The fortnight long Indo-US Army exercise Yudh Abhyas-22 held on the icy heights of Auli in Uttarakhand from November 17 to December 2 generated much heat in Beijing, which took strong exception to the annual war games of combat soldiers from both countries. The 18th edition of Yudh Abhyas was held in the state bordering China, but not near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as claimed by China. However, the Dragon state was so rattled by this Indo-US muscle flexing that the Chinese government not only raised this issue with India but also lashed out at the US, advising them not to interfere in India-China relations.
In response, the US rebuffed the Chinese by saying that it was none of their business to interfere in India-US engagements. Indian officials later clarified that the exercise site was almost 100 km away from the LAC and in no way violated the 1993 and 1996 agreements of maintaining peace and stability on the existing LAC, which was based on the 1962 ceasefire line. Responding to the Chinese claims of violation of the spirit of 1993 and 1996 agreements, the Union Minister of External Affairs (MEA) retorted by choosing to remind the Chinese side that it was them who first unilaterally broke the agreements of 1993 and 1996. The 1993 agreement referred to Maintenance of Peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China border areas, whereas the 1996 agreement referred to Confidence Building Measures in the military field along the LAC in the India-China border areas.
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What The 1993 And 1996 India-China Agreements Entailed
In the 1993 agreement, both sides vouched to “strictly respect and observe the line of actual control between the two sides”. “No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control. In case personnel of one side cross the line of actual control, upon being cautioned by the other side, they shall immediately pull back to their own side of the line of actual control,” it said. The two sides further resolved to,“keep its military forces in the areas along the line of actual control to a minimum level compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries”.
The 1993 agreement specifically promised: “Neither side will undertake specified levels of military exercises in mutually identified zones. Each side shall give the other prior notification of military exercises of specified levels near the line of actual control permitted under this Agreement.”
The 1996 agreement further clarified: “Neither side shall use its military capability against the other side. No armed forces deployed by either side in the border areas along the line of actual control as part of their respective military strength shall be used to attack the other side, or engage in military activities that threaten the other side or undermine peace, tranquility and stability in the India-China border areas.”
It is obvious from the two agreements of 1993 and 1996 how the Chinese side has been flagrantly violating the spirit of the agreements reached by the then Chinese leadership headed by President Jiang Zemin, who died on November 30 this year. Instead of reducing the force strength, the Chinese side has deployed more than 50,000 soldiers to defend the unilateral incursions made by the PLA soldiers. In response, the Indian Army was also compelled to deploy similar strength near the LAC.
In addition, the agreements very clearly clarified that both the armies will not conduct an army exercise near the LAC. The Chinese were well aware of the distance of the exercise location, which was almost 100 km from the LAC.
Why China Is Rattled By India-US Bonhomie Near LAC
According to strategic observers, the Chinese side was rattled by this India-US bonhomie displayed in the state bordering China, though not exactly near the LAC. Deepening India-US military engagement is a cause for concern for the Chinese leaders who are also perturbed by the expanding Indo-US maritime cooperation to thwart any attempt to disturb peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, the uncalled-for advice to the US “not to interfere in Sino – Indian relations”.
While the war game was underway, on November 30, Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian raised this issue before international media, saying “the joint military exercise between India and US close to LAC, at the India-China border violates the spirit of agreement between China and India in 1993 and 1996”. Zhao added: “…it does not serve the mutual trust between China and India.”
Interestingly, it was India that had been accusing China of breaking the 1993 and 1996 LAC agreements ever since the Chinese army intruded in many border areas on the LAC beginning May 2020. Rebutting Chinese allegations, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi strongly said: “India hasn’t given a veto to any third country on who to conduct a military exercise with . The exercise has nothing to do with the bilateral agreements.”
He added: “But since these were raised by the Chinese side, I must emphasize that China needs to reflect and think about its own breach of the agreements of 1993 and 1996.” The MEA also said India exercises with whomever it chooses to.
“Exercise Yudh Abhyas is conducted annually between India and USA with the aim of exchanging best practices, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures between the Armies of the two nations,” the Ministry of Defence had said before the beginning of the exercise.
The previous edition of Yudh Abhyas was conducted at the Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Alaska (USA) in October 2021.
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Indo-US Military Engagement Is Expanding
Significantly, Auli, where this year’s exercise was held, is the place where the Indian Army has set up its first high altitude foreign training mode. While the base camp at Auli is situated at about 9,400 feet above sea level, the actual validation exercise of Yudh Abhyas took place at 12,000 feet above sea level. The significance of Indian and American soldiers gathering near the area adjacent to the disputed China border can be gauged from this choice of location.
The US Army soldiers of 2nd Brigade of the 11th Airborne Division and Indian Army soldiers from the Assam Regiment participated in the exercise. The training schedule focused on employment of an integrated battle group under Chapter VII of the UN Mandate. The schedule included all operations related to peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The troops from both nations worked together to achieve common objectives. The joint exercise also focused on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Troops from both nations also practised how to launch swift and coordinated relief efforts in the wake of any natural calamity.
From fighting terrorism to enforcement of peace to conducting HADR operations, the Indo-US military engagement is deepening and expanding, generating concerns in China whether such bilateral interactions would emerge as direct challenge to Chinese hegemony in the region.
The author is a senior journalist and strategic affairs analyst.
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