India and China will on Tuesday begin a 10-day joint military drill on counterterrorism – the first such exercise held between the neighbours in five years – in south-western China, as the two militaries look to boost trust and turn the page on recent tensions along the disputed border.
Taking place only a week after both countries signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) to expand confidence-building measures, the drills will be formally inaugurated on Tuesday near Chengdu.
Chengdu is the headquarters of one of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) seven military area commands, whose responsibility includes the entire Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as well as the middle and eastern sections of the border with India. An Indian army contingent arrived in Chengdu on Monday, officials said.
The drills, analysts say, are more symbolic than substantial: the counterterrorism drills are nowhere near as comprehensive as a full-fledged exercise between two armies. The larger objective is to expand confidence and trust between the two militaries, which are often grappling with tensions along the border.
The 10-day exercise is the third round of the “hand-in-hand” drills that the two countries initiated in 2007 in Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province. The second round was held in Belgaum, Karnataka, the following year.
Defence exchanges were suspended for more than a year starting in 2010, after China refused to host the then head of the Northern Command citing “sensitivities” on Kashmir. The move came amid a disputed over China’s issuing of stapled visas to Indian residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
India agreed to resume defence ties after China quietly withdrew the stapled visa policy in the months following the former Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in December 2010, and subsequently agreed to host senior officials from the Northern Command in several delegations.
Last month, both sides signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to China. The agreement is aimed at expanding confidence-building measures and preventing the recurrence of face-offs, by formalising rules such as no tailing of patrols and widening direct contact between military commands.
The 10-day drill has been seen in China as being particularly significant because it follows the signing of the BDCA as well as the visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India in May.
“It is a signal to both sides that the militaries can do something to improve the bilateral relationship,” said Lan Jianxue, a South Asia scholar at the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS) in Beijing, a think-tank affiliated to the Foreign Ministry.
“As a result of the historical background,” he told The Hindu in an interview, “it is good for the two militaries to communicate more with each other directly. The resumption of exercises will help to increase confidence about the other side.”