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Liang Guanglie’s India Visit and India-China Security Environment

In order to strengthen the defense ties and general security environment in the region, the Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie is heading a 23 member strong defense delegation to India between September 2 and 6. He will hold talks with the Indian counterpart A. K. Antony on various defense and security related issues including confidence-building measures (CBMs) along the border; military to military relations; and probably the South China Sea issue and Af-Pak security scenario. General Liang’s visit is a return visit to Pranab Mukherji’s 2006 China visit; since then even though there has been a continuous flow of visits by military personnel, however, there are visible tensions especially since 2010 when China denied visa to Lt. General B. S. Jaswal, General Officer Commanding Chief, Northern Area Command of the Indian Army. Since then the military ties have been at its lowest ebb. Will the visit of General Liang turn around the relationship? I believe there are positives as well and negatives in this relationship, and a huge scope for improvement, let’s examine the following:

Owing to the hostilities of the 1960s and subsequent deep freeze in the bilateral relations, the security issue has remained a very sensitive rather hypersensitive issue between India and China. One of the spin offs of the political distrust, has been the huge security deficit between India and China, which has led the other side to believe that they have been ganging up with the third parties to contain them. In such a situation it becomes pertinent for both the countries that they calmly identify some of the basic issues that haunts these relations and try to find out genuine ways to dispel the problems, so as a better peaceful and friendly environment is established between India and China.

Improving security environment:

The establishment of the Joint Working Group (JWG) for the resolution of border issue during Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 China visit, the 1991 and 1996 CBMs, 1992 visit of Sharad Pawar, the first ever by an Indian Defense Minister could be considers as path breaking in one sense or another. The CBMs in the military field along the Line of Actual Control has enabled peace and tranquility along the borders and improved the security environment significantly. Following these exchanging at the highest level, there have been an increased level of exchanges between the armed forces of India and China.

In the backdrop of these exchanges, we may assert that there has been an obvious improvement in the security environment, albeit the progress has been incremental. The improvement could be ascribed to the commitment from both the sides that neither poses a threat to the other notwithstanding some concerns. It could also be attributed to the high level political visits as well as the contacts between the armies of the two countries. For example, in 2003, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes visited China amidst the scare of SARS. The visit not only resulted in the attitudinal change in Fernandes’ anti China rhetoric, but also it was during this visit that both India and China decided to step-up military-to-military exchanges, hold a counter-terrorism dialogue and increase CBMs to maintain peace along the LAC. In 2004, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan paid a return visit to India. In February 2005, Chinese Central Military Commission member, General Liang Guanglie, the present defense minister of China visited India. In May 2006, Indian Defense Minister, Pranab Mukherji visited China; during his visit Mukherji also visited some of the most sensitive military installations such as Chinese Center of Space Conduct and Control, and signed the “Memorandum of Understanding for Reinforcing Communication and Cooperation in the Defense Areas” with his Chinese counterpart Cao Gangchuan. The memorandum called for military training, military exercises, counter terrorism, fight against piracy, joint search and rescue, and personnel communications etc. between the armies of India and China. In November 2008, General Wu Shengli, another member of the Chinese Central Military Commission and Naval commander-in-chief visited India. This was followed by the visit of Deputy Chief of Staff, Ma Xiaotian in December.

Besides these high level visits, the militaries have also been carrying out CBMs at various levels. For example, in November 2003, the naval forces of India and China conducted joint search and rescue exercises in the East China Sea. In 2004, the ground forces of the two countries conducted joint mountaineering exercises. The First Joint Training Exercise between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ‘Hand in Hand 2007’ was conducted in Kunming, China. One Company each from the Indian Army and the PLA participated in the counter terrorism exercises. Lt Gen Susheel Gupta, DCOAS and Lt Gen Ma Xiaotian, Deputy CGS PLA represented their respective countries as observers. In 2008, the Suryakiran Aerobatic Team (SKAT) of the Indian Air Force participated in the 7th International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, ‘Hand in Hand 2008’ was conducted at Belgaum, India between December 4 and 14, 2008. Lt. General Nobel Thamburaj, GOC-in-C, Southern Command and Lt Gen Ma Xiaotian, Deputy CGS of the PLA were observers to the exercises. In April 2009 the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Suresh Mehta visited China and participated in the International Fleet Review (IFR) in Qingdao. Two Indian Naval ships, INS MUMBAI and INS RANVIR participated in the IFR.

Huge Security deficit:

In 2010 defense cooperation suffered a serious blow as China refused visa to Lieutenant General B. S. Jaswal, of the Northern Command. The move of China once again pointed to the security and much talked trust deficit between the two nations. India was furious and suspended the defense ties as it refused to allow two Chinese army officers to attend a defense course in India in a tit-for-tat move. Analysts in India upheld that the Chinese stand manifested that China relinquished its stand of neutrality in J&K and considered it a disputed territory; this is also established by the fact that China started to issue stapled visas to the Indian citizens from J&K at that time and before, albeit the stapled visa issue was settled during Wen Jiabao’s 2010 India visit. Secondly, it endorsed the Pakistan stand on Kashmir and repudiated the temporary nature of Sino-Pak border agreement on Shaksgam Valley in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Therefore, one must also acknowledge the fact that owing to historical reasons and animosities in the 1960s India and China have been suffering from a deep rooted mistrust and security deficit.

First and foremost, the unresolved boundary issue is the fundamental cause for mistrust at every level. India lost a couple of opportunities to resolve the issue as it could not see logic in the Chinese proposals of a package deal. Now the issue has gathered complexities and may not be easy to resolve for a long time to come. Secondly, China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan and supplying the latter with sophisticated military weaponry including the missiles and nuclear technology, has posed a threat to India’s national security. Even if India and China doesn’t fight another war, but the image China has created in the minds of every Indian is that of a rogue who has been destabilizing Indian state through a third party for decades. It is for the same reasons that India fails to understand why China should be concerned about India’s presence in the South China Sea, when China itself is indifferent to India’s sensitivities in its deputed areas with Pakistan. It is for the same reasons that India fails to understand why China should be weary of its cooperation with the US, Japan, Vietnam and other countries in the region, when China itself has been engaging with many of India’s neighbors at various levels. Furthermore, if some analysts in China say that the Indian Ocean in not India’s Ocean then the same formulations could be applied to South China Sea. It could be discerned that there is a huge security deficit and the security environment between India and China remains quite volatile.

What could be done?

The momentum of the high level political visits as well exchanges between the two armies at all the levels need to be maintained and deepened. It appears that the military exchanges at various levels are just perfunctory. For example in military exercises there is no real content. Even though these are termed counter terrorism, however, the approaches towards terrorism are dramatically different. China sees terrorism in the region from Pakistani prism, and that is why it would be difficult to find a common regional approach to the Afghanistan problem.

The present confidence building measures need to be strengthened, consolidated and a series of new CBMs need to be initiated at various levels. In this regard India and China agreeing to undertake joint operations against pirates and sharing technological knowhow on seabed research, and the Mechanism on Coordination and Consultation on Border Affairs, are welcome steps. Another practical CBM could be dialogues between forward troops of both the sides in actually controlled areas.

Furthermore, economic relations need to be deepened and strengthened. Some of the irritants in trade such as huge trade deficit and market access denials by China to some of India’s leading sectors such as pharmaceuticals and information technology could be addressed. Vibrant trade between the two may prove as a catalyst to create a better security environment and reduce the security deficit greatly. Finally, in order to create a congenial atmosphere, the media on both the sides need to play a constructive role rather than flaring up the issue and deteriorating the environment.

(The writer, Prof. B. R. Deepak, is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.)

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