Four Indian warships, including the INS Shivalik, one of India’s most capable indigenously built surface combatants, paid a five-day visit to Shanghai on 14 June 2012, marking India’s first naval port call to China in six years.

Shanghai was one of four East Asian ports visited, the others being Singapore, Japan and South Korea. The 1,400-strong contingent was led by Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, chief of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command. In addition to a variety of cultural exchanges and friendship activities, the two navies also held a brief maritime exercise.

The visit coincides with the India-China-Japan anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. The trilateral arrangement was launched in February and Seoul has already indicated its willingness to commit as a fourth participant.

The visit and joint anti-piracy patrols could generate some momentum for enhanced military cooperation. Although both governments agreed in November last year to resume the Annual Defence Dialogue following a two-year suspension over a visa row, several obstacles continue to hinder collaboration.

The dispute over Arunachal Pradesh remains unresolved and China continues to expand its network of infrastructure that is capable of supporting a rapid deployment of forces to the border. In light of these circumstances, New Delhi has conducted a test of its long-range Agni-V ballistic missile, increased its land and air forces near the Line of Actual Control, and stationed its most capable naval assets to the east.

The Chinese government is uncomfortable with New Delhi’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and its strategic ties with the United States and Japan. India’s cooperation with Vietnam in the exploration of resources in the South China Sea has prompted warnings from Beijing. In addition, public opinion and media in both countries have regularly called on their governments to adopt firmer policies.

A mismanagement of relations between the two giants can have catastrophic consequences for the Indo-Pacific community. With Indian forces in an increasingly high state of readiness, Chinese forces possessing the ability to mobilise rapidly, and uncertainty with regards to the nuclear postures and strategies of both sides, a future border crisis could quickly escalate into a wider conflict.

As much as there are points of contention, however, there are also many areas in which both sides share mutual interests. Bilateral security collaboration can build on peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, anti-piracy patrols, maritime search and rescue, and counterterrorism. While territorial disputes will unlikely be resolved in the forthcoming dialogues, reiteration of agreed norms and further exchanges of views can build confidence and ease diplomatic friction.

While hostilities are far from imminent in the current political-economic climate, a status quo underpinned by a range of lingering disputes and lack of regular communication between the two militaries is not particularly ideal. The onus is on the Chinese and Indian governments to carefully and responsibly manage their bilateral relationship. Perhaps the next step is for both sides to seriously commit to the establishment of hotlines and to agree to principles that would help de-escalate incidents at sea and along the border.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute