Chinese general warns India even as Antony visits Beijing

July 5, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

India’s Defence Minister A. K. Antony is in Beijing on an official visit and a provocative curtain-raiser was provided by a retired major general of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who cautioned India not to “provoke new problems and increase military deployments at the border area and stir up new trouble.”

Predictably, this statement by Major General Luo Yuan, who is associated with the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, hit the headlines in both countries. Luo is no stranger to such controversy and has in the past made shrill and hostile remarks to local media and in Chinese cyberspace about Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. One assertion – since denied – was that China should bomb Tokyo if Japan stepped out of line in relation to the long-standing island dispute between the two East Asian neighbours.

Luo is among a handful of former PLA personnel who have been taking an extremely hardline stand and advocate Chinese military assertiveness to deal with complex territorial disputes that the political leadership in Beijing is trying to address through political dialogue. The  question that engages China watchers in the region and globally is the degree to which such views are reflective of the tension between hardliners and moderates in the  Chinese political  leadership – and among the opaque strategic community that is grappling with many such issues under the veil of authoritarian secrecy.

Luo’s remarks are in sharp contrast to the more official position echoed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Brunei this week said his discussion with his Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid had been cordial:

“We had a very cordial discussion like between good friends and brothers … Premier Li Kechiang just visited India, and we look forward to receiving Prime Minister Singh in China later this year. We believe that these two visits are like sowing the seed in spring and reaping the fruits in autumn, and this is our common goal which we believe serves the interests of both peoples.”

And in a more expansive assertion, he further said:

“We believe our two countries are natural strategic partners and we should engage in all-round cooperation in a wide range of areas.”

The disconnect between official dialogue and that which dominates the media only adds to the salience of the current Antony visit. Indian and Chinese defence ministers meet infrequently and the need for sustained high-level political contact is imperative.

Antony’s trip is perhaps the last such visit during the remaining tenure of the government headed by Manmohan Singh, as India prepares for a general election in early 2014. In the interim, Singh is expected to visit China and the challenge is whether he will be able to transform the bilateral relationship in his last lap, as he did with the United States during his first tenure as prime minister in 2008.

However, the many security and strategic divergences that bedevil the Sino-Indian relationship date back to the 1962 war and remain unresolved. Bilateral relations can now be seen as pre- and post-Depsang when PLA troops “intruded” 19 km beyond the de facto Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in mid-April. After Depsang, India’s wariness about deeper Chinese strategic intent is not misplaced.

Hence, ‘strategic transparency’ should be the major objective of Antony’s visit to Beijing. His Chinese counterpart could be prevailed upon to share – with more candour and fidelity to facts than has been the case earlier – to assuage Indian concerns on two issues.

One, the extent and strategic rationale of the China’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) cooperation with Pakistan. The pointed question for the ‘quiet’ dialogue between the ministers: Is the PLA cognizant of the fact that the Pakistan army has used this capability to enhance its potential for supporting terrorism against India? The 2008 Mumbai attacks are illustrative. This nexus makes China culpable in supporting terrorism against India and the need to discuss this is critical.

Two, reiteration of the assurance that China will not use military force to alter the LoAC and that the complex territorial issue will be resolved through dialogue. The Luo constituency with its provocative overtones only adds to anxiety in the Indian collective. The perception that China seeks to maintain strategic stability with India in the public domain, even while encouraging  tactical provocation – either directly (Depsang) or through proxies – is an issue that has to be raised at the political level and hopefully, the Indian defence minister will raise these issues quietly and with the candour that should permeate ‘brotherly’ exchanges. The alternative is to let hardliners both hijack and shape the bilateral discourse.

Luo has his Indian counterparts and over the past year, this faction has through the media and cyberspace recommended that India consider war against Italy and having ‘felled’ Rome, turn its attention towards Pakistan -and yes, why not China?

The political leadership on both sides must keep their hand firmly on the tiller, for in today’s cyber-shaped national posturing, the media-driven story could significantly prevent or facilitate the management of the substantive issues that cloud and constrain the India-China relationship.

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