Defence Minister A.K. Antony leaves New Delhi on Thursday on a four-day official visit to China, his first as India’s Defence Minister.
Both countries are looking to the visit to push forward expanded engagement between the two militaries and to strengthen the mechanisms in place to minimise strains along the disputed border.
Mr. Antony's visit has been seen in Beijing as assuming particular significance as it is the first by a Defence Minister from India in more than seven years – the last was by Pranab Mukherjee in 2006 – and it takes place in the wake of tensions along the border following a three-week stand-off triggered by a Chinese incursion in Ladakh on April 15.
The Defence Minister will be accompanied by a high-level delegation that includes Defence Secretary R. K. Mathur, Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant-General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Southern Naval Command chief Vice Admiral Satish Soni and other officials of the Defence Ministry and armed forces.
Mr. Antony, who will arrive in Beijing on Thursday evening, will have formal delegation-level talks with his counterpart, Minister of National Defence and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Chang Wanquan. Defence Ministry spokesperson Sitanshu Kar said in New Delhi the two ministers are expected to discuss a number of issues, including those related to maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the border; exchanges and interactions between the armed forces of both sides and matters relating to regional and global security.
Both sides are also looking to take forward negotiations on a new Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), although officials said on-going discussions may not be concluded during the visit. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who was in Beijing last week for the 16th round of talks on the boundary dispute, said while there was “a broad measure of agreement” there was still “a little bit of work [to do] on the text itself”, with the draft likely to figure in discussions during Mr. Antony’s visit. The agreement aims to deepen and enhance confidence-building measures and improve communication.
Mr. Antony’s main interlocutor during his three-day visit is a PLA General who is familiar with the situation along the border. General Chang Wanquan, who took over as Defence Minister in March following the once-in-ten year leadership change, early on in his career served in the northwestern Lanzhou Military Region, one of seven Chinese military commands, whose jurisdiction includes the disputed Aksai Chin region on the western section of the border. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he worked in the Operations Department and subsequently in Combat Training in the Lanzhou MR.
Besides delegation-level talks in Beijing, Mr. Antony is likely to visit a PLA facility, most likely in Tianjin, a northeastern port city that is around 110 km from Beijing.
Initially, a visit by Mr. Antony to Chengdu, the headquarters of the Chengdu Military Region, which is in charge of much of Tibet and the middle and eastern sections of the border with India, had been suggested. When Pranab Mukherjee visited as Defence Minister in 2006, he travelled to Lanzhou, the only other military region that has a direct relationship with India.
One Chinese analyst expressed surprise that Mr. Antony would not visit either of the two regions, suggesting it was a missed opportunity to enhance strategic trust.
Analysts in both countries say the recent strains along the border, triggered by the Chinese setting up a tent in Depsang in eastern Ladakh, underscored the need for sustained high-level contact. That the stand-off took three weeks to be defused also pointed to the need for improved channels of communication.
“Sino-Indian relations can now be seen as pre and post Depsang when PLA toops ‘intruded’ 19 km beyond the de facto Line of Actual Control. Post-Depsang, Indian wariness about deeper Chinese strategic intent is not misplaced,’’ veteran strategic and defence analyst, Commodore (Retd.) C. Uday Bhaskar, told The Hindu.
He prioritised “strategic transparency”’ as the major objective of Mr. Antony’s visit. “The perception that China seeks to maintain strategic stability with India in the public domain, even while covertly encouraging tactical provocation – either directly [as in the case of Depsang], or through proxies – is an issue that has to be raised at the political level,” he said, adding that issues like more joint exercises and more military to military contacts would a hit a glass-ceiling if the basic strategic trust between India and China was not in place.
His comments were echoed by Major General Luo Yuan of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences. “Of course, we are not denying there are some conflicts that exist between us, especially on the border issue,” he told The Hindu last week. “But if we both have the will to be peaceful, and to build [an effective] consultation mechanism, we can ensure the border issue can be managed”, he said.