Reflections On Visit By Chinese Defence Minister To India – Analysis


Mr.Liang Guanglie, the Chinese Defence Minister, who is in Sri Lanka since August 29,2012, on an official visit at the head of a 23-member delegation, is reaching New Delhi on September 2, 2012, for a three-day official visit before proceeding to Laos from where he will return home.

His visit to India has aroused considerable interest in India and outside. After a gap of eight years, a Chinese Defence Minister will be visiting India. The visit will be taking place on the eve of the forthcoming leadership changes in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese Government after the present leadership completes his 10-year-term.The changes in the party leadership will be taking place in October and the Government leadership in March next year.

China - India Relations
China – India Relations

In Mao Dze-dong and Deng Xiao-ping China had produced commanding individual leaders who imparted their personal stamp to policy-making—-Mao in respect of foreign policy and Deng in respect of economic policies. After the departure of Deng, China has not produced a leader of similar commanding presence and influence. Amongst the expected leaders of the coming decade, one does not see anyone, who might play such a commanding role and impart far-reaching changes to policy-making.

Collective leadership will continue to be the norm in the coming decade with important policies being decided collectively by the party leadership and implemented by the Government. It is, therefore, unlikely that the Chinese Defence Minister will give any indications of possible policy changes under the coming new leadership.

The visit will mark an improvement in the military-military relationship between the Armed Forces and the Defence Ministries of the two countries. This relationship, which had improved between 2004 and 2008 after the last visit of a Chinese Defence Minister, suffered a set-back after some actions taken by China which indicated a possible identification of Chinese thinking and policies with those of Pakistan in matters relating to Jammu & Kashmir.

The first of these actions was the Chinese reluctance to issue a normal visa to a senior officer of the Indian Army posted in Jammu & Kashmir to visit China at the head of a delegation for one of the routine talks with their Chinese counterparts. This was the first time India had nominated a senior Army officer posted in J&K to head a military delegation for bilateral talks in China.

The Chinese reportedly took up the stand that India should either nominate an officer posted outside J&K or if it insisted on sending this particular officer, it would issue to him a special visa on a plain piece of paper and not the normal visa on his Indian passport. India rightly did not agree to this and as a result the normal Army-Army exchanges were downgraded by India, if not suspended. It has been reported that the Chinese have since given up their hesitation to issue normal visas to officers of the Indian Armed Forces posted in J&K for official visits to China. As a result, military exchanges have again resumed and started improving.

The second Chinese action relating to J&K that has caused concern in India is their de facto and officially unannounced recognition of Pakistani claims of sovereignty over Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which is still a disputed territory with conflicting claims of sovereignty by India and Pakistan. This de facto recognition could be seen in their acceptance without any objection of leaders and officials of the Gilgit-Baltistan administration in official delegations headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani visiting China. The Chinese have never raised the issue of any special visas for Pakistani officials, civilian or military, posted in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Gilgit-Baltistan who are required to visit China.

The third Chinese action relating to J&K that has caused concern in Indian military circles relates to the reported induction of a number of personnel of the engineering divisions of the PLA into the POK and GB for the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway and additional personnel from their infantry divisions for providing protection to their engineering units.

In such issues relating to J&K, the Chinese Defence Ministry and Armed forces play an important role in guiding policy-making. The Chinese actions in going ahead with these moves unmindful of the sensitivities and concerns of India indicate certain pro-Pakistani constants in Chinese strategic policy-making relating to its relations with India and Pakistan.

The Chinese have reportedly sought to address Indian sensitivities relating to the issue of visas to Indian military officers posted in J & K, but they have not shown any willingness to address the Indian sensitivities and concerns over their actions in the POK and GB. However, the Government of India has apparently decided not to let this come in the way of the resumption of military-military exchanges and confidence-building measures between the two countries. The visit of the Chinese Defence Minister will impart the political stamp of approval to various steps being considered for further strengthening the exchanges and CBMs. Among such measures being speculated about are the resumption of the joint counter-terrorism exercises which are in a state of suspension since 2008, a possible joint air force exercise, the upgradation of the level of military representation in the Embassies of the two countries in each other’s capital and greater co-ordination of the anti-Somali piracy operations of the Navies of the two countries. It has been reported by “The Hindu” that the Chinese are keen to have separate Attaches from their Navy and Air Force in their Embassy in New Delhi on a reciprocal basis and that New Delhi may agree to this.

Chinese intentions and capabilities in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and in those areas of Xinjiang adjoining J&K continue to be a matter of concern to Indian military circles. In addition to strengthening their military-related infrastructure and deployments in the TAR, the Chinese have been stepping up the level, diversity, frequency and complexity of their military exercises in the TAR since October 2010. These exercises have a domestic as well as an India-focussed dimension.

The domestic dimension relates to strengthening their capability for putting down any disturbances after the death of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Last month, the Chinese internal security agencies held joint counter-terrorism exercises in the Lhasa region. They are trying to strengthen the helicopter-lift capability of their Army in the plateau areas. They are extending their rail and road networks and constructing more airfields in the TAR. All these at present seem to be related to strengthening their capability to prevent any instability in Tibet after His Holiness, but these value-additions could also help them in any military operations against India in the Arunachal Pradesh sector.

The India-focussed dimension is about the increasing participation of the Chinese Air Force in military exercises in the TAR. Why this increasing importance to the role of the Air Force in Tibet? It cannot be to meet internal instability. It has to be to meet eventualities in the event of a military conflict with India.

In the past, some Indian analysts were of the view that the Indian Army might not have suffered a humiliation at the hands of the Chinese Army in 1962 if India had used its Air Force to disrupt the Chinese lines of communications. It is now mentally accepted in both the countries that if there is another conventional military conflict between the two countries, the two Air Forces will play an active role. It should be evident from the recent exercises with the active participation of the Chinese Air Force that the Chinese are improving the training of their Army and Air Force for eventual joint operations if there is a military conflict with India

The importance of such high-level visits lies not only in the formalities of the discussions and exchanges across the table, but also in the informalities of the brain-picking during the opportunities for informal interactions provided by the visits. Indian military officials will definitely try to find out what exactly is the Chinese military thinking relating to operations mounted from Tibet, but they are unlikely to get an answer. The answer has to come from our intelligence agencies.

The prevailing wisdom presently is that if there is another military conflict with China, it will be an Army-Air Force joint operation from both sides across the border with no involvement by the Navies. Has the time come to revisit that wisdom and re-examine the likely role of the two Navies? It is in this context that the Indian Navy ought to be viewing and assessing the growing Chinese military interest in countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Seychelles.

The Chinese military’s interest in these countries has two dimensions. The first is strengthening the military supply relationship in order to create a dependence on Chinese military equipment. The second is to strengthen the Chinese role in port development and to improve the Navy-Navy exchanges. The strategic implications of the second dimension ought to be a matter of growing concern for the Indian Navy. At present, the seeming Chinese interest is in protecting their supplies of energy and other essential goods for which their Navy requires a presence in countries en route.

What could be the impact of the Navy-related capabilities in the Indian Ocean region that they are developing on a future military conflict between India and China? That is a question that has to be seriously examined by us.

The Chinese are puzzled and worried by the visibles and invisibles of our developing strategic relationship with the US.Is it purely an ad hoc and one-night courting or is there a strategic durability to the Indo-US coming together? Does it purely have an ocean-related dimension relating to jointly protecting the respective interests of India and the US in the Indian Ocean region or does it have a South China Sea dimension too? What is the extent of the strategic co-operation between the Armies and Air Forces of India and the US? What kind of scenarios warranting ground co-operation they are discussing? Is the possibility of an opportunistic foray into Tibet in the event of instability there one of the scenarios being discussed?

These are questions to which the Chinese have been trying to find an answer. It is likely that during the informal discussions between the two delegations, the Chinese will try to pick our brains on these questions bothering them. It will be in our interest to keep them guessing and worried.

A conventional wisdom at present in thinking and analytical circles in both India and the US is that the Chinese are mighty worried over the possibility of India and the US coming together to contain China. I do not subscribe to this. Their first worry now is the implications of the India-US military co-operation for their attempts to pacify Tibet and in any military conflict between India and China over the unresolved border issue. We should keep this constantly in mind in our strategic planning.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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