China and India appear to be making another effort to introduce stability in the bilateral relationship by putting in place a much needed, tangible, confidence-building measure.
Discussion on establishing a hotline, first proposed in 2013, between the armed forces of the two countries who have a disputed 4,057 kilometre-long border, will be on top of the agenda for discussions when Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe visits India later this month.
This is General Wei’s third visit abroad since taking over as defence minister – the first two being to Russia and Belarus – and his first to India as defence minister. The visit follows up that by Lieutenant General Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the western theatre command in July. 1954-born General Wei, who was appointed China’s defence minister in March 2018, served his entire military career in the secretive People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery, or China’s strategic missile force.
Well versed with technology, he was chief of staff of the PLA Second Artillery from 2006 to 2010 before taking over as its commander and, as such, is aware of the need for prompt and timely defusing of tension when nuclear powers are involved. A commander of the PLA Second Artillery, General Wei was in the top echelons of China’s military establishment and witness to the unusually protracted and qualitatively different tense confrontation that developed following the Chinese intrusion in the Chumar area of Ladakh, which overlapped Xi Jinping’s first visit to India as China’s president in September 2014.
While Beijing was undoubtedly fully informed of developments by the many Chinese agencies embedded in its embassy in New Delhi, yet the armed forces of both sides withdrew only after Indian diplomats were able to finally effect contact with the Central Military Commission in Beijing. More recently in 2017, the 73-day tense standoff at Doklam – when China sought to unilaterally resume building a road through the Doklam Plateau in violation of a tripartite agreement signed in 2012 agreeing not to alter the status quo – once again highlighted the need for direct, speedy communication between the two military establishments at the appropriate level.
Reports suggest that China will again propose a hotline between the Indian Army’s director general of military operations at army headquarters and the commander of the PLA western theatre command. This implies a link with, in effect, the commander of the western theatre command who would probably have approved any military operation along the India-China border in the first place.
A hotline between the Chinese and Indian military establishments is essential if the possibility of conflict is to be minimised. When relations are uneasy, even minor incidents can spiral out of control. Calculations that intrusions are unlikely to escalate can be unfounded as demonstrated by the two instances in 2014 and 2017. Moreover, it is essential that the hotline links the two militaries at a level where decisions blend political and military considerations. A hotline to the western theatre command will not meet this criteria.
As shown in tackling the tense situation at Doklam, the decision to ‘disengage’ was conveyed to the western theatre command by Beijing. Since in the Chinese system it is the Communist Party leadership that takes decisions and after Xi Jinping’s
taking over as commander in chief in January 2018, the final authority for even operational decisions now resides in the Central Military Commission, the hotline should be between the DGMO and the responsible officer in the CMC’s joint staff headquarters or the CMC general office.
Additionally, General Wei, who is understood to be leading a 25-member delegation, which includes a couple of generals on what might be a stand-alone visit, is likely to discuss India's relations with Pakistan. He will probably urge India to ease tensions with Pakistan – something Beijing has been pressing India to do since April 2015 – and work with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. He will point to Imran Khan's statements expressing a desire to improve ties with India and urge India to respond positively to the overture. China's interest is in ensuring uninterrupted implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Meanwhile Qian Feng, a research fellow at the National Strategy Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, sought to put a positive spin on the visit. Qian claimed it showed that 'relations between the Chinese and Indian armed forces have generally recovered' and that 'the two armies have actively implemented the results of the Wuhan summit of the leaders of the two countries' and relations between the two militaries have entered a positive development track.
(The writer, formerly a senior R&AW officer, is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy)