Chinese, Indian defense ministers hold wary meetings


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NEW DELHI -- Visiting defense ministers traditionally stop at New Delhi’s India Gate war memorial and lay a wreath in memory of Indian soldiers who lost their lives in past wars.

Some analysts saw Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s decision this week to steer clear of the monument as symptomatic of the wary military relations existing between the two Asian giants.


“It’s a kind of protocol,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, Chinese studies professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “If they had observed it, it would be nice. If not, it indicates a certain stiff response, a stiff body language that’s reflected in the discussions.”

While analysts and both governments welcomed Liang’s five-day trip ending Thursday -- the first visit by a Chinese defense minister in eight years -- as a tepid move to build confidence between the two militaries, few expect any breakthroughs. Weighing on the two sides during the visit are growing border tensions, stepped-up military spending and friction in the South China Seas.

“They’re like two porcupines,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a visiting fellow with Delhi’s National Maritime Foundation. “They want to be friends, but can only move a quill at a time.”

In a 90-minute meeting Tuesday between Liang and Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony, the two sides agreed to strengthen high-level exchanges, improve border security and work to “maintain peace and tranquility” in the region, according to a news release.

In reality, the two sides agreed to disagree on most issues, Kondapalli said, with the exception of possibly holding joint-operations in counter-terrorism, which have not been held since 2008, and some shared air force acrobatic displays. These are all very low-level and involve no sharing of tactics, scenarios or strategy, in keeping with past practice, he added.

“The joke during earlier 2007 joint-operations in Kunming was that the Indian army taught the Chinese yoga and the Chinese army taught the Indians martial arts,” he said. “Some asked why so many people had to go all the way to Kunming for that.”


Among Beijing’s principal defense-related concerns are India’s longstanding hosting of the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, which China has held since the 1950s; growing energy links between India and Vietnam in disputed Southeast Asian waters; and India’s expanded military and political links with Washington.

“China is suspicious of India’s relationship with the U.S., that it’s part of a policy to contain China,” said B. Raman, a former analyst with the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency. “They want to build a healthy relationship.”

India, for its part, is concerned about China’s growing military might, including the deployment of long-range J-10 and Su-27 fighter aircraft in Tibet near the Indian border; China’s close links with Pakistan; and China’s potential ambitions in the Indian Ocean, as the two giants spar for regional influence and resources.

Military relations between the two powers frayed after China either denied visas or issued entry stamps stapled separately to residents or officials responsible for disputed Jammu and Kashmir state and Arunachal Pradesh state, which India rules but Beijing has long considered “South Tibet.”

Despite 15 rounds of talks, there’s been little progress on resolving the border differences as Chinese and Indian troops continue to poke at each other along their 2,400-mile de facto boundary.

“Cooperation between our two militaries still [has] a big space for further improvement,” Liang said in response to written questions by India’s Hindu newspaper this week, blaming poor relations in large part on the India media. “We believe that releasing false news to the public amounts to hiding the truth,” he added.


But trade ties, heavily weighed in China’s favor, continue to grow sharply to $75 billion annually from $3 billion a decade ago. Ongoing talks aim to boost volumes to $100 billion by 2014.

Analysts said the timing of this week’s visit reflects in part China’s desire to smooth relations with its neighbors in advance of this fall’s 18th Communist Party congress that sees a once-in-a-decade leadership change. That event, along with a weak Indian government beset by policy malaise and corruption scandals, suggests both sides lack the political will at present to tackle tough problems, including the border disputes.

Although there’s still a possibility China’s 23-member delegation will pay a last-minute visit to India Gate before Thursday, when the five-day visit ends, Indian media cited sources as saying China didn’t request the stop and India didn’t object. Nor does it help that 2012 is the 50th anniversary of a border war between the two nations that Beijing won handily.

“There’s a lot of issues both sides need to talk about, including conventional and strategic restraint,” said Bhaskar. “But I think they’ll leave those to a later date.”


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-- Mark Magnier