An exclusive interview with Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie

State Councillor and Minister of National Defence of China Liang Guanglie is the most senior Chinese military official to visit India since the visit of his predecessor, Cao Gangchuan, in 2004. On the eve of his arrival in Delhi at the invitation of Defence Minister A.K. Antony, General Liang provided written answers to questions submitted by editors of The Hindu on a number of military issues relating to Sino-Indian relations.

General Liang, who last visited India in 2005 as Chief of General Staff of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), prefaced his reply to our questions with an opening statement:

China and India are neighbours. The friendly exchanges between the two peoples can be traced back a long time. In recent years, with the joint efforts of both sides, the China-India Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity have enjoyed sound and stable development. Military-to-military relations between China and India have, in general, kept moving forward, with positive achievements. There have been high-level visits and exchange of other delegations, strategic and security consultation, joint training exercises, personnel training, friendly interaction of border troops, intercollegiate exchange as well as exchange in other specialised fields.

However, it should also be admitted that compared with the status-quo and broad development aspect of our state-to-state relations, the current exchange and cooperation between our two militaries still have a big space for further improvement. We hope both sides can consider the development of our military-to-military relations within the overall interest of our bilateral relations, strengthen communication and exchange, foster a closer military-to-military relationship, and make it a positive factor in our state-to-state relations. The Chinese side always holds an active attitude towards promoting exchange and cooperation between our two armed forces, and is willing to work together with the Indian side to promote the healthy and stable development of our military-to-military relations.

On the boundary issue, we have four questions: (a) how does China view the current overall situation in the border areas with India? (b) Both China and India have been developing their infrastructure in border regions. This has led to some worries in both countries. Do you view the build-up of infrastructure as a cause for concern? (c) Earlier this year, a working mechanism on border management was put in place to address any incidents. Has this system been utilised by the two sides since it was put in place? What impact has it had on the situation in border areas? (d) the disputed border between India and China has never been formally demarcated. As both countries are carrying out patrols in disputed areas which each view as their territory, what steps are being taken to ensure that incidents that may affect the peace and tranquillity in border areas do not arise?

The boundary issue in the China-India relations is an issue left over from history. It is also an issue at the political and diplomatic level between the two sides. The Chinese side is willing to push forward bilateral negotiations on the boundary issue, and seek fair, reasonable and mutually-acceptable solutions in the spirit of peace and friendliness, equal consultation, mutual respect and mutual accommodation. Before the final settlement of the boundary issue, the Chinese side is willing to work together with the Indian side to jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the China-India border areas.

The exchange and cooperation between the border troops of China and India is an important basis for maintaining stability in the border areas. In recent years, with concerted efforts of both sides, we have generally maintained peace and stability in the border areas. The Chinese side hopes to strengthen friendly exchanges on border affairs at different levels, actively conduct border meetings and talks, as well as joint celebration of festivals between the border troops of both sides, so as to deepen understanding and promote friendship. At the same time, both sides need to strictly abide by the relevant agreements signed between the two countries, restrict its own border troop personnel, coordinate and handle various cases through diplomatic means and border meetings and talks, and not unilaterally expand area of activities and military deployment along the Line of Actual Control, so as to jointly maintain a stable situation in the border areas.

The need for the navies of India and China to work together on the high seas is great, especially as the PLA Navy involves itself in anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean Region and as India increases its naval presence in East Asia. India and China have never had full-fledged naval exercises. Are there plans to increase exchanges to build more trust between the navies?

As a matter of fact, the navies of China and India have already carried out good cooperation. Since 2003, the two sides have conducted several joint maritime search and rescue exercises. Since January 2012, countries who independently carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, like China, India and Japan, have strengthened their coordination in this area, and adjusted and integrated their escort schedule on a quarterly basis. China and India have undertaken the responsibility of rotation-reference country in the first and second quarter of this year respectively, which is now taken over by Japan. It is the first time for the PLA Navy to conduct such kind of maritime security cooperation with foreign counterparts. Such cooperation helps to make overall management and utilisation of escorting naval assets from different countries, and enhance the efficiency of international escort efforts, which would provide better protection for the commercial vessels of various countries. In addition, this year is the Year of China-India Friendship and Cooperation. The PLA Navy Zhenghe training ship paid a port call to Kochi in May, and Indian naval ships visited Shanghai in June. The exchange activities between the two navies are important programmes of the Year of China-India Friendship and Cooperation.

The PLA holds an open and active attitude towards continuing joint training exercises with our Indian counterpart. As to the details, the two sides need to further discuss. We believe that strengthening friendly exchanges between the two armed forces will help promote mutual understanding between the two peoples and build mutual trust between the two armed forces. It would lay a good foundation for further cooperation in the future, and make active contributions to maintaining regional and world peace and stability.

With greater involvement in anti-piracy missions, will China, in the future, require a permanent military facility for its ships in the Indian Ocean Region?

The Chinese government persists in following a peaceful development path. The PLA has never established a military base overseas. The PLA Navy ships, while conducting long-distance voyages, often went to close ports of littoral countries for logistic supply. This is a common practice of world navies. Since the beginning of their escort mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia at the end of 2008, the PLA Navy ships have conducted logistic supply from the ports of Djibouti, Oman, Yemen, etc. According to the need of escort missions and other long-distance voyages, we would also consider having logistic supply or short rest at appropriate ports of other countries. Such logistic supply activities do not have any connection with establishing military bases overseas.

There are reports of 4,000 troops of the PLA, mainly from the engineering corps, being deployed in the disputed region of “Gilgit-Baltistan”/“Northern Areas” of Jammu and Kashmir currently on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. Could you clarify if this is correct and what is their role? How does China view India’s concerns on the matter?

About the above-mentioned report, the Chinese side made a formal response on April 20 last year. As Minister of National Defence of China, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify to you once again: the PLA has never deployed a single soldier in the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The above-mentioned reports or similar allegations are totally groundless.

The fact is that, India-Pakistan relations have been continuously improving in recent years. As a neighbour of both India and Pakistan, China firmly supports India and Pakistan to properly solve their disputes through dialogue and cooperation, so as to achieve common development.

It needs to be stressed that China always holds an explicit attitude towards developing the strategic and cooperative partnership between the two countries. It is regrettable that some media in India occasionally make some groundless comments when reporting about China-India relations. Some even distort China’s normal activities of developing economy and improving people’s livelihood, even some humanitarian assistance, into “China’s preparation for war against India.” Some of these untruthful remarks were made due to lack of understanding and knowledge of the truth. And some others were intentionally fabricated rumours by some interest groups.

We believe that releasing false news to the public amounts to hiding the truth. I hope the Indian media can carefully check and verify the accuracy of news information... and also clarify rumours, so as to bring truth to readers and ensure the public’s right to know.

(The Hindu originally submitted additional questions on the situation in the South China Sea and U.S.-China relations but was advised that these would not be answered since the focus of General Liang Guanglie’s visit was on bilateral cooperation with India.)