US-India War Drills Near Chinese Border Are Not What The West Hopes They Are

U.S. troops to hold war drills with Indian troops near India’s border with China — Considering the west’s desperate attempts to build alliances to corral China, and India’s own recent troubles with the country at their common border, the news was enough to set off feverish reportage in certain western outlets on the import of the development.

India announced the dates for the 18th edition of its joint military exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas’ with the U.S., focusing on high-altitude combat training. Held from October 14 to 31 at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the exercises will unfold in an interesting location – Auli, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which is just 62 miles (95 kilometers) from India’s disputed border with China.

The drill’s timing, which coincides with the Chinese Communist Party National Congress wherein President Xi Jinping may seek a third term as the party chief, triggered the rhetoric that Washington and New Delhi are looking to push the envelope on China.

But, the fact is that the exercises may be nothing more than regular annual drills. Last year’s edition too saw the troops training on “high-altitude, cold-climate training,” in Alaska and the Indian state of Rajasthan.

The annual exercises have been going on for 18 years, becoming one of the longest-running joint military training and defense cooperation in the world. Both sides have, for decades, explained the idea behind the drills as a way to “improve interoperability and improve our respective capacities to address a range of regional security challenges.”

However, geo-political analysts, along with a section of western media, believe the drills would be a matter of concern for China.

Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, told Nikkei Asia that the U.S. could try to showcase that “they may be looking at another front for [tackling] China” through the drills.

The U.S., however, has steadfastly denied the drills had any ulterior motive. On how these exercises would further strengthen India-U.S. defense ties amid China’s aggression in the region, U.S. Army Pacific’s Maj. Jonathan Lewis told Nikkei Asia that the upcoming exercise is about partners working together on areas of mutual interest and “not related to a specific country.”

“The location chosen for the training offers the right combination of altitude and climate for the objectives of the exercise,” Lewis said.

Besides, these aren’t the first ‘Yudh Abhyas’ drills to be conducted in the state of Uttarakhand, which shares its border with China. The exercises were held in the state in 2014, 2016 and 2018, though they were all over 300 km from the boundary.

That said, experts who spoke to Nikkei Asia believe that India has shown “some restraint in the choice of location.”

Things would have been different if the drills were planned in Ladakh, where the Chinese and Indian troops engaged in aggressive melee and skirmishes, or in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reportedly building infrastructure across the international border.

China has so far not issued any public statement about the drill.

Apart from the U.S, India has conducted counter-insurgency operations and high-altitude warfare with other friendly foreign forces, including the Russians, in Uttarakhand.

India might be a strong U.S. ally strategically but its economic balance is tilted towards China, especially since it has strong trade relations with Beijing. Despite its border issues with China, which has seen no progress but no deterioration either, New Delhi has never opposed Beijing’s “One China” principle and, according to experts, would likely take a muted position if China invades Taiwan.

As for western alliances, despite holding secret meetings with NATO, India has remained unresponsive to their offers of engagement, mainly due to its policy of non-alignment as well as its long-standing relations with Russia.

Representation. India is ramping up its border defences along a treacherous mountain range that has long been a flashpoint with China
AFP / Money SHARMA

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