This week, the visit by India’s two high ranking officials to China in quick succession attracted a lot of attention from the outside world. On the same day that Indian Defense Minister Parrikar concluded his five day visit to China, India’s National Security Adviser, Doval, arrived to hold the 19th India-China boundary issue special representative meeting. Of great concern is the India-China boundary issue is the most important topic of discussion for the two high ranking Indian officials visiting China.
Progress in establishing an upgraded military hotline
From Shanghai to Beijing and then back to Chengdu, during this five day trip Indian Defense Minister Parikkar, who was on his first visit to China since he took office in 2014, felt extremely satisfied. However, he was most excited about was the fact that this trip didn’t go to waste. Both the sides pushed for establishing military hotline and made headway with adding more border meeting points.
Indian Defense Minister Parrikar announced that the Chinese side had already prepared the Memorandum of Understanding draft between both the countries for the setting up of military hotline, reported the Hindu newspaper. He also said that this issue will be resolvedwithin the next one-to-two months. In this meeting with Parikkar, Chinese State Councillor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said that that China is positive about the establishment of border military hotline.
For the past few years, establishing a military hotline has been a cooperation mechanism promoted by both the countries. The hotline was first proposed in the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement(BDCA) signed in 2013. During last year’s visit by Prime Minister Modi, both the countries reiterated in their joint statement: “we will try hard to start a telephone line between the military headquarters of the both the countries”. Now during this visit by the Indian Defense Minister, leaders of both countries have reached an understanding to take the implementation of the military hotline a step further.
Zhao Gancheng, director of the Asia-pacific Center in the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, believes that China and India already have a hotline for border issues, which is used by a responsible officer in the region for timely communication when the border protection forces sense friction. However the establishment of a high level military hotlinebetween the regional military command centers would be very significant. The scope of supervising authority will also be far larger while the strategic decision making will be more efficient.
Hu Shisheng, an expert on South Asia, says that “in recent years, improper handling whenever incidents between the border military forces could have led to military disputes between the two countries. In future, when the military hotline opens up, the crisis control capability will improvem and will help in enhancing mutual trust between Indian and China defense establishments.”
Increasing the regional military staff meeting places in border areas was also mentioned in last year’s India-China joint declaration. Presently, India and China have five border military staff meeting places. Zhao Gancheng says, there is information from sources that suggest an addition of two more places, so that it helps in resolving disputes whenever there is a friction locally. It will also be beneficial for timely coordination, convenient operation so as to avoid the dispute from escalating.
Conditions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) not stable
If the Indian Defense Minister first opened the subject of boundary issue, then the National Security Advisor Doval entered the “relay race” by meeting the India-China boundary issue special representative to cut straight to the subject.
Previously, during the discussions with the Chinese side, Parikkar did raise the issue of re-establishing the LAC. The Indian side definitely believes that resolving the Line of Actual Control will be helpful in preventing tension between the two countries in the border area. The capability to solve the issue of the LAC will be the biggest breakthrough in the India-China boundary issue but Hu Shisheng believes that even if this problem is discussed in the Special Representative meeting, there may not be any significant breakthrough. The clear cut precondition to resolve the Line of Actual Control is to exchange maps but since the exchange of the middle section maps in 2001, there has been none so far. Considering the current situation, many grey areas exist in the India- China border area. Both the sides claim to have sovereignty but the western section seems to have no “real control”. In terms of concept, India and China differ in their acknowledgement of the Line of Actual Control, so clarifying this issue is easier said than done.
“Right now, India and China are both are going through a strong reform period and both the sides don’t want this highly sensitive border issue to interfere in their domestic reform process. Thus it seems that for both the sides, strengthening border crisis management is more pragmatic than resolving the entire issue. Also, ensuring that the border problem can be controlled is also possible through tools, mechanisms, agreements and other multiple strategies agreed upon by both the sides.
“Closer” India-U.S. ties influence Chinese geometry
Just a week before Indian Defense Minister and National Security Advisor visited China, American Defence Secretary paid a visit to India. Both the sides signed the “Logistics Safeguard agreement”. From start to end, the visit had seamless connection and it gave rise to much speculation — whether purely coincidental or completely intentional. Indian media even analyzed that the Indian Defense Minister hurriedly went to China after the American defense Minister left India in order to eliminate any apprehension that Beijing may have.
Zhao Gancheng says that the India-U.S. “Logistics Safeguard agreement” does not affect China at all. Only if India decides to participate in joint patrols with U.S. in the South China Sea, then it will be a completely different matter. However, so far, India hasn’t expressed anything like that. Moreover, high level visits and mechanisms between India and China are decided in advance and the U.S. Defense Minister’s visit to India had no relation with China, so making any speculation is completely unnecessary.
However, the presence of India in the U.S.-China bilateral “diplomatic rivalry” objectively reflects the fact of the U.S.-India-China trilateral, India is in a more advantageous position as it can court benefits from both sides. But it is an exaggeration to say that India will become America’s “pawn” to contain China. It is true that India, to some extent, needs U.S., for example for military cooperation, getting America’s advanced military technology to improve combat readiness and for strengthening its military superiority in South Asia. But India pursues an independent foreign policy and has its own independent strategy. It will not be in its own interests to form an alliance with U.S., especially to antagonize China.
Of course, Hu Shisheng reminded that the U.S. roping in India for serving its global strategic interests in undeniable. Moreover, the India-U.S. military relationship is much closer and of a much higher level than India-China military relations. The disparity can be gauged from the joint military exercises alone. The density and frequency of India-U.S. military exercises is very high, ranging from rescue and assistance to live ammunition drill practice, in which all three military services participate For example, the Malabar military exercises, which started in 1990, haven’t not been stopped so far. On the other hand joint military exercises between India and China are mainly limited to search and rescue drills. They have yet to enter the combat practice level and presently only involve the participation of the army and navy. “By means of the already existing base of military cooperation and adding the new ‘Logistics Safeguard Agreement’, America is trying to gradually trap India while squeezing China’s strategic space in the Indian Ocean and South Asia further.
Reporter Liao Qin