The postponement of border talks between the Special Representatives of China and India cast a shadow over the roller coaster that has become Sino-Indian relations. Still, despite this setback, defense contacts between the two nations continue.
On Friday, a scheduled dialogue between the two countries will be taking place in New Delhi. Such talks assume particular significance in the context of the military build-up across the Sino-Indian border, and it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the background to the dispute.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid an eventful visit to China in 1988, but it was during the later visit of Prime Minister P.V. Narashima Rao that the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border area was signed, on September 7, 1993.
The agreement was a breakthrough in relations for the two nations, and affirmed the view that the India-China boundary question should be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations, and that neither side should use or threaten to use force against the other. Another important highlight of the deal was that it stipulated that “pending an ultimate solution of the boundary question between the two countries, the two sides shall strictly observe the line of control between the two sides and that no activities of either side shall overstep the LAC.”
Second, the agreement envisaged that each side would keep its military forces in the area along the LAC to a minimum level, compatible with friendly and good neighborly relations. It further iterated that the two sides agreed to reduce their military forces along the LAC, in conformity with the requirement of the principle of mutual and equal security, to ceilings to be mutually agreed, and that the reduction of military forces should be carried out in stages in mutually agreed locations within the areas along the LAC.
As a follow up to this agreement, a senior level Chinese military delegation made a six-day visit to India in December 1993 in order to foster goodwill between the defense forces of the two countries. The visit was reciprocated by Indian Army Chief Gen. B.C. Joshi, who visited China in July 1994. Three years later, the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC was followed by the Agreement between India and China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India- China Border Areas on November 29, during the visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The upward swing in defense cooperation and military engagement between the two countries was given a further impetus during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in April 2005. It was against this background of heightened engagement between the two countries that then-Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee paid a five-day visit to China in May to June 2006, where he held wide ranging talks with Chinese leaders including Wen. The high point of the Mukherjee visit was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was the first of its kind between the two countries. The MOU envisaged the establishment of a mechanism to ensure frequent and regular exchanges between leaders and officials of the defense ministries and the armed forces of the two countries, in addition to developing an annual calendar for holding regular joint military exercises and training programs.
So, has any of this come to pass? Over the past few years, India and China have conducted joint naval maneuvers, but interactions between ground forces has been limited to border meetings and mountaineering expeditions. There have also been no joint exercises between the air forces of the two countries, although it was reported that during the visit of Air Chief Marshall F.H. Major to China in 2008 the subject of joint air exercises between the two air forces was discussed.
While many may mock joint exercises and high-level visits between competing nations like India and China, such meetings are crucial in generating trust and mutual respect. Nothing creates more stress in military circles than not knowing the intentions of your potential adversaries, and with tensions between China and India seemingly rising, dialogue between both nations’ armed forces is clearly more important than ever.
R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published here.