For all the tension generated by the last-minute cancellation of border talks at the Special Representatives level, India and China not only held their annual defense dialogue in New Delhi on December 9 and 10, but also decided to move forward in strengthening military-to-military contacts.
The defense delegations were meeting after a nearly two year break, with the last such gathering having taken place in January 2010. The extended gap was prompted by Beijing’s denial of a visa to one of India’s top army generals because he was commanding troops in Jammu and Kashmir, a region China says is disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
But the bitterness that has been evident in the past couple of years appeared to be on hold when the two delegations met this time. Led by Indian Defense Secretary Shashikant Sharma and Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the Chinese military’s most visible face, the two sides decided to take incremental steps in improving their military contacts, rather than aiming for big ticket announcements.
Accordingly, two mid-level delegations will visit each other in successive months starting in January. India also proposed that some of the border posts along the 4,000 kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the border is officially known, could be relocated for administrative and logistical convenience, a request Beijing’s military delegation agreed to consider.
The largely un-demarcated LAC runs along some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Troops are deployed there at altitudes in excess of 12,000 feet all along the Himalayas, where temperatures frequently dip to anything between minus 20 to minus 40 degrees Celsius between November and April.
While infrastructure along the border on the Indian side is continuously being improved under a comprehensive plan, Indian troops have to spend at least a month acclimatizing to the extreme weather conditions after a steep climb from the plains of northern India. Some posts in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are still accessible only on foot, after a two-day trek. Chinese PLA troops, on the other hand, have the advantage of being deployed on the high altitude Tibetan plateau, which boasts much better infrastructure.
Although the disputed boundary has largely remained peaceful, transgressions by troops from either side into each other’s territory have been a major irritant in a relationship that’s increasingly marked by rising trade, but a corresponding increase in mutual suspicion over military matters. While China views India’s developing ties with countries around the South China Sea – and its intention to develop a 5,000 kilometer range missile capable of hitting deep into Chinese territory – suspiciously, India regards China’s overt and covert assistance to Pakistan and other countries in the region as aimed at tying India down in the sub-continent.
It’s with this reality in mind that both sides see deeper military-to-military ties as a way of reducing suspicion – and the chance of miscalculation.