India And China: Asian Powerhouses Defense Partners Again, Despite Ongoing Disputes

ANALYSIS

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Liang Guanglie
China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie speaks to defense representatives from other nations at Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2011.

For the first time in four years, India and China will resume joint military exercises in an effort to strengthen the shaky relationship between the two most populous countries on earth.

"India and China today reached consensus on a wide range of issues relating to defense and military exchanges and cooperation to be conducted this year and beyond," said a statement Tuesday from the Indian Ministry of Defense.

"At the 90-minute delegation-level meeting between [Indian Defense Minister A. K.] Antony and [Chinese Defense Minister General Liang] Guanglie, it was agreed by the two sides to conduct the next round of joint military exercises at the earliest."

However, no specific timetable has been set for the resumption of joint military exercises, which last took place in 2008.

Despite a long-simmering animosity between China and India, ongoing attempts to bridge diplomatic gaps between the two nuclear-armed neighbors show that both Beijing and New Delhi recognize the importance of forging a partnership in order to achieve shared prosperity.

The major turning point in Sino-Indian relations came half a century ago, when the two countries engaged in a brief but fierce war. China had sent troops into a swathe of plateau-covered land along India's northern border in 1962, and despite numerous peace agreements since then, some territories along the countries' shared borders remain in dispute. These include the region of Sikkim towards the East, and an area called Aksai Chin in the West.

Another point of contention is the South China Sea, where China is pursuing territorial rights against competing claims from a range of Southeast Asian countries, while India also pushes for navigational privileges of its own.

Then there was the diplomatic a spat of 2010, when China denied a visa to an Indian army commander due to his connection to Kashmir. This seemingly minor row exposed deep divisions over China's relationship with Pakistan, India's historical rival.

It was this clash that led China and India to freeze their bilateral defense relationships, despite having conducted successful joint exercises in 2007 and 2008.

India and China's various minor disputes all play into a general narrative: both of these Asian economic giants are competing to become the dominant entity in the region, and this involves competition over resources like oil and diplomatic power.

China is so far winning that race -- partly due to major investments in Africa over the past decade and also because the two countries' trade patterns tilt in China's favor -- but India is determined not to be left behind.

Differences aside, both countries realize that a strong partnership -- one that encompasses economic ties as well as shared defense initiatives -- could be mutually beneficial. That's why India and China today have a booming trade relationship; at the Rio+20 conference in Rio de Janeiro this June, Prime Ministers Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh agreed to boost bilateral trade to at least $100 billion by the year 2015. Last year, reports the Times of India, it was already valued at $74 billion.

Tuesday's agreement is a major step in ongoing efforts to forge a lasting link between New Delhi and Beijing, even though border disputes and questionable alliances with neighboring countries still rankle both sides.

Gen. Liang is optimistic about Tuesday's agreement, according to Reuters.

"We have reached the very important consensus of further promoting the friendly, strategic and cooperated partnership between the two countries and promoting friendly exchanges and cooperation between the two armed forces," he said.

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