China wants military hotline talks between its Western Theatre Command and India’s Army HQ in Delhi, not with regional commands in Kolkata or Udhampur.

New Delhi: Talks to establish a hotline telephone link between the militaries of India and China, revived only last week, have hit a roadblock on matters of protocol and operational command, a senior defence official has told ThePrint.

The Fort William, Kolkata, headquartered eastern army commander, Lt. Gen. Abhay Krishna, is likely to visit China next month as the leader of an Indian military delegation. His visit follows that of a team from China in New Delhi last week that was headed by the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theatre Command, Lt. Gen. Liu Xiaowu.

The military hotline talks have stumbled after China proposed that the connection should be between its Western Theatre Command, headquartered in Chengdu and Indian Army headquarters in New Delhi. The connection would be between India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and an official designated by the western theatre commander of the PLA.

Apart from the matter of protocol — of Indian Army headquarters being equated for practical purposes with a Chinese theatre command — there are also operational reasons.

India has three Army commands and three Air Force commands tasked with patrolling its frontier with China. In 2016, China’s PLA re-organised its hierarchy to bring all its units facing India under a single, unified Western Theatre Command (WTC). Unlike China, the Indian Army has three commands on the northern frontier — the Eastern Command in Kolkata, the Central Command in Lucknow and Northern Command in Udhampur plus three Air Force commands.

India had initially wanted a hotline between the DGMO in New Delhi with his counterpart in PLA in Beijing. In essence, India wanted a mirror image of the kind of “hotline” it has with Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi.

But China argued that since the dispute along the 3,488-km long frontier was not settled and transgressions were routine, it was important that theatre commanders were quick to resolve differences. In 2012, it proposed telephone connections between its frontier headquarters at Langzhou with Indian northern command headquarters in Udhampur and Chengdu with Fort William.

Both, matters of protocol and, of course, operations, are important in the India-China military-to-military talks. Military cultures and protocols of India and China are far dissimilar than those of India and Pakistan because of a colonial legacy.

Beyond that, India is still studying still-born reforms that it has been considering since 1999 — that of restructuring its armed forces into theatre commands. India has just one — the Andaman and Nicobar Command — that is a tri-service theatre command. The other tri-service outfits such as the Integrated Defence Staff and the Strategic Forces Command are not theatre commands.

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