Peace Mission 2018 - the Larger Perspective
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

Somebody queried, "While Indian armed forces do joint military exercises with almost every nation in the immediate neighbourhood, even China, and with many others in the external environment, why not with Pakistan"? The quick reply was, "Joint exercises with Pakistan are in progress on an everyday basis"!

That being in lighter vein, history is being made in the ongoing joint exercise named Peace Mission 2018, under the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) wherein, both India and Pakistan are taking part together for the first time.

This article, distancing itself from the hype of the 'first Indo-Pak participation' in Peace Mission 2018 et al, attempts to see the relevance of joint military exercises (‘ex’, in short) in its larger format and the huge takeaways from such events - some tangible, others perceived.

For the count, Indian Army conducts joint exercises with 18 countries, Indian Navy with 14 countries and the Indian Air Force with eight countries1. A brief summary is as under:-

  • Exercises by Indian Army : Australia - Ex Austra Hind. Bangladesh - Ex Sampriti. China - Ex Hand-in-Hand. France - Ex Shakti. Indonesia - Ex Garuda Shakti. Kazakhstan - Ex Prabal Dostyk. Kyrgyzstan -Ex Khanjar. Maldives - Ex Ekuverin. Mangolia - Ex Nomadic Elephant and Ex Khan Quest. Nepal - Ex Surya Kiran. Oman - Ex Al Nagah. Russia - Ex Indra. Seychelles - Ex Lamitiye. Singapore - Ex Agni Warrior and Ex Bold Kurukshetra. Sri Lanka - Ex Mitra Shakti and Ex Maitree. Thailand - Ex Maitree and ex Cobra Gold. UK - Ex Ajeya Warrior. USA - Ex Yudh Abhyas and Ex Vajra Prahar.
  • Exercises by Indian Navy: Australia - Ex Ausindex and Ex Kakadu. Brazil and South Korea - Ex Ibsamar. France - Ex Varuna, Ex Ind-Indo Korpat and Ex Ind-Indo Bilat. Indonesia - Ex Komodo. Malaysia - Ex Arfdire. Myanmar - Ex Imcor. Oman - Ex Naseem-al-Bahr. Russia - Indra-Navy. Singapore - Ex Simbex. Srilanka - Ex Slinex and Ex IN_SLN SF Ex. Thailand - Ex Indo-Thai Corpat. UK - Ex Konkan. USA - Ex Malabar and Ex RIMPAC.
  • Exercises by Indian Air Force : France - Ex Garuda. Oman - Ex Eastern Bridge. Russia - Ex AviaIndra. Thailand - Ex Siam Bharat. UAE - Ex Dessert Eagle. UK - Ex Indradhanush. USA - Ex Red Flag.

The most obvious and the tangible takeaway from such exercises at the macro level is the positive impetus it provides to maintaining good diplomatic relations. At the level of the armed forces, it promotes deeper military ties achieved through mutual understanding and respect for each other and one another's best practices. It also helps in building better trust and confidence amongst the participating contingents and their nations. More importantly, while exercising with nations operating totally dissimilar equipments, it checks out issues of inter-operability and achieving accumulation and multiplication of force-effects in putting up joint fronts made up of dissimilar constituents. It also builds confidence of participating troops in carrying out such joint missions which involve operation of equipment by mixed crews.

The above concept of putting a joint force constituted of personnel from different nations is in sync with the United Nation's concept and practice of routinely deploying peace keeping or peace enforcing and crises resolution forces the world over. Such forces, as is commonly known, are composed of military and civilian personnel of different nations operating under the UN banner and addressing such international issues which plague the whole planet.

One such cause that overrides all others today and is applicable to much of the globe is the fight against international terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Joint exercises in this category are built on the theme of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism (CI/CT) drills. Another common cause that may often need to be undertaken is the provision of humanitarian convoy escort; the causes could be any - to take out innocent civilians out from the harm's way from the battle zone of warring nations or to supply to or sustain an isolated suffering population stuck in a war torn/famine or disaster struck country, etc. Naval exercises in international waters also connect to many common causes that effect the nations as a whole. Some of these could be boosting maritime security in contested or disputed waters, drills related to anti-smuggling and anti-hijacking operations or for keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) open, anti-poaching drills and more.

While that much is for the tangible and the obvious, joint exercises have many other takeaways. The most important amongst these is strategic messaging and strategic posturing. Take for instance, the trilateral Naval Ex - Malabar involving United States (US), India and Japan. The 22nd edition of this exercise unfolded from 07 Jun till 16 Jun 18 off the coast of Guam Island in the Western Pacific. This exercise is more than a joint naval manoeuvre between friendly countries. For the US, it is a move to put in place a sense of counter-balance against China’s growing naval might (read hegemony) in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The overtly stated aim as announced by the US Secretary of State James Mattis is obviously couched in generics, "Malabar 2018 represents the US commitment to an alliance for collective security for facing common maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific achieved through increased level of mutual understanding, inter-operability and sharing of the best practices among the three navies” 2. While the exercise has grown in scope and complexity over the past 26 years (commencing 1992), it has never failed to send strategic message to China. This has been evident in the keen interest shown by the latter in following Malabar very closely , year on year.

Starting way back in 2007 when China issued a demarche and sought details when Japan along with Australia took part in the Malabar Exercise amid accusations in the official media that it was an emerging front against Beijing.3, till the latest edition in 2018, where there have been reports of Chinese ships shadowing the participating ships from a safe distance, showing great concern on the anti submarine drills being practiced and keeping a careful watch on every move of the exercise, the abiding concern continues unabated.

India struck a very fine strategic balance on multiple issues in Malabar-2018. Keeping in mind the positive score in the growing stakes in the Sino-Indian relationship of late vis-a-vis the strategic need to remain a part of Malabar for all its overt and covert gains, it did a tight rope balance. In that, it pursued the principle of strategic autonomy, following a multi-polar relationship where each pole was in pursuance its national interest - a sort of having one's cake and eating it too. This approach saw India send a much smaller fleet (stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, an anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kamrota, Deepak Class fleet tanker INS Shakti and a Poseidon P-8 aircraft4) for the exerciuse as compared to Malabar-2017. This was to keep the sensibilities of both US and China alive at the same time and preserving the importance of each ‘pole’ as defined above. Some experts have called it "extreme China-consciousness"5. Consequently, China's change in tone in context of Malabar was unmistakable too, "We have no objection to the normal bilateral relations and cooperation among relevant countries, but we hope that this kind of relationship and cooperation will not be directed at any third party and will be conducive to the regional peace and stability"6. The other obvious was to keep Australia out. Some experts called it "India's snub"; "India's refusal"; "India deals a blow" etc. The author's take is, that Australia not joining is a status-quo position that causes least turbulence keeping in mind the irritants in the Sino-Australian relations. Such are the complex dynamics and compulsions of multinational exercises that drive actions by participating nations, power blocks, affected parties et al; each driven by its own national interests.

The next shade of exercises are those that involve the contingents of three services of the defence forces, Army Navy and Air Force. As for India, this happened for the first time on a foreign soil in 2017 during tri-service Ex - Indra (India+Russia exercises, started in 2003, in 2017 it was the 17th edition) conducted under the Russian banner from 19-29 Oct 17 at Vladivostok in Russia and the Sea of Japan. The exercise, besides providing opportunity for inter Service co-operation amongst its three contingents, also featured such gains as mixed crews operating each other's combat equipment ( SU 30, AN 26, MI-8, BMP II). The Russians, fresh from their experience in Syria shared best practices in dealing with international terrorism. Besides, Ex - Indra gave opportunity to the two countries to examine various ‘diverse options’. The exercise was also a response to the UN mandate of keeping multi-national forces in various regions of the world ready to take on the menace of terrorism7. It is reported that the 2018 version of Ex - Indra is planned to be conducted in India in the second half of 2018. Troops of Russian Eastern Military District will participate in the Exercise. Besides the regular content, a new feature will be receiving and servicing Russian military transport aircraft in India8.

Likewise, every exercise that India conducts with other nations, especially its immediate neighbours, has a special relevance on a one-on-one and one-on-many formats. Take for instance, Ex - Mitra Shakti which India conducts with Sri Lanka. Besides the projected aim of practicing counter-terrorism drills, exchanging best military practices, building strong military-to-military (M2M) relations, developing joint strategies in anti-terrorism force under the UN mandate and more9, the aim plus of building on M2M as a strategic gain in the face of ‘growing number of pearls’ - China's string of pearls policy - by our northern neighbour in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) can hardly be missed.

Take another exercise named Sampriti that India conducts year-on-year with Bangladesh alternating in each other's country. The 7th edition of the exercise was conducted in last Nov at the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJW) in Vairengte, India. Besides tactical gains in the M2M domain, the real takeaways are in the geopolitical domain10. Similar is the case with Ex - Surya Kiran with Nepal which saw the biggest troop participation (battalion level) in its XIII edition, completed in Pithoragarh in May 201811. Most interestingly, even in the currently strained diplomatic environment when Maldives has signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China (second country to do so after Pakistan), India has gone ahead to conduct the VIIIth edition of its joint Ex - Ekuverin (meaning friends in Maldivian language) at Belgaum, in Dec 1712. While responding to Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement by stating, "it (India) had expected the Maldives to be more sensitive about India's concerns" on one side, the advantages accruing out of Ex - Ekuverin might not be given a pass.

Besides the immediate environment, exercises with the countries in the external environment, e.g, Ex - Yudha Abhyas with US, Ex - Ajaey Warrior with UK and Ex - Shakti year-on-year with France contribute positively and tangibly in keeping alive positive diplomatic relations through the vehicle of M2M. The other advantages of deeper military ties, conduct of joint military training putting up integrated forces, easing inter-operability, mixed crew advantages et al, remain a common denominator as mentioned earlier. All the above exercises keep a sharp focus on CI/CT training. This was witnessed in Ex - Yudh Abhyas last year when a joint team of Indo-US force carried out a 48 hour validation mission exhibiting the skills of a daring rescue and destroy mission in the general area of Pilkholi near Chaubattia in Uttrakhand13.

Now a mention of the exercises that have a special significance, i.e exercises with China and Pakistan. In that context, the Sino-Indian Ex - Hand-in-Hand started way back in 2007. The purpose of the exercise was to develop joint operating capability, share useful experience in counter-terrorism operations and to enhance confidence and trust in each other in training for a joint CI/CT force under the UN mandate. Ex - Hand-in Hand has had a bumpy and an irregular roll out ever since its inception. After its first edition in 2007, and a short life for the next two years, the exercise got suspended in 2009 when China refused visa to the then Army Commander Northern Army, Lt Gen B S Jaswal, citing its ‘sensitivities’ over Kashmir. 14 The exercise remained suspended for five years to resume again in 2013, months after the then Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh's visit to Beijing in Apr 2013 where he signed an agreement with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to step up cooperation on border defence and counter terrorism training.

History repeated itself again when after a short run up to 2016, Doklam happened and Hand-in-Hand, 2017 again got suspended. This position continues till date while there are indications that the respective top leadership on both sides is keen to re-start the exercise; the issue reportedly came up during the visit of PM Modi to Chinese city of Wuhan in Apr 2018 where PM Modi and President Xi Jinping committed to cooperate further in the areas of counter-terrorism15. Following points become evident in the context of Ex - Hand-in-Hand:-

  1. Conduct of exercises, or suspension, have actually followed the crest and ebb respectively in the Indo-China relationship. Simply put, if the exercise is continuing, the bilateral relations, despite all the irritants of unresolved borders and the complex geopolitical quagmire and all its fall outs, are at a level which can possibly allow the joint exercise to be conducted. If it is suspended, the irritants have upped and the instant state is sour. By implication therefore exercises are mirrors of the bilateral state of matters at a point of time.
  2. Despite any number of hurdles and obstacles, there has been a constant desire on both sides to keep the exercises going, which in a way suggests that the top leadership on both sides do have realisation of this bilateral engagement being important, going far beyond the tangible CI/CT drills. Thus that at no time the word ‘cancelled’ has ever been used by any of the two sides when it comes to Hand-in-Hand; the exercise has always been ‘suspended’, implying an intent to revisit. The exercise has already survived two suspensions, and is probably poised to start again.

Some experts and critics have decried Hand-in-Hand on multiple grounds....

  1. The exercise is a strange misfit given the numerous irritants in Sino-Indian equation; Chinese assertiveness and aggressive posturing on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), repeated transgressions into Indian territory, more and more ‘pearls in the string’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), increased submarine traffic in waters close to our maritime interests, to name a few.
  2. There is a total mismatch in the perception of threat from terrorism. In that, our threat emanates from the multiple terror outfits being nurtured by our western neighbour while the Chinese perception of the threat is from such outfits as East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of Uighur Muslins in the Xingjian province. The two threat perceptions are entirely different in their DNA16.
  3. Even doctrine wise, it is case of 'chalk and cheese'. While India pursues the approach of the use of minimum force, causing minimum collaterals, and winning hearts-and-minds through civic actions, the Chinese are known to use strong-arm tactics, use of helicopter gunships and artillery to destroy buildings and wipe out entire villages where the terrorists hide.
  4. In sum, there is near zero possibility of India and China undertaking joint CT operations any time in the foreseeable future.

While all the above may be relevant, another angle to view India-China military exercises could be as follows:-

  1. Bilateral exercise with China is to be seen way beyond the tactical level of CI/CT drills, difference in threat perceptions and other irritants. The engagement is of strategic importance. India and China having a joint military exercise is the message for each and for the rest of the world.
  2. The more the uniforms of two potential adversaries are seen together in non-adversarial environment, more the communication grows, the less is the chance of misunderstandings and suspicions. It is so that this exercise has survived many an irritants (Doklam included), ready to bounce back again. It must, for the mutual good be given all chances.

Now, reverting to the Ex - Peace Mission, 2018. This exercise under the banner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has provided an opportunity for the contingent of eight nations (China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan) to train together as a joint force against the global threats of terrorism and extremism17. Possibly this is the closest two arch rivals - India 200, Pakistan 110 personnel respectively - could have come together other than on the battlefield! A training ground is a positive and win-win workplace where bonhomie is the accepted normal. Under the watchful eyes of the umpires the training contingents of two militaries can observe each other, operate together and probably share an experience or two with one other.

Like a multi-nation UN Peace Keeping Force (UNPKF) such a congregation is likely to prevail over adversarial sentiments to cooperation across national boundaries. Even if India and Pakistan are on board together for the first time in a joint exercise, it is no big deal , they have been together in many a UNPK operations where they have cooperated against common threats. The same spirit is likely to hold at the Peace Mission 2018.

End Notes:
  1. https://www.>list-of-india's-joint-military-exercises. Accessed on 27 Aug 18.
  2.>malabar exercise 2018. Accessed on 02 Sep 18
  4. Ibid.
  5.>how-china-consciousness-defines-malaabar-2108. Accessed on 10 Jun 18.
  6.>what-is-malabar-navy-exercise-as-China-expresses concern. Accessed on 10 Jun 18.
  7.>joint-indo-russia-tri-service-exercise-indra-successfully-conducted. Accessed on 03 Sep 18.
  8.>russia-india-military-exercise-indra-scheduled-for-late-2018. Accessed on 03 Sep 18.
  9.>exercise-mitrashakti-2017. Accessed on 03 Sep 18.
  10.>exercise-sampriti-2017. Accessed on 03 Sep 18.
  11.>india-nepal-joint-battalion-level-exercise-commences. Accessed on 03 Sep 18.
  12. https://www.>exercise-ekuverin. Accessed on 04 Sep 18.
  13.>exercise-yudh-abhyas. accessed on 04 Sep 18.
  14.>no-hand-in-hand-for-india-and-china. Accessed on 04 Sep 18.
  15.>pm-modi-in-china-highlights-prime-minister-modi-and-chinese-president-xi-jinping-commit-to-cooperate-further-in-areas-of-counter -terrorism. Accessed on 04 Sep 18.
  16.>exercise-hand-in-hand-counter-terrorism-the-cooperation-between-india-and-china-is-odd. Accessed on 04 Sep 18.
  17.>peace-mission-2018. Assessed on 04 Sep 18.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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