China attends India air show amid warming ties
India will welcome a senior Chinese delegation from Beijing for the first time at its air show on Wednesday in a sign of improved military relations between the neighbours whose ties are often strained.
Air Vice-Marshal Zheng Yuanlin will head a five-person group at the five-day Aero India show after New Delhi extended a formal invitation to China in January.
“They’ve confirmed their attendance,” defence ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar said late on Tuesday. “It’s the first time India has invited a Chinese delegation from Beijing.”
The last Aero India in 2011 saw India snub China again along with arch-rival Pakistan amid a spike in tensions, but the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi was allowed to attend in a negotiated compromise.
Suspicion of China runs deep in the Indian military and hawkish comments from senior commanders often conflict with the political leadership, which stresses the need for a partnership between Asia’s two biggest nations.
India and China claim parts of each other’s territory, while Beijing’s military build-up along their frontier, as well as competing interests in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are frequent sources of friction.
The two sides have held more than a dozen rounds of inconclusive talks to resolve their border disputes, which led to a brief but bitter war in 1962.
In a prelude to the decision to invite China to Aero India, they agreed to resume joint military exercises last September following the first visit of a Chinese defence minister to New Delhi in eight years.
The last exercises took place in 2008 and co-operation was called off in 2010 after a row when China refused a visa to an Indian commander stationed in the disputed region of Kashmir.
China’s delegation to the show is dwarfed by attendees from Western nations and Russia who are eyeing lucrative deals and partnerships with local suppliers to tap the world’s biggest arms import market.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in March 2011 said India received nine per cent of global arms transfers from 2006 to 2010, making it the world’s largest importer of weapons.
New Delhi has budgeted about 1.93 trillion rupees (HK$280 billion) for defence spending in the financial year through March this year, an increase of 17 per cent from 2011-12 when spending was hiked by another 12 per cent.
France’s Dassault Aviation will be one of the stars of the show as it exhibits its Rafale jet which beat off competition from six rivals last year to be chosen for a US$12-billion contract for 126 fighter planes.
Exclusive negotiations are underway to determine the final price and the amount of technology transfers, with the issue set to be taken up by French President Francois Hollande when he visits New Delhi next week.
The Rafale has been active in recent French-led military efforts against Islamist fighters in Mali and was widely used in a Nato bombing campaign against Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
While the fighter deal is the largest on India’s military shopping list, others for helicopters, transport planes, surveillance equipment and missiles have made the biannual Aero India unmissable for global suppliers.
Defence ministry spokesman Kar said the exhibition space was the biggest since Aero India began in 1996.
New Delhi insists that between 30 and 50 per cent of military hardware purchased from foreign suppliers is manufactured in India to ensure that technology and know-how is transferred.
“This is a great opportunity to tie up with Indian companies,” Kar said. “We’ll see a lot of hectic negotiations.”
Recent decisions to choose US-based Boeing’s Chinook and Apache helicopters and C-17 transport planes as well as Dassault for jets show India moving away from its traditional arms supplier Russia.
The United States will provide the largest contingent out of the 700 companies at the show. A total of 67 American firms are expected including Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.