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The Importance of Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie’s Visit to India

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • September 11, 2012

    On May 16, 1959 the then Chinese Ambassador to India arrived at South Block carrying an important message for the Indian leadership. He handed over a written demarche to the then Foreign Secretary. The demarche though poorly crafted and bereft of diplomatic language had all the hallmarks of having the imprimatur of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong. After a lot of bluster came the central message:

    The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the east—the US imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China. China’s main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the west Pacific region, to the vicious and aggressive US imperialism and not to India….India is not an opponent but a friend of our country. China will not be so foolish [as] to antagonize the US in the east and …India in the west..…Our Indian friends! What is in your mind? It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts….Is it not so? If it is, here lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over?

    The message came from the Chinese leadership at a time when China was facing renewed US pressure in East Asia and which had threatened to nuke it over the second Taiwan Straits crisis. China faced hostility from the Soviet Union as it had withdrawn all its personnel serving in China; thus crippling Chinese industry and refused to give it nuclear weapons designs as promised. Severe famine stalked the land in which an estimated thirteen million people died. And the Dalai Lama fled to India about a month and a half earlier (March 30, 1959), with open rebellion in Tibet against Chinese rule. The Chinese were desperate.

    The then Indian leadership decided to ignore the Chinese message for reasons that have never been specified. The tragedy lies in the fact that India’s concerns were never conveyed to the Chinese as bluntly as Mao had done. Why didn’t we ask the Chinese to recognize our alignment of the Sino-Indian boundary as a price for our friendship? All that the then hapless Foreign Secretary did, on the instructions of Nehru, was to say to the Chinese that their message was ‘undiplomatic’ and that India had ‘no enemies.’ [Was Pakistan then a friend?]

    Scroll now fast forward to 2012. What is the position presently in the Asia-Pacific region? Authoritative Chinese writings suggest that China is beginning to fear encirclement once again with the US pivoting its defence strategy to the region. The bulk of US military assets will now be re-positioned in the Pacific Ocean. And as the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on a visit to India recently, the US considers India to be the ‘lynch-pin’ of this new US strategy. Secretary Clinton is presently busy drumming up support for US strategy with countries of South-East Asia, and to show the earnestness of its endeavour, the US has opted for a new military base in Australia. Presently, China’s relations with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are rather poor and there is considerable tension over disputed island territories in the South China Sea. It would seem that China’s only friends in the region are Pakistan, Cambodia and North Korea; hardly the company an aspiring super power would wish to keep! Chinese strategists probably discern that the entire eastern seaboard of China has once again come alive and it is a cause for considerable concern.

    The Chinese, realising the implications of the evolving situation, decided to send high powered military delegations to three important countries; the US, India and Vietnam. Whilst Liang has come to India, PLA Deputy Chief of Staff, Cai Yingting has gone to the US and another Deputy Chief of Staff, Ma Xiaotian has gone to Vietnam. What then might Defence Minister Liang have had to say to the Indian leadership? It should be noted that he was careful not to tie his visit to India with a visit to Pakistan also, so as not to hurt Indian susceptibilities. Liang came to India, the first Chinese Defence Minister to do so in eight years, not only as the boss of the vast and powerful People’s Liberation Army[PLA], but also as one of the most important decision makers within the ruling Chinese hierarchy. At a time when his own position is problematic, with the 18th Party Conference of the Chinese Communist Party is perhaps just about a month away, it must have been rather critical for the Defence Minister to be away from the Chinese capital.

    As is the negotiating style of the Chinese, Defence Minister Liang Guanglie probably conveyed to his Indian interlocutors a mixture of bluff and bluster along with a dose of realism. His visit to Sri Lanka, the first ever by a Chinese Defence Minister, was designed to convey to India that China too has other options in the region. Chinese involvement in developing the strategic maritime port in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, with bunkering, ship repair, ship building, and crew changes facilities, is well known. This was the underlying message when the Defence Minister was quoted as saying that ‘China attaches great importance to maintaining regional security and stability and this is not targeted at any third country.’

    This was pure bluff for the Chinese know that when the chips are down, there is very little they can do to hurt Indian interests in Sri Lanka; located as they are so far away from Sri Lanka. The bluster was probably on the Sino-Indian boundary. Despite the calm words of resumption of co-operation in military to military exercises, the whole range of issues pertaining to security and stability along the Line of Actual Control [LAC], or on Chinese PLA incursions across the LAC was not resolved. Neither did he give any leeway over the vexed issue of stapled visa for Indians wishing to visit China from the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

    What the worried Chinese Defence Minister was probably most anxious to assess was the deepening Indo-US military relationship and whether this in turn might lead to a link-up with other US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. China is aware of the close relationship between Vietnam and India. It is said that apart from the US, none of the other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, can individually match Chinese military might. But taken together, it is a different ball game altogether. It is popularly said that this is the strategy that the Lilliputians adopted in Gulliver’s Travels. All the little Lilliputians combined together to pin down decisively the giant Gulliver. Perhaps, this is what worries the Chinese the most and that could have hastened the Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie’s recent visit to India. If New Delhi plays its diplomatic cards well, quite unlike in 1959, it can reap rich diplomatic rewards. India should take lessons from history and must not shy away from putting forward its ‘demands’ in a much more forthright manner. Let us wait and watch.