India still wary of military ties with China ahead of joint drills

Joint exercises may be resuming, but wariness means there is a long way to go if a healthy strategic partnership is to develop with China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 4:06am

Despite progress made during Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie's visit to India last week, analysts say Beijing and New Delhi have a long way to go if they want to build a healthy strategic partnership.

Military build-ups, border disputes and a desire by both nations to become a dominant force in Asia would continue to weigh on ties between the world's two most populous countries, even as their armed forces prepared to resume joint exercises, Sino-India experts said.

Both sides have in recent years bolstered their navies and improved infrastructure that could speed the flow of troops to the disputed Kashmir border region should there be a repeat of their 1962 border war.

But India is particularly wary of increasing forays into South Asia by a resurgent China. China's purchase of a port in Pakistan and efforts to build a space port and satellite-monitoring base in Sri Lanka are among developments that have given New Delhi pause.

Liang's decision to stop in Sri Lanka immediately before travelling to India last week only served to underscore concerns that some military motivations may be behind the projects.

"The Sri Lankan visit will be watched closely given the growing warmth and content of China-Sri Lanka relations," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a defence analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

"The two countries have agreed to strengthen co-operation across the board and the agreement between the Chinese state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation [CGWIC] and Sri Lanka to co-operate in the space arena has not gone unnoticed," she said.

In July, the Sri Lankan Daily News reported that local firm SupremeSat had signed a joint satellite project with CGWIC, China's largest satellite-manufacturing company.

Sri Lanka hopes such a partnership will help the country put its own communications satellite into orbit by 2015 and send astronauts into space by 2016.

Last month, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology confirmed on its website a plan to build an eight-hectare satellite and space centre in Sri Landa's Kandy city, saying the base would be capable of monitoring all satellites orbiting within a broad range overhead.

Retired satellite expert Wang Xudong , who serves as an adviser to the central government, said building a base in Sri Lanka could provide a more convenient platform to launch weather and disaster-monitoring systems.

It could also assist its plan to develop its Beidou navigation system, which China is trying to establish as a regional alternative to the US-controlled GPS, he said, acknowledging that such technology could also have military applications.

"China's key motivation for building the satellite-monitoring centre is based on a desire to make a contribution for all mankind," Wang said. "China is in the eastern hemisphere, while Sri Lanka is near the equator and South Asia, which is a hot spot for tsunami."

But Wang stressed their should be no military concerns if China were to train Sri Lankan astronauts to participate in its space programme.

"A manned space flight mission couldn't be used for a military purpose," Wang said. "Our astronaut training base could be compared with Nasa's in the United States. Besides Sri Lanka, we also welcome other countries to join with our space mission and use our space station."

But Rajagopalan said India remained wary about increasing Chinese activity in its backyard.

"This has been done by extending huge financial assistance, as well as military assistance in a few cases, such as Pakistan, to the extent of affecting the military balance of South Asia," she said.

"China's proactive approach towards South Asia appears to be a result of its own deepening relationship with South Asian countries as well as fulfilling its objective to emerge as a kind of 'guardian' to all [those] countries."

During his trip last week, Liang and his Indian counterpart, A.K. Antony, announced that the two sides would soon restart high-level official exchanges and conduct joint maritime search-and-rescue exercises. They would also improve co-operation for anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.

The trip was not without its bumps. Liang caused a small stir when he tried to give a 100,000-rupee (HK$13,900) tip to two Indian air force pilots who flew him through stormy weather.

The Hindu newspaper also said that before Liang arrived, Singapore's PSA International had transferred control of the port of Gwadar in the western Pakistani province of Baluchistan to a Chinese company, which sparked concerns that Beijing could use it as a naval base.

Liang, for his own part, noted that the People's Liberation Army had never established an overseas military base.

"According to the need of escort missions and other long-distance voyages, we would also consider having logistics supply or short rests at appropriate ports of other countries," Liang said in response to written questions submitted by The Hindu. "Such logistics-supply activities do not have any connection with establishing military bases overseas."

Sun Shihai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that if the two countries were keen on improving bilateral relation, both Beijing and New Delhi should give up old concepts such as "big brother of the third world countries" and "leading power in South Asia" respectively.

"It's a long way for the two countries to build up a strategic partnership as India so far is too sensitive to China's military development."