India and China have planned to exchange a few important visits in the remaining months of this year. An Army Commander from India is scheduled to travel to China in a few weeks, the first visit by an Army Commander since 2015, followed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and possibly a high level visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, who officially commenced a four-day visit to India on 21 August, is the first of the important visitors from China. He will be followed in a couple of months by China’s Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi, who has worked closely with one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s closest associates and current right hand man Li Zhangshu.
The visits are part of efforts to portray an emerging cordiality in the relationship, a reason why no other country is included in the itinerary of the Chinese Defence Minister’s delegation. Important, however, will be the assessment of the two visitors of India’s political and economic situation including the state of India’s armed forces, which will be important inputs for Xi Jinping in determining China’s policy towards India. Both General Wei Fenghe and Zhou Kezhi have direct access to Xi Jinping.
The visit of General Wei Fenghe, who led a 27-member Chinese military delegation, which included six lieutenant and major generals, is important for its timing and interesting composition. Coming days after Imran Khan took over as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, the Chinese Defence Minister predictably pointed to Imran Khan’s public comments about wanting to improve ties with India and urged India to take advantage. Especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in April 2015, China has been insistent that India ease tensions with Pakistan and resolve the Kashmir issue preceding an improvement in ties with China.
At least four members of the Chinese delegation are reported to have arrived a few days earlier and would have held working level discussions. According to the official Indian government press release, the Defence Ministers discussed a new MoU, more joint exercises, issues relating to border management and decided on greater interaction at the working level to ensure maintenance of peace and tranquillity. While it was agreed to operationalise a hotline—a proposal pending for a decade—it is yet to be agreed whether this would link Indian Army Headquarters with China’s Central Military Commission in Beijing or the Western Theatre Commander. The Chinese continue to insist on the latter. However, till now tensions are noticed to have been defused only after intervention by Beijing.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Western Theatre Command, which has operational responsibility for the Chinese side of the entire 4,057-km long border with India, was represented in the delegation by one lieutenant general and two major generals. The Western Theatre Command’s tasks include protection of the CPEC. The second ranking member of the delegation, Lt Gen Dingqiu Chang is Deputy Chief of Staff in the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and from the PLA Air Force, which has an important and growing role in the Tibetan plateau. The delegation has considerable expertise on Sino-Indian border issues and three of its senior members have direct experience of the border areas across Ladakh and northern areas of Pakistan. Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, a member of the Central Military Commission and former Commander of the PLA Second Artillery and PLA Rocket Force—China’s strategic missile force—is himself familiar with developments along the Sino-Indian border.
Of particular interest are the inclusion in the delegation of Major General Haiyang Li and Major General Dewang Kuang. Both have served decades in the South Xinjiang Military District, which has operational responsibility for the area across Ladakh and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. They were in position during the major intrusions in April 2013 in the Depsang Plains just before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India and in September 2014 in Chumar in Ladakh during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. Major General Haiyang Li continues as Major General of the South Xinjiang Military District and Dewang Kuang, who till 2017 commanded the Hetian Miltary Sub-District (MSD)—responsible for the area across the Depsang Plains)—has been promoted as Major General. Similarly Liu Geping, Commander of the adjoining Ali MSD)—responsible for the areas across Chushul, Pangong Lake, Demchok, Chumar and Shipkila Pass)—subordinate to the South Xinjiang Military District has been promoted from Senior Colonel to Major General! Their inclusion and promotions confirm that the intrusions were authorised and these officers continue to retain responsibility for the area.
Inclusion of officers from the South Xinjiang Military District and Western Theatre Command attracts notice because the intrusion in Demchok, for which they have direct responsibility, has now lingered nearly three weeks despite efforts to defuse it. It casts substantial doubt on the reported decision by the two leaders at the Wuhan Summit to give “strategic guidance” to the “respective militaries to strengthen communication”. This was not included in the Chinese statement issued after the Wuhan Summit and neither has a single reference to this been noticed since in the official Chinese media. On a subtler plane, this suggests the PLA will remain unwavering in its stated mission of safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and retrieving territories claimed to have been lost by the imposition of “unequal treaties”.
Jayadeva Ranade is former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.