Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman may visit China by month-end

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to visit China by March-end, in what would be a major confidence-building measure that would launch a series of big visits and engagements between the two countries, helping develop a 'forward-looking approach' in the post-Dokalam period. 

This will be Sitharaman's maiden trip to China as defence minister and is taking place almost two years since Manohar Parrikar visited Beijing and Chengdu in 2016 in the same capacity. The visit is expected to relaunch a series of Sino-Indian defence related engagements from secretary-level dialogues to joint exercises that came to a halt last year.

Sino-Indian military ties have involved communication and exchanges over the past decade. Eight rounds of defence and security consultations and six joint military anti-terrorism training exercises have been held so far. Military officials of the two sides visited each other's country in 2015 and 2016. 

Sitharaman’s trip to China can also coincide with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Minister’s meet that was proposed in March. 

Over the past few years, SCO activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism among the member states. There have also been a number of SCO joint military exercises. India joined SCO as a member in 2017 at the Astana Summit. 

The forthcoming trip is aimed at building confidence and enhancing friendly exchanges between the militaries of the two sides that were involved in a 75-day face-off last year at Dokalam, and still maintain high level of alert in that region, persons familiar with the issue told ET. Sitharaman is also expected to visit Moscow early April on her maiden trip there as defence minister. Besides attending the Moscow conference on international security, she will also hold bilateral dialogue with her Russian counterpart. 

Interestingly, when Sitharaman visited Nathu La Pass last October, she received a surprise welcome from the Chinese armed forces from across LAC. Chinese soldiers on the other side of the border turned their camera lenses towards the Indian defence minister who greeted them with a 'namaste'. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers responded with 'Ni Hao' which means 'Hello' in Mandarin. Sitharaman also waved with a smile at the Chinese army personnel who took pictures of her visit. 

When Parrikar visited China in April 2016, three years after then defence minister AK Antony visited Beijing, he stressed India attached "highest priority to relations with China and committed to further developing friendly and cooperative relations with China". On that occasion, he met this then Chinese counterpart General Chang Wanquan and Gen Fan Changlong, the then vice-chairperson of the powerful Central Military Commission, besides Premier Li Keqiang.