NEW DELHI: A rare visit to India by China’s defence minister should help avoid flare-ups along the border between the nuclear-armed Asian giants at a time when Beijing is grappling with a change of leadership and friction in the South China Sea.
But General Liang Guanglie’s trip, the first by a Chinese defence minister in eight years, also highlights growing competition between the two emerging powers as they jostle for influence and resources across Asia.
Liang is due to arrive in Mumbai on Sunday afternoon after stopping in Sri Lanka, the island nation off the south coast of India that sits on vital ocean trade routes.
There he sought to play down Indian fears that China is threading a “string of pearls”, or encircling it by financing infrastructure and military strength in neighbours stretching from Pakistan to the Maldives.
“China attaches great importance to its relations with the South Asian nations, and commits itself to forging harmonious co-existence and mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation with them,” he said in speech to Sri Lankan soldiers.
“The PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) efforts in conducting friendly exchanges and cooperation with its counterparts in the South Asian nations are intended for maintaining regional security and stability and not targeted at any third party.”
As neighbours and emerging superpowers, India and China have a complex relationship. Trade has grown at a dizzying rate but Beijing is wary of India’s close ties to Washington and memories of a border war with China half a century ago are still fresh in New Delhi.
Despite 15 rounds of high level talks to resolve the dispute about where their Himalayan border lies, neither side is close to giving up any territory. Liang is not expected to broach the territorial issue on his trip.
Analysts say Liang’s India tour will demonstrate that Beijing is managing the often twitchy relations with its neighour just ahead of its once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“China’s leadership has one primary objective: how do we continue without any convulsions,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi think-tank.
“You do not want to have anything to do with India just now which is rocking the boat, as it were,” he said.