Both sides agreed to resume joint military exercises at the ‘earliest’ opportunity, put the contentious ‘visa issue’ onto the back burner, and ‘maintain peace and tranquility’ along the borders as envisaged under the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control.The visit also gained attention given that the last visit by a Chinese defence minister to India was eight years ago in 2004. General Liang Guanglie’s visit thus exemplifies the growth of high-level politico-strategic dialogue between the defence establishments of India and China. In the recent past, the two militaries have constructively engaged through defence delegation exchanges; visits to each others’ military establishments, including those in Tibet; conducted joint army exercises; participated in coordinated counter-piracy patrols and escort duties in the Gulf of Aden; and their warships have made reciprocal port calls. Last year, General Ma Xiaotian, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), also visited New Delhi to participate in the bilateral defence and security dialogue.
However, General Liang’s visit was marred by an unusual gesture when he offered ‘cash gifts’ to the Indian Air Force pilots who flew him onboard the VIP aircraft. This invited a strong reaction from the Indian strategic community, which argued that China has repeatedly embarrassed India through similar actions. In the past, China has issued paper visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir instead of stamping passports; refused to stamp visas in the passports of Indian nationals living in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state which is claimed by China, thereby questioning India’s sovereignty; and denied visas to a general of the Indian Army from the Northern Command. The pattern of Chinese behaviour toward India thus exposes a number of irritants that have in the past led to the cancellation of bilateral military exchanges.
In an interview with an Indian daily, General Liang emphasised that Beijing was willing to discuss with New Delhi the contentious border issue and ‘seek fair, reasonable and mutually-acceptable solutions in the spirit of peace and friendliness, equal consultation, mutual respect and mutual accommodation’. He also dismissed insinuations that China had deployed the PLA in the Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir, clarifying that the ‘PLA has never deployed a single soldier’ in this area, and that China favours friendly relations between India and Pakistan. He emphasised that both sides should ‘solve their disputes through dialogue and cooperation’. Likewise, the general also noted that the PLA ‘has never established a military base overseas’, but that the ongoing PLA Navy deployment in the Indian Ocean requires its warships to dock in various Indian Ocean littoral states for ‘logistic supply or short rest’. This action, however, must not be viewed as attempts at ‘establishing military bases overseas’.
Although the India–China border has been largely peaceful, incursions by the PLA into Arunachal Pradesh are a regular phenomenon. The Chinese military deployments and missile sites in Tibet and rail-road infrastructure along the India–China border have also bothered the Indian Army, which has now taken up a number of initiatives, including the deployment of additional troops to these border regions. The Indian Air Force has upgraded some of its airfields and moved several of its front-line fighter aircraft to Arunachal Pradesh. Also, India’s missile capability has improved significantly and can now target several vital installations and infrastructure in China as far away as Beijing.
General Liang Guanglie’s visit to India thus presents mixed signals. China would like to continue its military engagement with India but does not appear to be in any hurry to resolve the boundary issue. China can be expected to make this a long-drawn-out process of negotiations and to keep India in a ‘dilemma of engagement’ for some time to come. There is an urgent sense in the PLA that it must restore confidence between the two militaries, given the new US military strategy expects India to play a major role in the affairs of the Indian Ocean and also hopes to make India more proactive in the Asia Pacific. However, China may not be very interested in the kind of role India is expected to play — as a regional ‘security provider’ — in the new dispensation offered by the United States.
Vijay Sakhuja is Director (Research) at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.