The visit by China’s Defense Minister to India after a hiatus of eight years comes at a time when bilateral relations are marked by growing economic and political cooperation and concerns over growing Chinese influence in South Asia and the extended Indian Ocean region (IOR). The visit has evinced great interest in India, particular in the context of plausible outcome and its overall impact on bilateral relations.
The security relations between the two countries are marked by misgivings and mis-perceptions. From the Indian point of view Chinese military modernization and massive Chinese infrastructure build-up in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), are cause of serious concern. Indian defence minister, A.K. Antony, recently informed the Indian Parliament about rapid developments being undertaken by China in terms of rail, road, airfield, and telecommunications infrastructure, which are viewed as largely India-centric.
Before coming to India, Gen Liang Guanglie spent five days in Sri Lanka where he not only pledged USD 100 million in assistance to build and modernise the country’s defence forces, but also promised to aid in rebuilding of military infrastructure in the North and Northeast while supporting the Sri Lankan government position in their reintegration process.
China’s attempts at strategic balancing in South Asia by forging military and economic ties with all of India’s neighbours, some of whom have fractious ties with New Delhi, and by expanding its naval power in the IOR are to say the least disconcerting. India looks upon these as Beijing’s deft moves aimed at effectively isolating India and further narrowing New Delhi’s traditional strategic space. What is of particular concern to India is China’s active engagement in Pakistan be it infrastructure development in western Baluchistan Province, Gilgit-Baltistan, and other parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Similarly major investments to develop strategic land bridges connecting the subcontinent to the Chinese mainland through dedicated pipeline and transport corridors to the Indian Ocean are reasons for suspicion.
Adding to above concerns is that despite years of torturous boundary negotiations nothing tangible has been achieved, if at all the atmosphere along the LAC is being vitiated by periodic Chinese intrusions and new emerging disputed areas e.g. Chumar in Ladakh.
Given the above backdrop the visit to India by the Chinese Defence Minister weeks prior to 18th National People’s Congress scheduled to be held in Oct, 2012 raises clear issues about both the timing and purpose of the visit. Was it a confidence building exercise as part of Chinese attempts at strategic balancing or a mere performance interaction at the minimal level to signify resumption of high level defence interaction? As the Chinese media highlighted the visit was to build trust, by resumption of military dialogue, military exercises as also to promote exchanges in non traditional security fields such as maritime cooperation.
It needs to be noted however that going specifically by military to military contacts between the two countries there has been lot happening. The two sides over the years have conducted two joint naval and counter terrorism exercises, with discussions for a possible joint air exercises. The hiatus in the bilateral ties came about when China in a an extremely provocative step denied senior Indian military leader visa and made number of provocative statements over PM and Defence Ministers visit to Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims to be ‘Southern Tibet’ a disputed territory.
The above for a short period led to the freezing of defence interactions and resolved only on prime ministerial intervention. The ties have since recommenced. Fourth China – India Defence Dialogue took place in New Delhi in December last year, this has been followed by senior level military exchanges; Indian delegations visited Beijing, Urumqi and Shanghai and Chinese delegations New Delhi, Army War College and Mumbai among others.
Similarly the pace of naval exchanges too has been rising. Four frontline Indian naval ships visited Shanghai in June 2012, a first in six years. The highlight of the visit was announcement of Indo – Chinese maritime dialogue by the Commander Chief of Eastern naval Command. Earlier Zhenghe, China’s famous naval ship, visited Kochi on a four-day goodwill trip in May this year to commemorate Chinese explorer and diplomat Zheng He’s visit to the City and in a sense reaffirm Chinese interest in Indian Ocean.
During their official exchanges the two defence ministers discussed broad set of issues ranging from developments in Asia – pacific including no doubt South China Sea wherein the visiting Chinese Defence Minster familiarised his Indian counterpart on the Chinese approach to the standoff and its aspirations on conflict resolution. Apparently Chinese also conveyed to the Indian side their growing concerns about US rebalancing strategy and strategic shift to the region after an interval of practically a decade and their long term consequences with an eye on American attempts to make India the lynch pin of regional strategic engagement.
Similarly post 2014 situation in Af – Pak was also reportedly discussed particularly the issue of growing radicalism and terrorism given Chinese growing concerns, about developments in Xinjiang where Chinese are pushing hard to reduce links with Pakistan and improve economic links with Central Asia and Russia.
The above exchanges in a sense point to disquiet within the Chinese establishment and strategic community about developments in Asia – Pacific and post 2014 scenario in Af – Pak. Concerned by evolving geopolitical situation in Asia, and possible standoff with the Americans Chinese appear to be trying their own rebalancing strategy to prevent India lodging itself firmly in the US camp. Indian policy of strategic impendence and autonomy also appear to have convinced Chinese leadership that if handled properly, India can be wooed into a balancing act in which a judicious mix of pragmatism and nationalism pushes Sino-Indian relations forward without in any way compromising its core interests.
Signs of such a thinking appeared during Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Beijing. Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang —expected to be China’s next premier — told Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna that Sino–Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century, following a strong pitch by the Indian foreign minister for full membership of SCO (Sandy Gordon, “India: Which Way will the ‘swing state swing’). Similarly in recent discourse with Chinese scholars on post Af – Pak scenario their unease with regional developments was manifest. Regional cooperation and integration were seen as an imperative in maintaining post 2014 security and stability, in which china openly acknowledged their stakes. Chinese scholars also affirmed that while there were multiple stakeholders, following US draw down it was China and India who would need to take major lead to maintain regional stability.
Seen in the above context, the Chinese defence minister’s visit could be described as both to affirm bilateral defence ties, lower stakes for confrontation as also to induce India from becoming a tool in US rebalancing strategy. Following the visit, it will be important to follow the trend lines of the trajectory of bilateral relations, for India to shape its policy responses.