Hand-in-Hand drill with China loses touch

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  • Published 22.09.09

New Delhi, Sept. 22: India and China are not going to be “Hand in Hand” this winter, abandoning the joint army drill of that name that is easily the biggest confidence-building measure between the two countries.

“We have not held any meetings to plan out the drill,” a senior army officer who would normally be involved in the liaisoning told The Telegraph today. “It is unlikely that there will be an episode of the exercise this year when our soldiers would have been expected to visit China since they were here last year.”

This season, there has been a flurry of reports — some confirmed officially — on repeated transgressions along the India-China border and the symbolism of the joint army exercise normally scheduled in December was expected to send out the message that the two sides were keeping the peace. India and China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2006 expressing their mutual desire to hold joint military exercises and institutionalise a “strategic dialogue”.

“Exercise Hand-in-Hand”, a joint training operation began in December 2007 when 103 soldiers of the Indian Army’s 15 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry landed in Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, for an eight-day drill. It was followed-up in December 2008 when a contingent of 130 from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, were received at the commando school in Belgaum, Karnataka, for drills with the 8 Maratha Light Infantry.

Both armies had agreed that the exercise — called a “joint training operation” —would be held every year. But after just two episodes, it looks like it has floundered.

When the first drill was held in December 2007, the world’s militaries took notice of the symbolism of two armies, that had gone to war in 1962, practising together. Soldiers of the companies involved struck a short-lived but warm friendship when they drank, danced, sang and, of course, attacked a mock enemy in a war game that ended with much fire and smoke in the Yangmei mountains close to Kunming.

A senior defence ministry official here said one of the reasons for not holding the drill this year was the austerity drive of the Centre. “It costs a lot of money to requisition an Indian Air Force aircraft and fly the soldiers to Kunming with all their equipment and sustain them,” he said.

In other words, the defence establishment in Delhi has concluded that the symbolism of the joint army drill is not worth it. The official points to the navy drills to make the point that military-to-military relations will continue. Indian warships made port calls in Qingdao and a Chinese PLA Navy warship visited Kochi in August. But a joint exercise of the two airforces, proposed in 2006, has not taken off.

“There seems to be a non-seriousness about the military drills,” agrees Shrikant Kondapalli, China-India border disputes expert with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis. The scenarios for the wargames were highly unreal — for example, in December 2007 soldiers of the two armies were jointly targeting a terrorist group that had supposed wedged itself near a trading post on the international border.

China is India’s largest trading partner. But the unsettled disputes along the 3,500-km-long border irritate the bilateral relationship that threatened to go into a tailspin this month after the Indian army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, confirmed that there were intrusions, including a helicopter landing, by the Chinese military in disputed territory.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan and General Kapoor said the tensions were not worrisome and a senior home ministry official even threatened to prosecute two journalists for writing a report — vehemently denied — that there was firing across the border in July.

“The symbolism (of a joint training operation) in this background is of value,” says Kondapalli. “But I think the two sides have concluded that even if the exercise is not held, it will not impact on bilateral relations.”