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Trust deficit
India-China defence relations

Seven years after the last Indian defence minister visited China, A K Antony landed in Beijing in the first week of July 2013 with a welcoming discordant voice from one of the retired Chinese Generals who warned India not to provoke problems at the LAC.

Though the shrill voice was not stoutly rejected by the Chinese foreign or defence ministries, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman clarified with a mild denial that Major General Luo Yuan’s comments were not the official view of the government. And the senior Indian officials maintain that the General’s outspoken comments should not be taken seriously as he was a retired military officer and his strong anti India comments  should be viewed in the light of the similar strong anti China views of some of the retired  Indian Generals.  

Yet, the Indian and Chinese defence ministers were not able to reach any landmark agreement to ensure peace and stability on the 4000 kms long LAC. Indian officials privately confide that in spite of such agreements, it cannot be said with certainty that such incidents of incursions will not be repeated.

Border incursions

This was proved true by the Chinese PLA, when its soldiers continued to make forays inside Indian controlled territories in the Chumar sector of Ladakh in July. The third meeting for Working Mechanism for consultations and Coordination on India China border Affairs (WMCC) was held on 23rd and 24th July, which discussed the incursion issues but the Indian officials kept mum on the results of these talks.

The joint statement released after the  5th July talks in Beijing revealed only expressions of good intent and repetition of some old rhetoric that “peace and tranquility on the border was an important guarantor for the growth and development of bilateral cooperation”. The Ministers emphasized the importance of enhancing mutual trust and understanding between the two militaries.

After the Depsang incursion was resolved after three week’s standoff and the Indian Minister of External Affairs was able to make a visit to Beijing on 9th May to finalize the visit of the Chinese PM ten days later, it was expected that Chinese pinpricks on the LAC will stop.

The Chinese PM wanted to convey his strong desire to establish a very warm and cooperative partnership with India and hence chose India as his first stop in his first international foray as the  PM.

But these sentiments are not visible on the border, for which knowledgeable people maintain that there is a disconnect between the PLA officials at the ground and the leaders in Beijing.

This seems to be a paradox as the Chinese defence minister is a senior General of the PLA himself and looks very intriguing that his commands are not followed. This became apparent during the Depsang standoff when the senior officials in Beijing agreed to remove the four tents set up in Depsang but it took two days to follow the instructions at the ground from Beijing.

After the Depsang incursion was resolved and the Indian External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid was in Beijing, one of the Chinese Generals Ma Jun had then also expressed similar fears that the agreements are not a guarantee to incursion free LAC.

Ma Jun, a researcher at the Academy of Military Science of the PLA, said it’s unlikely the standoff will be the last border dispute between China and India, but they have strong willingness and a mature dialogue mechanism to handle it.

True to his words the LAC incident was repeated on 17th June, which appeared as if the PLA wanted to take revenge for the Depsang retreat. The PLA soldiers destroyed the bunker and cut the camera cable at the Chumar peaks, which dominates the area and presents an easy view of the Chinese military movements on the other side of the LAC.

The incident happened before the much hyped Indian defence minister’s visit to China on and the Indian external affairs and defence ministries maintained a stoic silence over the incident.

However when this incident was revealed in the Indian media three weeks later, the Indian officials described it as a minor incident and they also clarified that during the defence ministers’ talks the incident was not mentioned specifically but only in generic terms, the problem was discussed and an expression of intent in the shape of joint statement was released.

Thus amid persisting distrust between two Asian powers the defence ministers of India and China exchanged views on ways to reduce the frequency of such incidents and took decisions to revive the military exchanges to buttress mutual trust and confidence and promote interactions between the two powerful rival militaries of the world.

The joint statement which if implemented in true spirit will remove mistrust on the border and enhance mutual confidence on each others intentions. But differences over the BDCA remained and to hide it they simply said that the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement will be realized at an early date.

Both the ministers appreciated the need for the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement which will make a significant contribution in the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual control. Till the final resolution of the border issue the two defence ministers agreed to take measures to strengthen communication and coordination at various levels between the border guarding forces.

Though the visit started with a warning from a Chinese Military General, the Indian defence minister A K Antony displayed his calm and patience and talked to the Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan on the need to maintain peace, stability and tranquility on the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control , which is undemarcated border between the two Asian giants.

The visit of the Indian defence minister to China happened only a week after the 16th round of fruitful border talks between the Special Representatives of the Prime Ministers of the two countries after which both the sides expressed satisfaction over the outcome of the talks.

Hence the defence ministers of the two countries were only expected to give a push to defence exchanges between the two countries. Both the sides decided to revive the Hand in Hand army exercises. The first two rounds of the army exercises were held in 2007 and 2008 and the third round will be held in October this year in China.

Cooperative approach

Though the armies of the two countries face each other on the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control, it is very interesting to see the two armies engaged in joint exercises. The joint exercises were suspended after India rejected the Chinese decision to issue stapled visa to a top Indian General posted in Jammu and Kashmir and to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir in 2010. But after China accepted India’s objections, the militaries of the two countries will once again be on a cooperative route.

Accordingly the agreement to exchange the senior military commanders from service headquarters and field formations and visit of border troop delegations to promote dialogue and strengthen trust and cooperation are positive steps to maintain strategic communication between the two security forces.

To help local commanders at the LAC understand each other, border personnel meetings will take place with greater frequency for which additional locations will also be finalized. Besides the army, the navies will also increase ship visits and consider joint maritime search and rescue exercises and cooperate in counter piracy operations. The Air Forces will also be directed to carry out high level visits and expand their functional exchanges.

The India-China defence relations are considered most unique defence relationship in the world, whose armies are facing each other eye- to-eye on the sprawling undemarcated border.

Despite the ground realities, they have decided to train together and cooperate in the war against terrorism. It is a paradox that while the political and military leaders of the two countries display a lot of bonhomie in New Delhi and Beijing, the armed forces of both nations view each other with suspicion.

At the same time, the two large economies of Asia are also equipping their armed forces with deterrent capabilities as they target each other with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

For strategic stability in Asia, cooperative and cordial relations between the two Asian powers are considered very important and with this aim India has been emphasizing on removal of all causes of mistrust between the two countries.  

The mistrust will remain as long as the border issue remains unresolved and the two countries continue to compete to grab a bigger strategic space from Asia to Africa.

The continued Chinese assistance to arm Pakistan with technology and material support for weapons of mass destructions and changed Chinese neutrality on the issue of Kashmir marked by heavy tilt in Pakistan’s favor as it embarks on new infrastructure development projects in the Pakistan occupied area of Jammu and Kashmir, will remain a thorn in the bilateral relations with India.