Beijing suggests creation of air force, navy attaché posts to boost ties

China’s Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie has expressed his keenness to visit New Delhi this year to cement defence ties with India before the once-in-decade leadership transition gets under way in Beijing, Chinese sources have told The Hindu.

General Liang will likely visit New Delhi in September, shortly before the 18th Party Congress — scheduled for October or November — opens in Beijing to finalise the leadership transition when the 71-year-old Minister is set to step aside.

His trip will mark the highest-level visit to India from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 2005, when he last visited the Indian capital as the PLA’s Chief of General Staff.

The sources said the Indian government responded positively to his proposal and was firming up dates.

The PLA’s eagerness to schedule a high-level visit has been seen as a shift in how it handles ties with India. Indian officials have been struck by the recent moves to reach out to India following several years of strained military-to-military relations that even saw defence exchanges suspended in 2010 for more than one year.

Exchanges were suspended in July 2010 after the PLA refused to host the then head of the Northern Command, Lieutenant General B.S. Jaswal, on the grounds that he was serving in the “sensitive” region of Jammu and Kashmir. The refusal was seen as reflecting an increasingly hard-line approach at a time when Chinese officials appeared uninterested in taking forward defence ties with India.

In a reflection of how ties have markedly changed since, the PLA this month hosted an Indian military delegation on a rare visit to Tibet for the first time in many years. The delegation was hosted by the Chengdu Military Region, responsible for guarding the disputed border with India. In the past, the PLA has been wary of opening up bases in Tibet to visits from India, given China’s sensitivities over the region and the border dispute.

And, last month, four Indian naval ships visited Shanghai in the biggest-ever such exchange with China. Vice-Admiral Anil Chopra, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, flew in from New Delhi to hold talks with the PLA Navy’s highest ranked official in charge of its East Sea fleet, Vice-Admiral Su Zhiqian, marking the highest-level naval exchange in many years.

In recent talks, the Chinese side has also impressed upon their Indian counterpart the need to broaden military contact. The PLA has proposed the permanent stationing of Indian Air Force and Navy attachés in the Embassy in Beijing and expressed its desire to post Air Force and Naval attachés in New Delhi. At present, only one defence attaché of Colonel rank is stationed by both countries in each other’s capitals. China has also suggested posting officers of a higher Brigadier rank.

While India has agreed in principle to a proposal to station two additional officers, the moves were understood to have been held up on account of budgetary constraints cited by India’s Defence Ministry.

Why the PLA has stepped up efforts to engage with India in recent months remains unclear. The moves come at a time of rising strains in defence ties between China and several of its neighbours. Disputes with Japan over islands in the East China Sea have resurfaced, while Chinese vessels have had run-ins with ships from Vietnam and Philippines in the South China Sea.

General Liang’s visit, when confirmed, will likely be the only high-level bilateral visit from China to India this year, the sources said, with Beijing increasingly preoccupied with its leadership transition.

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