India and China Recommence Annual Hand-in-Hand Military Exercise

Spearhead Analysis – 19.12.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

India and China resumed their annually held ‘Hand-in-Hand’ joint military exercise this year after suspending the exercise last year amid tensions in the bilateral relationship over the Doklam standoff. The Doklam plateau is a region claimed by India-aligned Bhutan and also China. The 2017 standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries at the Bhutan-China-India tri-border area was unprecedented, in terms of both geographic location and the length of time it lasted for. Throughout the dispute, China was unusually hostile in its tone, while India’s rhetoric stood out in contrast as a lot more studied and calculated. There are key bilateral differences in the Sino-Indian relationship. While the leaderships of both countries is aware of the structural factors that continue to determine the nature of ties, since the Doklam standoff it has also become exceedingly clear that both countries regardless have hopes of stabilizing their relationship despite the existence of challenging factors.

The recommencement of the “Hand-in Hand” military exercise is the latest case in point. This will be the seventh in the series of exercises for India and China, and is expected to build “mutual trust and understanding, deepen practical exchanges and cooperation between troops, and improve their capabilities in counter-terrorism.” The exercise aimed at “building and promoting close relations between armies of both countries” took off on December 11 and is set to continue till the 23rd of December in Chengdu, China.

Both contingents will establish a Joint Command headquarters and launch anti-terror operations. The exercise will include tactical level counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations under UN mandate. It will also include adaptive training, basic training, live-fire shooting and comprehensive drills. According to reports, China has sent a contingent of 100 People’s Liberation Army troops to participate in the drills.

Lt. Col. Mohit Vaishnava of the Indian Army was quoted in a statement appreciating the exercise for helping “enhance the ability of the joint exercise commander to take military contingents of both nations under command”.

The Hand-in-Hand exercise comes after a long period of bitterness in the bilateral relationship in 2017. The April informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping is also significant in creating the right environment for a return to normalcy. In Wuhan, China, leaderships from both countries met this year hoping to reset the trajectory of the bilateral relationship and move it into a positive direction.

The Chinese president for the first time agreed to meet with an Indian prime minister in an informal summit, which is an honor rarely given and usually accorded to American presidents. Perhaps the decision was made as a result of the pressure China is presently facing from Washington’s clamp down on tariffs, and from the rest of the world growing increasingly uneasy as the Belt and Road Initiative continues to expand. China realizes that it will need allies to secure its economic and strategic interests in the region.   

During the April summit, Modi and Xi agreed to issue strategic guidance to their militaries on the border issue and work towards strengthening communication to build effective understanding on the shared objective of “maintaining peace and tranquility in the border region.” The two leaders also noted the common challenges both countries are faced with relating to terrorism, and agreed to cooperate on counterterrorism. Further, both countries decided to undertake an important and likely game-changing joint economic project in Afghanistan.

Following the summit, China also established that “there was no fundamental difference with India on the issue of “inter-connectivity” and Beijing would “not be too hard” with New Delhi on the issue of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”.

Given the current tilt of the West towards introducing more protectionist policies, the two largest developing countries of the world and emerging-market economies with a population level of more than one billion establishing the importance of working together on global economic issues is significant to note.  

More recently, Modi met Xi again—this time, in a trilateral setting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was the first summit in twelve years that had leaders of all three countries come together. A wide range of regional and global issues were discussed during the trilateral meeting.

Both China and India have a longstanding and significant trading relationship which mostly tilts in China’s favor. The two cooperate and compete on a wide range of issues. At the same time, there is also a mutual recognition of the need for stability and peace in the bilateral relationship. The resumption of Hand-in-Hand military exercises is a significant and positive step in bilateral ties, signaling hopes for better cooperation and perhaps even more balanced economic interaction in the leaderships of the two countries.