre this week after 20 years.

Army sources said the exercise was held in Tezpur, headquarters of the 4 Corps, and was attended by army chief General .C. Vij during a three-day visit to the Northeast. Vij returned to the capital last evening.

The sources said the exercise was a conventional war game and not designed on counter-insurgency, a major responsibility undertaken by the 4 Corps that also mans the border in Arunachal Pradesh.

The army chief also visited the headquarters of 33 Corps at Sukna in northern Bengal. The 33 Corps mans the border with China in Sikkim.

A November 1996 agreement on military confidence-building measures requires both India and China to restrain from holding division-level exercises near the Line of Actual Control.

Border disputes span three sectors across the 4,060-km frontline with China from Ladakh to Arunachal. The 1996 agreement requires each side to inform the other in advance of brigade-sized (about 5,000 troops) movements and pull back heavy armour and artillery to designated areas.

The sources said the army chief was briefed by formations under the 33 and 4 Corps “on the prevailing security situation in the region, including activities of NDFB, Ulfa and KLO militants”.

The 33 Corps is not known to be involved in any extensive counter-insurgency operation. The army chief was said to have “shared his philosophy and concept of operations” with formations under the 33 Corps.

The military establishment in India is vocal on peace and tranquillity on the borders with China since the signing of the 1996 agreement.

While defence minister George Fernandes personally argues for peace with China, the army and the air force have been forced to de-escalate the situation in the eastern theatre because of pressures in Jammu and Kashmir.

While the army has on occasion re-deployed troops from Arunachal to Kashmir, the air force says it is able to conduct more humanitarian missions with its transport aircraft in the Northeast.

The exercise in the 4 Corps area of responsibility (Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) also marked the end of an hiatus. Since the troops were pulled back after the 10-month-long Operation Parakram was unwound, this is the first exercise by the army.

Army headquarters had earlier said exercises would be on hold for a year after the re-deployment of troops from the border stand-off with Pakistan.

The July-December period is known as the “campaigning season” when the Indian (and Pakistani) forces conduct war games.

Despite the exercise held in the Northeast after a gap of two decades, the military establishment in Delhi is against escalating tension in the eastern theatre.

Fernandes has been taking the line that as China is a bigger power, it is expected to be more responsible in resolving disputes with India. The defence minister visited China in April this year ahead of the Prime Minister's visit in June.

Even during the Prime Minister's visit, on June 26, a dispute arose in the Asaphila sector of Upper Subansiri in Arunachal.

Sources in Delhi had said that a Chinese patrol had crossed over the LAC while Beijing had claimed that Indians had crossed over. The army distanced itself from the dispute and it was pointed out that the transgression was near posts manned by the Intelligence Bureau (under the Union home ministry).

More than anything else, the army has perforce had to redeploy troops from the eastern sector along the border with China to the western border during Operation Parakram. Neither the army nor the air force has reported transgressions of any kind.

Defence sources said flag meetings are held on schedule and mail exchanged routinely. They even talk of “bonhomie” among Indian and Chinese troops in the eastern sector.

In May, Fernandes had said: “Not a single bullet has been fired across the Himalayan frontiers between China and India for the last three years.” Officially at least, the military establishment echoes this observation even now.

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