India, China agree to rebuild fragile defence ties

Plan to increase frequency and number of locations of border personnel meetings along the disputed boundary

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:19 pm IST

Published - July 06, 2013 09:56 am IST - BEIJING

Defence Minister A.K. Antony  along with PLA Senior Colonel Zhao Kangping (right), inspects a PLA Air Force J-10 aircraft of the 24th Air Division in Tianjin, near Beijing, on Saturday. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

Defence Minister A.K. Antony along with PLA Senior Colonel Zhao Kangping (right), inspects a PLA Air Force J-10 aircraft of the 24th Air Division in Tianjin, near Beijing, on Saturday. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

After two days of talks here, India and China have drawn up a long-term plan to gradually rebuild trust between their militaries, as they continue to grapple with the fall-out of the three week-long April stand-off along the border which has prompted both countries to re-examine the breadth of their defence ties.

The plan, announced in a joint statement released on Saturday and later detailed by officials after Defence Minister A.K. Antony concluded his talks, includes increasing both the frequency and number of locations of border personnel meetings along the disputed boundary, and expanding direct contact between the militaries.

The above two proposals, put forward by India, were a direct response to the April 15 incursion by Chinese troops into Depsang, in eastern Ladakh.

The incursion occurred in an area where differing perceptions of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) were particularly pronounced. By increasing the number of border personnel meeting points, officials hope to gradually narrow the wide divergences between the two countries over the undemarcated border.

That the Depsang stand-off took as long as three weeks to be resolved also exposed the need for closer direct contact between the militaries. Part of the reason for the delay in ending the impasse was an apparent lag in communications between the Chinese military and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, which was India’s main point of contact. Unlike in the Indian set-up, the Chinese Foreign Ministry holds far less authority than the PLA and is often kept out of the loop in the Army’s decision-making.

The Chinese side appeared to react positively to the two proposals, as Mr. Antony met his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, and Premier Li Keqiang on Friday and held talks with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Special Representative on the boundary question, on Saturday.

Mr. Antony said he was “happy about the outcome because there is a consensus of minds, a consensus between governments and military leaderships that till we find a solution to the border issues, we must maintain peace, stability and tranquillity.” He said the aim was “to avoid unpleasant incidents, and if they happen, to resolve them immediately.” “In that respect, military-to-military-level confidence building is essential. There should be trust and confidence and mutual respect at the ground level also,” he said.

While both governments have publicly continued to play down the April 15 incident, India has now made clear to China on at least three occasions in the months since the incursion that without peace and tranquillity on the border, there could be no foundation on which to take forward the relationship in any other area. This was first conveyed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he met Mr. Li Keqiang in New Delhi in May. A similar message was stressed by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, when he travelled to Beijing last week for the 16th round of border talks with Mr. Yang Jiechi.

The joint statement on Saturday reiterated that point, “noting that peace and tranquillity on the border was an important guarantor for the growth and development of bilateral cooperation.” The statement said both sides reviewed the working of agreements and protocols relating to maintaining peace and tranquillity, and “directed that it be further strengthened.”

Both sides also “agreed on an early conclusion of negotiations” for a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, a draft of which was first put forward by China, which has similar agreements with many of its neighbours, in March. After India responded with comments on the draft in May, which included objections to any commitments to freeze border infrastructure considering the prevailing wide asymmetry in China’s favour, Beijing put forward a revised draft shortly before Mr. Antony’s visit. Mr. Antony said there was “forward movement” on the draft, adding that on “most of the provisions there is consensus.”

On Saturday, last day of his visit to China, Mr. Antony visited the PLA’s sprawling National Defence University (NDU) and the PLA Air Force’s 24th Air Division near Tianjin, a port city 110 km from Beijing.

Reflecting the expansion of defence ties beyond the two armies, the two sides agreed to expand functional exchanges between their air forces and to increase ship visits, as well as joint search and rescue and anti-piracy operations between the navies. India is also considering taking forward long-discussed plans to station Navy and Air Force attachés in its Beijing Embassy, where there is currently only one defence attaché. On Friday, the two countries also firmed up plans to hold their third round of joint counterterrorism exercises in October, after a five-year gap.

“With the length of our land boundary and our history, the Army was the initial focus but now we are moving beyond this,” an official said. “Today, our ships, trade and naval activity in Asia have increased. More than 50 per cent of our trade comes from the east of India, through the South China Sea, East China Sea, Malacca Straits and Indian Ocean. We are operating in a larger space, they are operating in a larger space, so it is natural that our ships will be in the approximately same space.”

Officials were also dismissive of recent comments by a hawkish PLA Major General, Luo Yuan, who warned India not to “stir up” trouble along the border. The officials pointed out that Major General Luo, a strategic scholar, did not hold any official position and often made “provocative statements,” while the PLA officials during the last two days of talks had themselves expressed views that were vastly different.

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