India has decided to send a truncated 15-member military delegation to China after Beijing expressed objections to hosting an Indian Air Force (IAF) official from Arunachal Pradesh, a decision officials described as a pragmatic compromise aimed at keeping a fragile defence relationship on track.
A 30-member delegation was scheduled to travel to Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai on Tuesday on a four-day visit, the first by an Indian delegation to China after the two countries held the fourth round of their Annual Defence Dialogue here last month.
The talks, which took place almost a full two years after the previous round, were aimed at reinvigorating defence ties, which were only resumed last June. Exchanges had been suspended for a year after China refused to host the then head of the Northern Command, Lieutenant General B.S. Jaswal, in July 2010 on grounds that he was serving in "the sensitive region" of Jammu and Kashmir.
The 30-member delegation slated to travel from here on Tuesday included IAF Group Captain Mohonto Panging from Arunachal Pradesh. While officials said on Saturday that media reports claiming the visit was cancelled after he was not issued a visa were incorrect, questions remained over the announcement that a smaller delegation, without Group Captain Panging, would travel to China.
Officials said the decision reflected a desire "to keep the ship on an even keel" and move ties forward despite persisting differences on a range of issues.
One of the recent sticking points has been Beijing's visa policy to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese government has either issued stapled visas to Indians from the State, or as reported in this instance, not issued visas at all, citing its claim on the State as its own territory. India has, in the past, avoided sending officials domiciled in the State for defence exchanges with China in light of Beijing's visa policy.
Analysts here wondered whether the official's inclusion in the delegation suggested an attempt by India to judge China's response by selecting the officer, or if on the other hand he was inadvertently chosen for the tri-services defence exchange. Ministry of External Affairs officials said the delegation's passports were sent to the Chinese embassy before its composition and travel plans had been cleared by the Committee of Secretaries — the body entrusted with the task of avoiding uncoordinated visa requests.
There were reports that until Friday night the government was even considering the idea of putting off the trip. A cancellation would have meant a second break in defence exchanges over visa issues for armed forces personnel in less than two years — a situation Indian officials were looking to avoid less than a month after the annual defence talks resumed. Officials said "a lesson for the relationship" from the previous year was the need to keep defence ties alive, even as the two countries grappled with other political differences and persisting mistrust.
China decided to send Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), to New Delhi for the defence dialogue in December only days after border talks were postponed, after Beijing objected to its coinciding with a Buddhist conference involving the Dalai Lama. "That China wanted to go ahead with the visit showed they have realised the importance of keeping the defence relationship going," an official said. "With this visit going ahead, now we have shown we have, too."