Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Liang's India visit: What does it mean for bilateral ties?

Here's an article on the recent visit of Chinese defence minister Liang to India.

The three-nation visit of a high-powered Chinese defence delegation led by Defence Minister Liang Guanglie is significant for a variety of reasons. Liang was on a visit to Sri Lanka, India and Laos. Obviously, the India leg was the most critical one because Sino-Indian political and military ties have not kept pace with the increasing trade relationship between the two countries. But Liang's first stop-over in Sri Lanka was also important.

The delegation was in Sri Lanka for five days and its conduct of business in the backdrop of the strengthening bilateral ties merit closer attention. Sri Lanka's Army chief Jagath Jayasuriya was in Beijing only two months ago. Recently, Sri Lanka has partnered with China's state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) to design, manufacture and launch a satellite-a feat to be accomplished in 2015. The fact that this was the first time that a Chinese defence minister was in Sri Lanka and the timing of the visit against the backdrop of the changing regional security dynamics are also important and New Delhi should be paying greater attention.

Both the Sri Lankans and the Chinese are being cautious about the relationship, mindful of India's concerns, but the growing warmth is undeniable and understandable, given New Delhi's propensity to pay greater attention to domestic politics rater than neighbourhood sensitivities in framing these relationships. At a lecture at the Sapugaskanda Defence Staff Collee, Liang pointedly referred to "how [the two countries had] withstood the test of international vicissitude"-obviously referring to the negative international human rights attention on both countries, a point that would have many takers in both Sri Lanka and China. He was careful to say that closer China-Sri Lanka military relations were not focused at any third country, but the elephant was obviously in the room. China is also believed to be extending a $ 100 million package to the army-run reconstruction efforts in the north and the east in addition to a grant of $ 1.5 million for the upgradation of the Defense Services College in Colombo for children of security forces and police personnel.

Liang arrived in India on Sunday for a three-day visit, after a gap of nearly a decade. While these visits are not meant to solve some of the major irritants in the bilateral relationship, such high level interactions could help ease the tension and reduce some of the trust deficit issues that characterise India-China relations-something that should be encouraged in that context. The visit also assumed relevance given that Liang was accompanied by top military officials of the important military commands, including Guangzhou, Tibet, Lanzhou and the political commissar of the South China Sea fleet of the PLA Navy.

The composition of the Chinese team indicated a broad agenda, possibly including both bilateral and multilateral issues. The border issue was obviously discussed with both sides stating that efforts to promote peace and tranquility on the border areas will be pursued. It is also fair to assume that other issues such as India's oil exploration in Vietnam and the South China Sea troubles were also discussed. A third issue was the re-starting of the stalled joint military exercises between India and China.

India and China have so far held two rounds of military exercises, in 2007 in Kunming and in 2008 Belgaum, Karnataka. India called off the third "Hand-in-Hand" series exercises in August 2010 when Beijing refused permission to a senior army officer from Jammu and Kashmir to be part of the delegation. There have been attempts since 2011 by both sides to re-start the exercises although both have been looking at face-saving options to do the same. Thereafter, India sent a multi-command military delegation in June 2011 that included the military officer who was earlier denied permission. A return visit from the Chinese side took place in November 2011. Both sides appeared keen on restarting these exercises. Meanwhile, the India-China annual defence dialogue has also progressed, with the fourth one held in Beijing in December 2011.

These visits and interactions are mainly meant for improving the atmospherics of the relationship. In that context, it is also important that both India and China find newer areas for cooperation and move beyond collaboration on soft issues such as economic or climate change issues. Both countries have to look for newer avenues in the security domain if they are serious in addressing the trust gap that exits currently. There are several issues including the Asian framework issue that could mar progress in this bilateral relationship unless the two sides identify new areas for cooperation in the security and strategic realm because improvement in economic relations has its own limits and need not necessarily result in better bilateral relations.

In addition to bilateral military-to-military ties, India and China should explore cooperating on maritime security, UN Peace Keeping Operations, and reconstruction and rehabilitation in the aftermath of natural disasters, all of which are common challenges to both the countries and which are probably easier to cooperate on. Working on areas which are not suffused with political sensitivities would not only be easier but could instill a habit of cooperation and trust that could pay dividends in the larger bilateral ties.

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