The postponement of Sino-Indian border talks between the Special Representatives of the two countries had cast a shadow on the roller-coaster Sino-Indian relations. However, it augurs well that, setting speculations to rest, both Beijing and New Delhi announced that the defence dialogue between the two countries would be taking place in New Delhi on December 9 as scheduled. The defence dialogue between the two countries assumes significance in the context of the military build-up across the Sino-Indian border, suggesting the persistence of the security dilemma between the two countries.
Over the years ever since the path breaking visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988, when it was decided to set up the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the border issue, there has been reasonably good contacts and engagement between the defence personnel of the two countries at various levels. Although the border talks mechanism between the Special Representatives of the two countries and the Secretary level annual defence dialogue are separate and distinct, and there is no overlapping of their mandate and jurisdiction, one reinforces the other and both work in tandem.
To put the defence dialogue in perspective, it is worthwhile to flag some landmark steps taken in this respect after the eventful visit of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China. Later, during the visit of the then Prime Minister P.V. Narashima Rao, the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border area was signed on September 7, 1993. The Agreement was indeed a breakthrough.
In the first place, the Agreement affirmed the view that the India-China boundary question shall be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations and that neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means. Yet another important highlight of the Agreement was that it stipulated ‘pending an ultimate solution of the boundary question between the two countries, the two sides shall strictly observe the LAC between the two sides and that no activities of either side shall overstep the LAC.’
Secondly, the agreement envisaged that each side will keep its military forces in the area along the LAC to a minimum level compatible with friendly and good neighbourly relations. It further iterated that the two sides agree to reduce their military forces along the LAC, in conformity with the requirement of the principle of mutual and equal security, to ceilings to be mutually agreed, and that the reduction of military forces shall be carried out by stages in mutually agreed geographical locations sector-wise within the areas along the Line of Actual Control.
As a follow up to this agreement, a senior level Chinese military delegation made a six day goodwill visit to India in December 1993 in order to foster CBMs between the defence forces of the two countries. The visit was reciprocated by Indian Army Chief Gen. BC Joshi who visited China in July 1994. Three years later, the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC was followed by the Agreement between India and China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India- China Border Areas on November 29, during the visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin to India.
The upward swing in defence cooperation and military engagement between the two countries was given a further impetus during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in April 2005 in the Protocol between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas signed on April 11, 2005. It was against this background of heightened engagement between the two countries that the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee paid a five-day visit to China in May/June 2006 and held wide ranging talks with Chinese leaders including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The high point of the Mukherjee visit was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which is first of its kind between the two countries. The MoU envisages the establishment of a mechanism to ensure frequent and regular exchanges between leaders and officials of the Defence Ministries and the armed forces of the two countries in addition to developing an annual calendar for holding regular joint military exercises and training programmes.
It may be mentioned here that the first ever visit by a Defence Minister of India to China was that of Sharad Pawar in 1992. Eleven years later, then Defence Minister George Fernandes visited China in 2003.
Similarly from the Chinese side there have been some visits in the recent past which include the visit of Gen. Cao Gangchuan, Defence Minister and Vice-Chairman CMC in May 2004, Gen. Liang Guanglie, CGS and Member of CMC in 2005 From the Indian side, Air Chief Marshall F.H. Major visited China in November 2008. Reciprocating the good will gesture, the Commander of the PLA Navy Gen. Wu Shengli visited India around the same time, making it the first ever such visit at this level. While the Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team of the Indiian Air Force participated in the Zhuhai in November 2008, two Indian ships participated in the International Fleet Review held in Qingdao in April 2009 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the PLA Navy during which time Admiral Suresh Mehta visited China. The Eastern Army Commander Gen. V.K. Singh visited China in August 2009. Later in the same year, the Chinese Deputy CGS Gen. Zhenfeng visited India. Yet another highlight of the Defence MoU was the first joint training exercise between the two armies in Kunming in China in 2007. The second such joint exercise was in Belgaon (Karnataka) in December 2008.
In the past few years, India and China had conducted joint naval manoeuvres, but the interaction between the ground forces has been limited to border meetings and mountaineering expeditions and there had been no joint exercises between the air forces of the two countries. It was reported that during the visit of Air Chief Marshall F.H. Major to China in 2008 the subject of joint air exercises between the two Air Forces was discussed. The possibility of such joint exercises in future cannot be ruled out. The defence dialogue is likely to draw up future joint military exercises between the two armies and also the training of defence officers at Defence Colleges.
Thus the defence dialogue is certainly a positive step, which will give an impetus to the relationship between the two countries. The next step will be the border talks, although it has been deferred temporarily. As there is no annual summit level meeting between the defence ministers of the two countries, it is felt perhaps that the sidelines of multilateral meetings may be availed for exchange of views. The two countries may also consider exchanging visits at the level of defence ministers.