Chinese Defence Minister’s Visit to India: Seeking opportunity amid crises

The visit to India by the Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie last week, needs to be examined for what it says about four important or potentially important issues in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship – the AfPak situation, the boundary dispute, bilateral military cooperation, and Chinese views about the Indian media.

While both India and China are engaged in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan under the NATO/ISAF security umbrella, whether this will be sustainable post the withdrawal of these forces in 2014, is moot. It is therefore, imperative that the two regional powers reach an understanding about how they will tackle the security situation in Afghanistan that arises post-withdrawal.

The Chinese are insistent that no solution in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan but this is a reality that New Delhi must acknowledge, however grudgingly. It is notable however, that Gen. Liang reiterated that China strongly supported Indian and Pakistani efforts to resolve their disputes, in effect saying, Beijing did not wish to be seen as taking sides.

Most Indian commentators continue to believe that China-Pakistan relations remain as close and strong as they were in the Cold War era but this relationship has seen several ups and downs for well over a decade. For example, there have been tensions between the two sides over safe havens for Uyghur extremists in Pakistan. And political instability and violence in Pakistan – sometimes affecting Chinese interests and citizens – does not really allow China to exploit either the Karakoram Highway or the Gwadar port to any substantial economic benefit, leave alone for military objectives.

Further, the numbers suggest that the Sino-Indian economic relationship is potentially more valuable for China than a similar one with Pakistan. India must therefore see if there is an opening available here, for Sino-Indian economic and security cooperation vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and eventually, on Pakistan. Thus, the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India dovetails nicely with that of his counterpart in the Chinese Commerce Ministry, Chen Deming, late last month – China’s commercial enterprises can make common cause with the Indian economic engagement in Afghanistan but it is the level of trust between the security establishments in India and China that will determine how far such an idea goes.

On the LAC, Gen. Liang called for both sides to abide by bilateral agreements on restricting numbers of troops on the LAC – including avoiding unilateral deployments – and to handle diplomatically any issues arising between the two sides. This suggests that one, Beijing acknowledges that the rapid expansion of its troops and infrastructure on its side of the LAC have worried India. And two, that New Delhi’s response in kind in recent years, have now begun to concern the Chinese.

Gen. Liang also highlighted the need for “fostering a closer military-to-military relationship” and for ensuring that these ties became “a positive factor in our state-to-state relations.” Joint anti-terror exercises by the two armies are likely to be resumed next year. But anti-terrorism exercises are on the whole not a good idea for India because one, China remains unwilling to acknowledge terrorism as India defines it, namely, that which is largely externally-supported from Pakistan. Further, such cooperation would suggest that India is buying into the Chinese definition, which interprets ethnic separatism as ‘terrorism’ – clearly not the case in India.

Given increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and India’s own extended interests in Pacific waters, naval cooperation however, is essential from India’s point of view both as a means of familiarizing itself with a newly expanding naval power and to socialize that naval power into mores of international maritime law and cooperation.

The Chinese Defence Minister noted that it was “regrettable that some media in India occasionally make some groundless comments when reporting about China-India relations.” While he conceded that some reports were the result of ignorance, he also declared that “some others were intentionally fabricated rumours by some interest groups.” It is perhaps a reflection of the state of affairs that this statement has far not been contested within India either by the government or by the media itself.

But Gen. Liang’s statement is possibly part of a developing new Chinese tactic aimed at both putting pressure on the Indian government, and driving a wedge between conflicting lines of thinking in India instead of allowing them to contribute to a degree of national consensus on responding to the challenge from China. This needs to be understood and countered by Indians who think carefully about China and seek to engage with it seriously.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, “Liang’s visit: Seeking opportunity amid crises,” DNA (Mumbai), 10 September 2012, p. 8.

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