It would have been unthinkable 41 years ago, when the Indian army was being battered by the People’s Liberation Army at Sela and Dhola, Bomdila and Karpola in the vicinity of the disputed Mc Mahon Line. But in an unprecedented move, joint naval operations between the two former foes took off on the Shanghai coast on November 14. The date, coinciding with Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday, may hold some significance for those who may still harbour a grudge against China and raise suspicion about its intention of suddenly turning collaborator.
However, the positive response of the Chinese to the overtures of the Indian prime minister during his visit to China should be seen as an achievement on India’s part, especially since the Chinese have never been very forthcoming in defence matters. There might be several questions regarding the exercise — Why was it on the sea, and not on either land or air' What could be the mutual benefits' And why this change of heart on both sides'
In answer to the last, it can be said that the most probable cause behind the cooperation appears to be realpolitik. Never before, except once in 2001, off the Mumbai coast, have the People’s Liberation Army navy and the Indian navy ever come close during the last four decades. The Chinese navy had come to Mumbai in 2001 on a goodwill visit. The reality is that neither the Indian nor the Chinese navy have ever been acquainted with each other except through defence journals published in the West. India and China have had their marine zones cut out for each other — the former in the Indian Ocean and the latter in the outer Pacific Ocean rim and South China Sea.
Why the navy'
Logically, unless there is a clash of interests, there is little chance of the two navies engaging in a war or falling out. The same cannot be said for the land forces of India and China, standing on a eyeball-to-eyeball contact in Ladakh, Arunachal and Nathula. How can Indian soldiers, braving the chill, the wind, and the glare of the sun at 16,000 ft forget the humiliating defeat of 1962' Similarly, how can the Chinese soldiers in Tibet become suddenly friendly with an “enemy” force they had looked down upon after their easy victories at Dhola and Sela, Karpola and Hathungla, Bumla and Lumla' And the air force' Indian Hunters and Vampires did not bomb Shanghai. Chinese MiGs never assaulted Mumbai. True. Yet the Indian air force in 1962 stood on red alert and were also exposed to hostile enemy fire. The air force is unlikely to have any sweet memories of the sorties.
The psychology of feud cannot be eradicated overnight.The land and the air force of India and China still see each other on the passes of the Himalayas and from the air in full battle gear. It may not be real combat, but it certainly is a state of combat readiness.
Realistically, naval cooperation was picked up by the Indian prime minister as a plausible one. Both China and India now join hands to confront the threat emanating from the Malaca and Singapore straits. In one stroke, at least 1,000 marine soldiers from each side come to know of each other’s strength and weakness in a “real environment”. Navy implies both defence and diplomacy; show of force and mission of goodwill.
For the Chinese, however, the abiding future interest could be the acquisition of an aircraft carrier force and knowing the operations from experienced Indian sailors successfully using two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant and Viraat. In fact, the Chinese desire to have India’s cooperation to combat piracy and terrorism in the high seas is understandable. It is not difficult to predict today an increase in Sino-Indian cooperation. Whatever the reasons for this development, mutual benefits surely could be the key. And there are far too many issues involved — the Pakistani irritant, Kashmir and Tibet. Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, English knowing IT professionals and the Beijing Olympics are incentives for the small beginning of Sino- Indian naval cooperation.