NEW DELHI—The defense ministers of India and China agreed on Tuesday to resume joint military exercises frozen two years ago, signaling a thaw between the Asian giants even as regional relations are tense over the disputed South China Sea.
The two countries have a tangled relationship dating to a 1962 border war, unresolved territorial disputes and competing efforts to take leadership across the vast continent. They are also vying for energy sources to supply their growing economies and huge populations.
China’s Liang Guanglie and India’s A.K. Antony agreed to restart joint exercises frozen in 2010 after Beijing denied a visa to an Indian general who worked in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Himalayan-controlled region jointly claimed by Pakistan.
They also decided to hold high-level official exchanges, conduct joint maritime search-and-rescue exercises and strengthen anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, where pirate attacks pose a threat to shipping.
Dates for the exercises were not set. The ministers agreed that closer military ties help deepen trust and friendship between the two countries, they said in a statement.
Analysts said Beijing likely used the brief talks to ask India to stay out of the South China Sea dispute. China has cautioned India to stop what it says is an illegal joint project between Vietnam and India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp. that is searching for hydrocarbons in the disputed waters. Vietnam says the exploration blocks are located within its territorial waters.
Beijing is coming under increasing US pressure to agree to a regional code of conduct to reduce the risks of a conflict in the South China Sea. China’s claims over the potentially energy- and mineral-rich sea put it in conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
India could play a role in persuading Beijing to ease its aggressive posture in the territorial disputes, said Sujit Dutta, an international affairs professor at Jamia Millia University.
“At a time when Beijing is in a confrontationist mode with several countries over territorial disputes, China must be persuaded that its unilateralism in the South China Sea is affecting security in the region,” Dutta said.
Liang and Antony also reviewed progress in ongoing talks to resolve a long-running border dispute in the Himalayas that led to a brief war in 1962. Fifteen rounds of talks on the dispute have made little headway.
“The Chinese side is willing to work together with the Indian side to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the China-India border areas,” Liang said in an interview with The Hindu newspaper.
Liang and Antony also discussed security in Afghanistan after the drawdown of U.S.-led NATO troops in 2014, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
India and China—a strong ally of India’s rival, Pakistan—share concerns about Pakistan’s role in arming and supporting Taliban forces threatening to make a comeback in Afghanistan once NATO leaves.
Liang was also expected to reassure India over China’s rapid military buildup and its growing investment in Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives. China’s deepening involvement in the four countries has fanned concerns China is encircling India.
Despite tensions, trade between India and China has soared from $5 billion in 2002 to nearly $75 billion last year. However, the trade remains heavily skewed in favor of China, which is now India’s biggest trading partner.
Both countries realize that any conflict would disrupt their booming trade, and this is likely to prevent their tensions from escalating into violence, analysts say.
Liang leaves for Laos on Wednesday.