China, India: Defence Co-operation Rapprochement Offers Potential for Regional Stability

29 June 2011 FDI Team

Background

China and India have recommenced bilateral defence co-operation and exchanges, after nearly a year’s suspension since an Indian lieutenant-general was refused a visa to enter China in July 2010. The eight-member Indian delegation was headed by a major-general. It visited China from 19-23 June and engaged in discussions with Chinese officials in Beijing.

Comment

Although much symbolism has been attached to the visit’s significance, the initiative represents only a minor, but necessary, step in stabilising China-India relations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei confirmed the importance of the event, stating: ‘China would like to make considerable effort with the Indian side to enhance the exchange and cooperation between the two militaries.’

At this stage, though, it remains unclear what the discussions entailed, yet the mending of relations, however small, could form the basis of more meaningful co-operation. This could be integral to diffusing the existing tensions along the 3,500 kilometre China-India border. Furthermore, the re-engagement between the two countries has led to the resumption of the previously suspended annual defence dialogue. Later this year it will hold its fourth session in New Delhi.

While China and India are seeking to normalise relations amid tensions, they still have a long way to go before mutual trust is consolidated. China remains a dominant player in world affairs, but India’s rapid economic growth, its search for new markets, food security and energy reserves, accompanied by its increasingly strident aspirations to attain great power status, have complicated relations and increased suspicion.

Conversely, both countries have significant economic interests at stake, with China now India’s largest trading partner. Two-way trade reached $60 billion in 2010, and there are plans afoot to increase this figure to $100 billion by 2015. Relations between the countries have gradually improved since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extended an invitation to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to visit India in late 2010. The Premier was accompanied by a 400-strong delegation of senior Chinese businessmen, interested in expanding commercial ties. The decision to re-engage in defence exchanges was initially broached by India and China in April this year, at the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit, held in Hainan Province, China.

Similarly, there is added speculation that India’s initiative to re-engage with China is linked to its recent dialogue attempts to stabilise relations with Pakistan, in view of US President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to draw down US troop strength in Afghanistan, as part of the US exit strategy. Given that India and China both have significant interests in Afghanistan and Central Asian region, stabilising relations could set the tone for possible future co-operation throughout the Asian mainland in the years ahead.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

FDI Senior Analyst

[email protected]

 

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