The military has begun to exert an increasing influence over policy decisions

When Indian officials last month wanted to engage with their Chinese counterparts over the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) objection to the visit of the chief of the Army's Northern Command, they were faced with a problem. They were directed to voice their concerns to an official in the Foreign Ministry. Yet, this was a government department that had had no role in the decision, and, according to some officials, had even voiced reservations that the PLA's move would unnecessarily strain relations against the backdrop of a recent warming up of ties.

Source of mistrust

According to many analysts, China's military which, unlike most military organisations, also shapes (its) foreign policy, has begun to exert an increasing influence over policy decisions. Yet, Indian officials say they have few avenues to engage with the PLA, and warn that a lack of understanding over the PLA's strategic intentions has become an increasing source of mistrust in the relationship.

Indian officials say that while there is a need for broader and more regular engagement with the PLA on foreign policy issues, their efforts to expand contact had, so far, “come up against a brick wall.” At present, India's only regular access to the PLA is through the defence attaché in the Embassy in Beijing, who acts as a conduit between New Delhi and the PLA.

Defence exchanges that the two countries periodically hold do not cover policy issues, given the nature of India's set-up where the Ministry of Defence has a very limited say in policy-making. Talks with the PLA are, hence, often limited to more specific, logistic matters such as military exercises, or methods to reduce tensions over the border. Indian officials say they are now considering appointing an officer in Beijing to expand political engagement with the PLA and beyond the Foreign Ministry, to have a better sense of the PLA's views.

Foreign policy actor

The PLA is unlike any other military organisation. It is not apolitical – it has an influential political department that also comes up with policies, though is secretive about its functions. It also exists outside the purview of the government, serving the Communist Party and not the State.

The PLA has been “an official foreign policy actor” throughout the history of the People's Republic of China, according to Linda Jakobson of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who has recently authored a report on the different actors shaping China's foreign policy. Despite decades of reforms to professionalise the PLA and distance it from decision-making, there are signs that sections now aspire for the military to have an even more active role in decision-making, she said. Often, the PLA's policy considerations contradict those of the government. For instance, while the government may see benefits in engaging with India on climate change and trade, for the PLA, the border dispute will always be a primary consideration, as protecting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity is its top priority. Hence, even if ties are warming up in other areas, the PLA would still put forward a policy recommendation, such as refusing a visa to a visiting General, to push its own interests. In recent months, analysts say, the PLA's considerations have begun to increasingly influence China's foreign policy, whether towards the United States, its Southeast Asian neighbours across the South China Sea, or India.

Important role

“My opinion (is) that the PLA is significantly less interested in developing this relationship than the political leadership of the country,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June, following the PLA's decision to cancel his scheduled visit to Beijing, even as the Chinese government spoke of improving ties.

Analysts at several of the PLA's think tanks did not respond to interview requests to comment on either the PLA's role in foreign policy or relations with India. Scholars in government-run think tanks did, however, stress the need for greater communication to avoid mistrust over incidents such as the recent visa refusal. “Yes, defence exchanges are relatively weak,” said Zhao Gancheng, a South Asia scholar at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS). “Enhancing and strengthening military exchanges is important, as it will play an increasingly important role in China-India relations.”