New Delhi: India resumes defense contacts with China frozen for a year when an Indian military delegation visits on Sunday, though few expect any breakthrough with Beijing pursuing its “all-weather friendship” with arch-rival Pakistan.
But analysts say the visit, which ends a suspension of such contacts following a visa row last year, is a step forward in keeping a balance in ties between the emerging rivals for global influence and resources.
New Delhi feels Beijing is trying to encircle and pin India down to South Asia with a string of military bases on the Indian Ocean rim. China is Pakistan’s biggest arms supplier and the only major power not to have publicly criticised Islamabad over the discovery of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in that country.
While trade and diplomatic ties between the Asian powers are booming, the lack of defense exchanges is an aberration analysts say must be remedied for the world’s fastest growing economies to achieve lasting peace.
“It is symbolic and I cautiously welcome it. It does not represent any breakthrough in solving the disputes,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of New-Delhi based think-tank National Maritime Foundation.
“The mistrust is (over) the deep anxiety over military cooperation (between Pakistan and China) and how Pakistan is using that for furthering its agenda of terrorism.”
While a war between India and China is highly unlikely, any flare up will only add to tensions in a dangerous neighbourhood, complicating efforts by Washington to stabilise a region filled with nuclear weapons and Islamic militants.
“(Not having) talks on the defense level is a symbol of mistrust. It breeds more suspicions if they are not talking,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Twisted borders, tortured history
Military meetings were suspended last year after China refused a visa to a general based in Kashmir. New Delhi bristles at any hint that the disputed region, where a separatist movement has raged for two decades, is not part of India.
An eight-member team headed by a two-star general heads on Sunday to Beijing and the western city of Urumqi for five days.
India and China have been at peace with each other since a brief war in 1962, where the Indian army’s weaknesses were exposed. The humiliation still rankles in India, which has beefed up its military to take on any threat from the north.
The conflict began as a disagreement over the unmarked 3,500-km (2,200-mile) Himalayan frontier between the countries. It intensified when New Delhi in 1959 welcomed the Dalai Lama, who had fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
“India has had its experience of 1962. We haven’t got over it and we are the subaltern in the relationship,” Bhaskar said.
The long shadow of the war manifests itself vividly in commerce. Chinese firms are seen as entering India to put out of business Indian manufacturers with their cheap wares. Telecoms gear makers like Huawei face an uphill task in selling products on fears the equipment could be used to spy on India.
India’s central bank has spoken out against the yuan’s undervaluation and officials complain of the huge trade deficit India runs with China as it sells raw materials and buys finished goods.
Despite those suspicions, China is India’s largest trade partner and the two nations have cooperated on issues ranging from global financial reform to climate change.
Most recently, India and China, along with Brazil, Russia and South Africa, protested against Europe’s lock on the top job at the International Monetary Fund.
Sunday’s visit will lay the ground for the annual scheduled defense secretary talks between India and China.
“Major generals in India do not decide policy,” Bhaskar said. “That can happen only at the political level. But with this engagement you create space for political rapprochement.”