PLA chief in India

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

Although General Fu Quanyou's visit took place in a less-than-congenial context, the thaw in India-China relations that began in 1993 remains unaffected.

THE visit of the Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China to India marked another step in the process of creating normalcy on the Indo-China border that began in 1993.

General Fu Quanyou arrived in India as the head of a five-member military delegation, made up of Lieutenant-General Liao Xilong, Commander of the Chengdu Military Region, Lt.Gen. Wu Guangyu, Deputy Commander of the PLA Air Force, Rear Admiral Yao Xingyuan, Chief of Staff of the PLA Navy and Major-General Luo Bin, Director-General of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of Defence.

The delegation was invited to India by the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen.V.P. Malik, in October 1997 when he visited China as the Vice-Chief of the Army Staff. In 1994, Gen. B.C. Joshi became the first Chief of the Army Staff to visit China and the Chinese delegation's visit was a reciprocal gesture.

The visitors not only met their Army counterparts, but also held discussions with Defence Minister George Fernandes and called on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The delegation was taken to Mumbai to visit INS Delhi, the most sophisticated Indian-made warship, and to Jodhpur to witness military manoeuvres.

Not much is known about the content of the hour-long dialogue between Gen. Quanyou and Fernandes on April 27. Confidence Building Measures agreed on with President Jiang Zemin during his visit to India in 1996 were discussed. Observers believe that attention was focussed on about 13 areas where the process of demarcating an agreed interim border is yet to be completed. One issue that figured was what the Defence Minister has described as "cartographic invasion"- official Chinese maps, which in accordance with that country's stated position, show Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim as part of its territory.

Some hints on the content of the talks came after Quanyou called on Vajpayee. The Prime Minister referred to the need to resolve "some problems" along the Line of Actual Control in a "friendly atmosphere". The PLA chief, for his part, said that it was "important for both sides to carry out the gradual realisation of the boundary demarcation."

Much of the dialogue with Fernandes, however, addressed the issues that he had raised in public before Quanyou's visit. Fernandes had said that China was the "mother" of Ghauri, Pakistan's Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). Fernandes had also alleged that Chinese troops had intruded into Indian territory and that they had built a helipad in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese Government, taken by surprise, reacted with understandable outrage.

"In the context of regional peace and stability," a brief statement from the Defence Ministry read, "the Defence Minister expressed concern about some recent developments which vitiated the regional security environment." Put in plain language, this referred to alleged Chinese aid for Pakistan's missile programme. The more hawkish analysts claim that China has supplied missile technology as well as M-11 missiles (now stored along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab) to deny India the strategic depth its territorial alignment provides it, enabling Pakistan to target critical defence assets located in southern India. Similar allegations have come from the United States security establishment. The Chinese Government has strenuously denied these charges, and many independent observers believe that Ghauri was in fact a derivative of the North Korean NoDong-I or NoDong-II family of IRBMs. Cash-strapped North Korea is believed to have placed much of its technology on offer for over-the-counter sale in recent years.

EVEN as Quanyou touched down in New Delhi, a 60-year-old Tibetan monk, Thupten Ngotup, immolated himself at the capital city's favoured spot for fringe protests, Jantar Mantar. Tibetan protesters have launched a hunger strike demanding that the United Nations accept recommendations made by the conservative International Commission on Jurists to reopen debate on Tibet's status as a part of China (Frontline, May 8, 1998). That the protests were timed to coincide both with Quanyou's visit to India and United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to China is apparent. What is not clear is why the Tibetan political protests, which could be interpreted as hostile by China, were allowed to escalate to the levels they did. Fernandes has in the past expressed support for Tibetan independence, but that stand runs against India's long-standing foreign policy position based on consensus.

FERNANDES' polemic has come at a time when China's position on issues critical to India has begun to show signs of change. Although China had traditionally supported India's stand on Kashmir, the tense relations of the 1960s changed that position. By 1965, with India allowing the United States Central Intelligence Agency to train a Tibetan refugee army on its soil, China's ties with Pakistan grew. In recent years, however, China has been maintaining a studied equidistance on Kashmir. During Jiang Zemin's address to a joint session of the Pakistan Parliament in November 1996, he dismayed his hosts by making no reference whatsoever to Kashmir. Although Pakistani newspaper reports attributed other statements on the issue to him, the Beijing press made no reference at all to any such comment. Part of the reason for China's changing stand may be the problems it faces in the Xinjiang province where fundamentalist groups among the Uighur community are becoming increasingly active. Recent upheavals and terrorist attacks, believed by some to be backed by fundamentalist groups operating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, have led China to register quietly its protest on more than one occasion.

QUANYOU's visit is significant in the context of the issues that have emerged since the Vajpayee Government took office. The PLA plays an important role in China's power structure. Its Chief of General Staff is a member of both the state Central Military Commission (CMC) and the parallel Central Military Commission of the Communist Party. Both CMCs are chaired by Jiang Zemin and are the supreme political and executive security bodies in China. As such, Quanyou represents China's security concerns - the concerns of its state apparatus and those of its political system. In some senses, however, Quanyou is less powerful than his predecessors in the past. One important outcome of the 15th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China was that the core seven-member Standing Committee of the Polit Bureau for the first time did not include a PLA representative. This was widely interpreted to mean a declining political and decision-making role for the PLA.

But the PLA delegation's visit needs to be read not just in the light of its hierarchical position in the Chinese state apparatus, but as part of an ongoing process of dialogue. This process of dialogue dates back to 1993, when India and China set up a Joint Working Group (JWG). The JWG was formed following an agreement to bring about peace and tranquillity on the border. The thrust of the JWG was to arrive at a shared understanding of what constitutes the 'interim border' - comprising agreed borders, the Line of Actual Control, and the contentious colonial-period boundaries of northeastern India. This understanding would form the basis of measures to scale down military tension without prejudice to the final territorial claims of either side. Since military tensions represented the core issue the JWG sought to address, it was thought appropriate to let the Army establishments on either side of the border engage in a direct dialogue. A succession of visits by bureaucrats and officials followed.

Jiang Zemin's visit to India in November 1996 saw the process gathering momentum. The Confidence Building Measures agreed on included the specification of categories of weapons that were to be removed or deployed in reduced strength along the Line of Actual Control. These weapons included tanks, armoured combat vehicles, surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft missiles, heavy artillery and mortar. Both India and China had agreed that no military exercises involving more than 15,000 personnel, the approximate strength of one Army division, would be allowed along the border. Flight of combat aircraft within 10 km of the border was also disallowed. Since then, Army officials say, 'eyeball-to-eyeball' confrontations along the border have eased. The incursions Fernandes had referred to, sources told Frontline, were the outcome not of hostile intent, but of troops straying across less-than-evident boundaries, and had been resolved by the simple expedient of pointing lost soldiers in the right directions.

Given the complex character of border claims by both sides and their political concerns, it would be unreasonable to expect any dramatic progress in a final demarcation of the border in the near future. The fact that no major military confrontation, or even sabre-rattling, has taken place since 1993 is in itself evidence that the quiet process of dialogue has had results. While most observers believe that China is in less of a hurry to arrive at a final settlement of the border than India, this reluctance can be traced to its reluctance to give up an instrument of leverage in a context in which India remains a potential platform for U.S.-backed initiatives encouraging Tibetan secessionism. Clearly, a diplomatic process focussed on achievable objectives, and conducted with sensitivity to the issues at stake, must continue. Aggressive polemical postures could only undo the hard-won gains of a five-year process.

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