India and China on Saturday concluded week-long defence talks, the first in almost a year, with officials on both sides welcoming a resumption in contact as the two countries look to tackle persisting strategic mistrust.
Indian officials described the visit of the eight-member delegation, led by Major General Gurmeet Singh, as successful and productive, but gave little information on the content and outcomes of meetings the delegation had with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership.
The delegation visited Beijing, Urumqi, the capital city of China’s far western Muslim majority Xinjiang “autonomous region”, and Shanghai, from where they flew back to India on Saturday evening.
Xinjiang , which borders Pakistan, is at the centre of China's counter-terrorism campaigns, experiencing intermittent ethnic unrest which the government has blamed on separatist groups.
Defence exchanges between the two countries were suspended last July, when China refused to issue a visa to the then head of the Northern Command, Lieutenant-General B.S. Jaswal, saying the “sensitive region” of Kashmir was under his charge. Chinese officials linked their decision to their policy of issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from Jammu and Kashmir, which had been enforced since 2009.
Chinese analysts welcomed the resumption of defence ties as a sign that the two countries had put problems such as the visa issue behind them, but cautioned against high expectations amid persisting mistrust on a range of issues. This visit, they said, was more about symbolism,taking forward confidence-building measures and addressing on the ground concerns, rather than a platform to resolve larger pending issues.
Hu Shisheng, a South Asia scholar at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), told The Hindu it was better to “not burden such military-to-military exchanges with too much expectations” and a “political agenda”. The scope of such exchanges, he said, was not to solve problems, but “to enrich each others’ understanding on each other’s positions on different issues in a correct way.”
“The significance is that any hiccups in any field should not derail our bilateral relations,” he said, adding that defence exchanges needed to become “the most powerful stabiliser of our bilateral relations.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters this week military exchanges were “an important part of China-India relations.” China, he said, “would like to make considerable effort with the Indian side to enhance the exchange and cooperation between the two militaries.”
Wan Wei, a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA, told State media that the resumption of contact meant that the two countries “had put the visa dispute behind them.” “It is a symbolic move and I think it helps to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation on international issues,” he said.
In recent months, Chinese officials had expressed their interest for a resumption of ties, telling their Indian counterparts that the decision to suspend exchanges was “too extreme” a response for the stapled visa problem, which, they said, was an administrative issue and not a political one, as India viewed it to be.
Chinese officials had also called for taking forward the fourth round of the annual defence dialogue, which is expected to take place in New Delhi later this year. The previous round, held in Beijing in January of last year between Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar and the PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Staff Ma Xiaotian, concluded with both sides agreeing to “increase consensus” and push forward exchanges. Ties were, however, suspended a few months later.
India agreed to resume exchanges following Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to China in April this year, when he attended the BRICS summit in Sanya, in Hainan province. Indian officials said the decision was taken after China had appeared to soften its position on the visa issue by issuing several regular visas in recent months.
Chinese officials have, however, publicly maintained that their visa policy remained unchanged. India, for its part, appeared to make a concession to the Chinese position by sending an officer of Major General rank, rather than the head of the northern command, to China.