Diplomacy need not always be war by another means. But India and China cannot afford to stall regular diplomatic and other exchanges. The resumption of joint military exercises between the two countries should, therefore, be reassuring for both. The two sides agreed to resume the exercises ‘at the earliest’ following the meeting between A.K. Antony, India’s defence minister, and General Liang Guanglie, his Chinese counterpart. The fact that Mr Liang was the first Chinese defence minister to visit India in eight years makes it significant. The agreement could break the cycle of mutual distrust that led to the freezing of such exercises two years ago, when Beijing denied a visa to a senior Indian army official who then worked in Jammu and Kashmir. Given the unresolved border disputes between the two countries, they need to engage each other more at different levels. Military exchanges and co-operation could help ease tension on the border and thereby facilitate the resolution of the boundary disputes. Sceptics may argue that joint military exercises may not help matters if the two sides fail to make real progress on border and other contentious issues. But there is a real risk of the suspicions getting worse in the absence of confidence-building exercises.
However, military exchanges between India and China are no longer a bilateral issue. Both countries are reaching out to other shores in search of allies and resources. Other powers are also reaching out to New Delhi and Beijing in order to make strategic choices. Mr Liang’s visit to New Delhi took place barely three months after another by Leon Panetta, the defence secretary of the United States of America, to the Indian capital. Mr Panetta had then declared India to be the ‘lynchpin’ of the new American military strategy in Asia. It is not surprising that Beijing views such American assertions with suspicion. But India too is concerned with recent Chinese attempts to expand its influence in South Asia. Also, China’s new belligerence over territorial issues in the South China Sea has been a source of tension in the region. Beijing’s opposition to India’s partnership with Vietnam in a gas exploration project in the South China Sea acquired a menacing tone. If the trust deficit between India and China is narrowed, it could have its impact on the security issues elsewhere in Asia.