Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Beijing on Sunday for a five-day visit to China, as the two countries are further building military trust between each other.
Since the "strategic co-operative partnership" was forged between China and India last year, impressive advances have been made in the two sides' economic and security co-operation. But there remains a lack of mutual trust, particularly with relation to military affairs. This is a result of the lingering influence of the border clashes between the two nations in 1962, India's development of nuclear weapons and the recent nuclear co-operation deal between New Delhi and Washington.
Against this backdrop, Defence Minister Mukherjee's China visit has particularly positive connotations in terms of strengthening the two countries' military mutual trust, as well as overcoming obstacles in the way of developing the Sino-Indian strategic partnership.
Sino-Indian military co-operation has been virtually frozen since the border clashes in 1962. This makes it extremely difficult to develop military mutual trust.
India has treated China as a potential adversary, setting up mountain warfare units, expanding its military strength and frequently staging military exercises in the areas close to China. At the same time, China's friendly relations with some South Asian countries and normal military activities were regarded with a great deal of suspicion.
As the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, China and India began to share more common ground in bringing about a new international political and economic order, opposing power politics, and also in fields such as human rights and environmental protection. As a result, bilateral relations have significantly improved. Chinese and Indian leaders have, for instance, exchanged visits and the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility Along the Lines of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas was signed in 1993.
The pact made it clear that both China and India had realized the necessity that trust-based effective measures in military terms be introduced in the border areas of actual control, noting the positive role played by measures that had already been introduced. The agreement stated that the two sides would be committed to improving military trust and transparency.
No border clashes or friction have occurred between China and India since the signing of the agreement in 1993. With the easing of hostile attitudes, military personnel in the border areas from both sides started to invite each other for border talks and send congratulations to each other on red-letter days, all being signs of an obvious improvement in military relations.
The two sides' defence industries have also embarked upon technical co-operation, while joint military exercises also came on the agenda.
But all this was suspended in 1998 when the bilateral relations plummeted to a new low in the wake of India's nuclear test.
Upon entering the 21st century, the two countries began to have more common ground as far as security is concerned. Both believe that security, in the current international situation, has been extended from military and political terms to cover economic, scientific and technological, environmental and cultural fields, security in one field must be sustained by security in others, and mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and co-operation are the guarantees of co-operation.
In addition, economic ties between the two countries got increasingly closer, evidenced by the sharp growth of trade volume from US$100 million in 1994 to US$13.6 billion in 2004.
Chinese and Indian leaders signed The Joint Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Co-operation in June 2003, which eventually laid down the guiding principles and set the goals for bilateral relations, declaring clearly that the two countries would respect and take care of mutual concerns and that the two sides should not constitute a threat to each other.
The signing of this landmark declaration marked the end of the volatile relations between the two nations and signified that bilateral ties had entered a new phase of smooth and steady development, with co-operation as the central theme.
During his visit to India in April 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao signed China-India joint communiqué with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. This announced the establishment of peace- and prosperity-orientated strategic co-operative partnership between the two most populous countries in the world. This was a positive and clear signal sent to the whole world that China and India had decided to raise the level of their relations and march towards the future hand in hand, as Premier Wen said at the time.
Judging from the current situation, military mutual trust and co-operation have become an important factor influencing future co-operation between the two sides.
In recent years, China's assistance in the construction of ports in Myanmar and Pakistan aroused India's suspicions. Meanwhile, reports have appeared in the media claiming that China's growing military strength poses a threat to its neighbors.
At the same time, the Indian navy's power in the South China Sea region has also concerned Chinese researchers.
Military distrust has spilled over to other sectors. For example, co-operation between Chinese and Indian business is subjected to groundless suspicion and restraint.
In view of all this, bringing about substantial military mutual trust becomes imperative.
Fortunately, exchanges and co-operation between the Chinese and Indian militaries have made initial progress, with both countries expecting this century to be an era of peaceful and friendly co-operation. This progress has found an expression in increased visits by senior defence officials from both countries and in the expansion of military research exchanges. Then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, for instance, visited China in April 2003. In November of the same year, an Indian fleet visited Shanghai and staged a marine rescue exercises in the East China Sea with Chinese navy, the first joint Sino-Indian joint military exercises.
It is believed that Mukherjee's China visit, in the context of strengthening US-Indian military ties and US-Indian nuclear and space collaboration, would help clear away misgivings and concerns harbored by some Chinese military researchers. It is hoped that more feasible military exchanges be carried out so that Sino-Indian military ties could be further enhanced.
If former Indian Defence Minister Fernandes' China visit marked the start of a new era in Sino-Indian military relations, Mukherjee's current visit will help raise Sino-Indian military mutual trust to a higher level.
Looking back, the last five decades or so have witnessed ups and downs and twists and turns in the development of Sino-Indian relations. For example, China and India launched the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in the 1950s but a fierce border war broke out between the two nations just a few years later. This indicates that declarations, statements, principles and even agreements are no guarantee of healthy bilateral ties. Real mutual trust is what really counts.
Bearing all of this in mind, both China and India should never forget the lessons of history, while also strengthening mutual understanding and clearing away misunderstandings. In the words of former Indian Defence Minister Fernandes, India and China must bury their unpleasant past. Friendliness accounts for 99.99 percent of the 2,200-year-old Sino-Indian exchanges and misunderstanding merely 0.01 percent. It is high time we buried that 0.01 percent.
(China Daily May 30, 2006)