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Indian Military Delegation Now in China

On Sunday, an eight-member Indian military delegation arrived in China for a six-day visit to Beijing, Shanghai, and the Xinjiang region. The arrival marks a resumption of military ties that India broke off last July over a visa dispute.

Since 2008, China had been stapling paper visas to the passports of visitors from Jammu and Kashmir, instead of just stamping them, in an effort to contest New Delhi’s sovereignty over the territories. Beijing finally backed down and started stamping passports again after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit this April.

In perhaps another sign that Beijing has eased off, the Indian delegation that arrived in China on Sunday is headed by Major General Gurmeet Singh of the Northern Army, which holds Jammu and Kashmir under its command. This is quite a change from a year ago, when Beijing triggered the visa dispute by refusing to stamp the passport of a former Northern Army commander.

During the year-long freeze in ties, the two militaries maintained phone and other contacts, and now the relationship has supposedly returned to normal. Yet intractable differences remain between the two nations over Jammu and Kashmir, as well as other border hotspots. 

Chinese patrolling of their disputed boundaries has become more aggressive in recent years, and China’s generals have been bulking up their forces on the Indian border. Moreover, Beijing has been building the transportation infrastructure necessary for rushing reinforcements into the area.

New Delhi, for its part, has sought to downplay incidents that have been occurring between its troops and China’s, perhaps as a means of buying time to strengthen its forces in disputed territory. At the moment, China’s soldiers there hold the upper hand.

Neither side has been willing to make territorial concessions to settle long-running border disagreements, but both countries have been largely willing to ignore the matter to pursue better overall relations. The feeling in New Delhi is that there must be some way to come to an accommodation with Beijing.

At first glance, the Indian view looks like wishful thinking. As an initial matter, there is China’s recent hostility to its southern neighbors. Moreover, Beijing has been supporting anti-India militants, who have been become bold in their attacks. And China has been basing troops close to Indian-controlled territory. There are, for instance, reports of thousands of Chinese soldiers in what Islamabad now calls Gilgit-Baltistan, in northern Pakistan.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing denies claims that Pakistan has ceded control of Kashmir to China, but last August and September Chinese diplomats confirmed that their troops were there to deliver supplies and to help Pakistan with flood relief work. In any event, the presence of the People’s Liberation Army so near to India is making New Delhi nervous, especially because it highlights the closer interaction between Islamabad and Beijing and the deeper anti-India hue of their tie-up. 

It’s unlikely that the delegation can make any difference while in China. Perhaps the most India can expect is to cool tensions so that its military can get ready for a conflict that Beijing is contemplating.

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