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Chinese Defence Minister’s Visit To India In Perspective – Analysis

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By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The Himalayan glacial heights chill that pervades over the contentious India-China relations generates over-hyped expectations in Indian official and media circles whenever China deigns to send its top leaders to visit India. Characteristically this was visible both in the run-up to the visit and now during the visit of Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie to India from September 2-7, 2012.

The last visit of a Chinese Defence Minister to India was in 2004, nearly eight years ago. The last visit by an Indian Defence Minister to China was sometime in 2006, nearly six years ago. These interregnums by themselves highlight the existing tenor of India-China relations.

China - India Relations
China – India Relations

If visits by Chinese Defence Ministers paved avenues for a more benign strategic and security environment in the India-China military context, then the period 2004-2012 following the last visit of a Chinese Defence Minister should have stood flagged with an overall normalisation and de-escalation of military confrontations on the India-Tibet border. The record is otherwise.

This also raises questions as to whether any dramatic political breakthroughs have taken place on the contentious issues recently that divide India and China prompting the last minute visit request by China for the visit of its Defence Minister to India.

No answers are available in the public domain of any optimistic Chinese moves to remove the strategic distrust that dominates India-China relations.. On the contrary there is much evidence available in the public domain that the object of the Chinese Defence Minister to India is impelled by wider Chinese strategic and political aims and not by any India-specific initiatives.

In such a setting as described above, it becomes a pressing imperative to put the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India in perspective. Accordingly this Paper would like to focus on the following significant issues that stand out like the jagged stony peaks of Ladakh on the India-Tibet border:

  • Contextual Strategic Setting of Chinese Defence Minister’s Short Notice Visit to India.
  • China’s Over-drive on Military Diplomacy in Asia
  • Chinese Defence Minister’s meaningless Statements on Success of India Visit
  • China Threat to India is Substantive and Alive: Indian Political Leaders should not De-emphasise it
  • Strategic Complacency Should Not Creep-in Resulting from Chinese Leaders Pro-forma Visits to India

Contextual Setting of Chinese Defence Minister’s Short Notice Visit to India.

The Chinese request to India came hardly a month before his visit. What was being anticipated and was also visible in certain preparations was a visit by Vice President Xi Jinpeng who is to succeed President Hu shortly. That seems to have been shelved and the Chinese Defence Minister was a last minute gap-filler. What also cannot be forgotten is that the Chinese Defence Minister is due to retire next month and that itself lessens the significance of his visit to India.

Be as that may, the contextual strategic setting of the Asian security environment needs to be reviewed in putting the Chinese Defence Minister’s current visit to India in perspective.

The contextual Asian security environment is distinguished by the increasing military turbulence unleashed by China since 2009 and which this year reached a peak in the South China Sea incidents with ASEAN countries and with Japan in the East China Sea.

Consequently the United States signalled its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and re-balancing its military postures in the region. In essence this signalled the United States strategy of containment of China, freed from its Afghanistan and Iraq military commitments.

China by its aggressive policies recently against its neighbours on territorial disputes generated a strategic realignment in favour of the United States in the region.

China consequently in 2012 stands strategically and politically isolated from its Asian neighbours and the United States despite any rhetoric to the contrary is implicitly indicating containment of China.

Added to the above is the significant emerging reality that China is involved in territorial disputes with Asia’s two leading nations, namely India and Japan—one a military ally of the United States and the other rather coyly shifting its alignment towards the United States.

Lately, India’s strategic partnership initiatives towards Japan and South Korea seemed to have raised strategic concerns in China.

China while in sufferance of US-India Strategic Partnership would make all attempts to sabotage a closer strategic partnership between India and Japan and India and South Korea.

The Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India needs to be viewed in this perspective. China’s readings on Indian policy establishment’s proclivities to kow-tow to China’s strategic sensitivities provided the basis of breaking out of its ensuing strategic isolation in the Asian security environment by a visit to India by its Defence Minister as political signalling to USA and Japan. China is not signalling anything to India in transformation of its existing stances.

China’s Over-drive on Military Diplomacy in Asia

Arising from the increasing sense of strategic isolation in Asia, China has recently embarked on an overdrive resort to military diplomacy in Asia. It thereby hopes to allay the fears amongst its Asian neighbours generated by its militarily aggressive posturing in recent years. It is also vainly attempting ‘damage control’ of the strategic and military distrust that China has wreaked on Asian security.

Evidence of this is available that concurrently with the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India, the PLA Deputy Chief of Staff General Ma Xiatian left on official visits to Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore

However China’s overdrive on military diplomacy in Asia has come too late and too little. China has to resort to substantive demonstrable actions to convince its Asian neighbours that henceforth it has serious intentions to transform its aggressiveness on territorial disputes with its neighbours.

Chinese Defence Minister’s meaningless Statements on Success of his Visit to India

Chinese Defence Minister’s statements after his meeting with the Indian Defence Minister, on the success of his visit to India were carried by Al Jazeera as under:

  • “We have reached a very important consensus of further promoting the friendly, strategic and co-operating partnership between the two countries and promoting friendly exchanges and cooperation between two armed forces.”
  • “We have also reached an agreement or consensus on the exchange and cooperation between the two militaries in various fields, the exchange of high level visits, the exchange of young officers, and also the exchange of personnel training, inter-collegiate exchanges in non-traditional security fields including cooperation between the two navies and maritime security cooperation.”

In response all that was attributed to the Indian Defence Minister were that talks were fruitful and that discussions focussed on “South Asia and Asia Pacific”

Analysing the above as a military observer and analyst there are no game-changers in India-China relations visible from these pronouncements. These were hackneyed and predictable statements

China Threat to India is Substantive and Alive: Indian Political Leaders should not De-emphasise it

The China Threat to India is real and continues to be so notwithstanding the series of visits by Chinese high dignitaries to India in the Decade of the 2000s.

Regrettably Indian political leaders have the propensity in their utterances and statements to de-emphasise “The China Threat” to India especially on the eve of visits of Chinese dignitaries to India. Presumably, they feel that this probably would induce Chinese dignitaries to adopt more conciliatory attitudes towards India.

Two instances, one past and one present, can be quoted of the many in such a vein. The past occasion that comes to mind is inmid-2000; the then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji was quoted on having stated while visiting the Japan Defence Agency that China was no threat to India. The recent one is attributed to Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju stating on the eve of the current Chinese Defence Minister to India that China was no threat to India and that the India-Tibet border was peaceful.

India’s political leaders seem to forget two important determinants in this respect. The first is that such statements create confusion and doubts in the rank and file of the Indian Army and affect their morale, when day in and day out they guard the glacial heights on the Himalayan heights on the India –Tibet borders and dealing with intrusions and transgressions by Chinese Army soldiers. It also sows confusion in the minds of Officers being constantly exercised and trained to meet the increasing threat from Chinese military build-up in Tibet.

The second point of concern is that such statements distort earlier Indian postures and limit future strategic posturing. Following India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998 the then Prime Minister asserted that this was necessitated by China’s nuclear weapons and military modernization or words to that effect.

The above was a correct summation on ‘The China Threat’ and is valid today also. What has happened recently that prompts the Indian MOS of Defence to de-emphasise ‘The China Threat’?

Even if for the sake of diplomatic niceties if statements have to be made by Indian political leaders all that needs to be said is that: “India views China as a responsible stake-holder in Asian security and India hopes that China will sincerely reflect that in her dealings with her Asian neighbours”.

Strategic Complacency Should Not Creep-in Resulting from Chinese Leaders Pro-forma Visits to India

“The China Threat” to India’s national security is substantive and alive and can be expected to continue as long as India’s war-preparedness does not reduce the differentials with Chinese military build-up in Tibet.

India’s war preparedness has always been found wanting in every major war that India had to fight against China and Pakistan. This arose not from any shortcomings in the professionalism or military competence of the Indian Army but primarily arose from the strategically complacent attitudes of the Indian political leaderships and their civil bureaucratic advisers charged with India’s defence acquisitions and defence production.

This complacency in paying over-riding priority to India’s war-preparedness arises from the “political de-emphasis of The China Threat” by India’s apex leadership when lulled by pious statements by Chinese leaders.

There is also an additional factor in our combatting ‘The China Threat” policy formulations and that is an excessive importance given to China’s strategic sensitivities as the excerpts from The Pioneer newspaper of September 4 2012 indicate:

  • The heading of the piece is ‘PMOs China Fear Stalls Mountain Corps
  • “Driven by fear of Chinese aggression, the Army’s proposed plan to raise a Mountain Strike Corps has run into rough weather with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) saying that such a move may send wrong signals to Beijing and escalate tension in the region”.
  • “The PMO felt that China in the last few years has not increased its troop strength along the 4500 km long Sino-Indian LAC and any accretions by India will prove counter-productive as both countries are holding regular dialogue to resolve the vexed boundary dispute”.

India needs to change its China policy mind-sets and get out of the rut of constantly pandering to China’s strategic sensitivities when there is no reciprocal gesture from China likewise.

Militarily it may be correct to assume that China may not have technically increased its troop levels along the India-Tibet border. However, what is militarily overlooked is that China in the last decade has increased troop levels in Tibet proper which can come in play in any military offensive against India. Further China’s massive upgradation of military infrastructure has extensively amplified China’s military mobilisation capacity on the India-Tibet border for a military offensive against India.

Such policy formulations based on misreading of military realities at apex Indian levels breeds complacency in India’s war-preparedness and defence planning and endanger India’s national security formulations to deal with military threats.

Concluding Observations

Preceding the Chinese Defence Minister’s current visit to India were media reports that India’s premier Intelligence agency had warned the Government of the likelihood “about the high probability of a Chinese military offensive along the 4500 km long disputed border”.

Against such Intelligence reports is it prudent for Indian political leaders to make statements de-emphasising “The China threat” or what the PMOs reported reservations to review the raising of the Mountain Strike Corps which was in a an advanced stage of processing and is now reportedly sent back to the Defence Ministry?

The Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India currently is nothing more than a pro-forma visit by Chinese dignitaries and any amount of so-called Confidence Building Measures cannot wash way the harsh strategic reality that ‘The China Threat” to India is alive and long term in nature.

Perspectives suggest that India cannot wish away “The China Threat”. It is likely to intensify as political unrest in Tibet intensifies with the fading away of the Dalai Lama from the Tibetan scheme of things.

China respects ‘hard power’ and hard power only and India presently is woefully short of it. Imperatives therefore exist that serious attention is paid to India’s war-preparedness in the Chinese context, notwithstanding visits by Chinese Defence Ministers or Presidents.

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SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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