New Delhi: Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is to visit China next month, in a step aimed at stabilizing ties with Beijing—coming as it does after the 73-day Doklam standoff between the Asian giants last year.
The visit was confirmed by Sitharaman on the sidelines of a conference in New Delhi. She said it could take place late April.
This will be one of the highest-level exchanges between the two countries since the Doklam standoff last year.
India has in recent weeks been looking at steps to bring its ties with China, rocked by the Doklam standoff, back on an even keel. The steps include a series of high-level visits.
Earlier this month, The Indian Express said the Indian foreign secretary had written to cabinet secretary P.K. Sinha asking for state leaders and officials to stay away from functions of Tibetan spiritual leader, The Dalai Lama. The Tibetan government in exile, headquartered in Dharamsala, was planning many events to commemorate 60 years of The Dalai Lama’s flight to India after a failed Tibetan uprising against the Chinese government. China views The Dalai Lama as a terrorist and eyes his presence in India with suspicion.
The last visit by an Indian defence minister to China was in April 2016, when Manohar Parrikar visited Beijing. The visit had followed one by Chinese general Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission to India in 2015. In the Chinese hierarchy, Fan is ranked higher than the Chinese defence minister. Prior to Parrikar’s visit, then Indian defence minister A.K. Antony had visited China in 2013.
Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Sitharaman’s visit would be seen as “positive" for India-China relations. He recalled that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to China in September for a BRICS summit, the two sides had agreed that “peace and tranquillity in the border areas was a prerequisite for the further development" of ties and that “there should be more efforts made to enhance and strengthen the level of mutual trust between the two sides".
Their statement indicated that India and China could be looking at some confidence-building measures between their militaries and this could be discussed during Sitharaman’s visit, Kodapalli said.
India and China have multiple pacts—signed in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013—to ensure that peace and tranquillity are maintained on the border. Both sides have had 20 rounds of talks on their un-demarcated border—a legacy of the 1962 war—but no breakthrough has been achieved so far.
But analysts say that despite numerous incursions by military patrols of both sides, not a shot has been fired by either side for decades.
In this context, the Doklam standoff and a series of border incidents involving the armies of the two countries were seen as serious developments, Kondpalli said. In recent days, Union minister of state for defence Subhash Bhamre has said that the situation along India’s border with China is “sensitive" and has the potential to escalate.
The India-China pacts are seen as confidence-building measures but these “have not graduated to trust-building," Kondapalli said, adding that “unless and until the territorial dispute is settled, tensions on the border will remain."
Adding to the distrust between the two countries has been China’s attempts to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as to stall New Delhi’s efforts to get Pakistan-based militant Maulana Masood Azhar designated by the UN as a terrorist.
India’s growing ties with the US and its joining a group including Japan and Australia, besides the US for a dialogue on the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, haven’t helped matters.
Sitharaman’s visit could help clear the air of mistrust and try and initiate a new beginning in ties, Kondapalli added.