By Bhaskar Roy
The visit of Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guauglie to India in the first week of September demands a fine dissection. It was, after all, the visit of Chinese defence minister to India in eight years, the last being in 2004. Pranab Mukherjee was the last Indian defense minister to visit China in 2006.
In the in between years military relations between the two countries varied from friendly starts to suspension of military contacts with China on Beijing’s refusal to give visa to a senior Indian army officer because he was serving in Kashmir. China’s position was that Kashmir was a disputed area between India and Pakistan, and hence the decision. The repair in India-China military relationship was at China’s initiative to a significant extent, with New Delhi reciprocating equally.
Gen. Liang and his 22-member delegation came to India from Sri Lanka, maintaining the old practice of important Chinese delegations visiting at least one other South Asian country when coming to India. The message is that India figures equal to all other countries in China’s South Asia policy.
The Chinese military delegation’s visit need to viewed in the perspective of developments in the Asia pacific region, especially over maritime disputes with Japan in the East China sea, similar disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam especially in the South China sea and its Spratly group of Islands, and the new American ‘pivot’ in this very region.
It is not that the Americans had ever left the Asia-Pacific region. They have invested too much in lives and money in the region over these decades. And when the region becomes the center of global economy the US is not going to back out. Washington is also not inclined to let China lord over the countries of the region using its vastly superior economic and military power.
Graduating from 2008, China went on a stepped up offensive since 2010 to acquire territories claimed by it. In recent months the situation almost termed explosive. The Chinese assertiveness was based on the calculation that the ‘US was a declining power’ while ‘China was the growing power’. The global economic decline in which China emerged as the only steady economic power reinforced the view. That estimate has now changed back to China is still about 30 to 50 years behind the US.
China has not only opened several acrimonious fronts in its immediate neighbourhood which could lead to armed clashes. They have also finger pointed in their official media that India was a partner of the US along with Japan in encircling China. India’s Look Fast policy, though it started in the early 1990s, was perceived of having been merged with the US policy. This together with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activities in Tibet, statements on Arunachal Pradesh, and posture from the PLA created unease in India.
It may be kept in view that the denial of visa to an Indian army officer was not really at the instance of the Chinese foreign ministry, but on the insistence of the PLA. Available evidence suggested that the PLA had acquired a much larger say in foreign Policy regarding neighbours especially those with territorial disputes.
The India-China border talks was frozen. There is no indication that these talks will gain traction after Gen. Liang Guauglie’s visit.
Certainly, confidence building measures were agreed to including reviving counter terrorism joint exercise and greater military-to-military contacts.
Unfortunately the visit was marred by a Chinese action that begs questions. Gen. Liang gave fifty thousand rupees each to the two India Air Force pilots who flew him and his delegation from Mumbai to New Delhi. Of course, the Indian Air Force officers immediately informed and turned over the money to their superiors. This money may be ultimately returned to the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. It would be a grave mistake if the money is deposited with the state treasury. In that case, the Chinese will view it as India accepting the superiority of China as a nation. This kind of things will be used in psychological warfare in the future demeaning India’s profile internationally.
The Indian foreign ministry and sections of the Indian media have tried to dismiss the incident as unimportant, lack of experience or just a mistake. But it will be a mistake if the officials concerned in India including the media do not evaluate this incident deeply. In July 1987, a visiting Indian defence minister was told by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing that Indians do not understand what the Chinese say and ‘we have to poke our fingers into your eyes’. Message was very clear that Indians lack the intellectual sophistication to understand the Chinese.
In this particular case, it must be noted that the Chinese foreign ministry has distanced itself. Foreign ministry spokesman Hong lei declined to give an answer only saying he was not “aware of specifies”. This is unusual, suggesting differences between the PLA and civilian foreign ministry.
Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guauglie is also a member of the communist party’s top body the Political Bureau or Politburo, as well as a Vice Chairman of the highest military body the Central Military Commission (CMC). He is far more travelled than the Indian defence minister. The PLA’s foreign Liaison division is very well aware of protocol.
Giving gifts, is part of international protocol of visiting dignitaries. Gifts are given to host country officials including drivers who are involved with the visit. They are a thank you gift, but not expensive. In most countries such gifts received are reported to highest departmental authorities by the individuals. Expensive gifts received by heads of delegations are deposited in the foreign ministry’s “tofa khana” or gift depository to be disposed with on merit.
Gen. Liang’s cash gifts were by no means innocent. The Chinese do not do something like this without a strategic reason. Gen. Liang certainly did not give the cash gifts to win over the two Indian air force officers. There was a much deeper motive which the Chinese ancient strategic mind would employ. Demean your enemy. At the same time the PLA appears to be adopting an independent foreign policy from the Chinese foreign policy establishment. The incident has left several Chinese academic strategist in a quandary. The full story is not yet out, but it was no diplomatic faux pas. It would be worthwhile to follow how the PLA prosecutes its relations with India.