New lines of influence
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General Liang Guanglie's visit to India this week, the first by a Chinese defence minister in eight years, should help put the bilateral military relations on a firmer footing.
The conversation between Liang and Defence Minister A.K. Antony must necessarily go beyond the bilateral to include the new and potentially dangerous military dynamic that has begun to envelop Asia.
Liang comes barely three months after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta came to Delhi and declared India the "lynchpin" of the new American military strategy in Asia. While both India and the United States have declared that their expanding defence cooperation is not directed at third parties, Beijing, unsurprisingly, is concerned about the potential Indian role in the unfolding US military pivot in Asia.
That Liang is coming to Delhi via Colombo, where he announced new military assistance to Sri Lanka, is of interest, if not concern, to the Indian strategic community. Put simply, there are many defence matters, both bilateral and regional, that Liang and Antony need to talk about.
In 2006, during the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Beijing, the two sides agreed to a broad framework of military exchanges. The defence interaction between the two Asian giants was stalled two years ago, when Beijing refused to grant a normal visa to a senior Indian general serving in Jammu and Kashmir. India responded by cancelling the visit and putting defence exchanges on hold. Delhi and Beijing have since put the controversy behind them and resumed military contacts.
The last few years have also seen rising military tensions on the border. Strengthening peace and tranquility on the border has been a repeatedly reaffirmed political objective of the two countries for nearly a quarter of a century.
But the situation on the ground has altered significantly in recent years. China's rapid modernisation of the border infrastructure in Tibet has improved the mobility and punch of the People's Liberation Army on India's northern frontiers. Delhi, in turn, has unveiled plans to upgrade its own border infrastructure and raise additional army divisions to cope with the changed military context. Both sides are also enhancing air power deployments on the border.
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