The defense ministers of India and China agreed on Tuesday to resume military exercises, signaling a thaw in military ties despite an ongoing dispute over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The two Asian giants have a tangled relationship dating back to a 1962 border war, unresolved territorial disputes and competing efforts to take leadership across the vast continent. With rapidly growing economies and huge populations, they are also vying for energy supplies.
China's Liang Guanglie and India's A.K. Antony agreed to restart military exercises frozen in 2010 after Beijing denied a visa to an Indian general working in the disputed Kashmir region. 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.
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.
Beijing is coming under increasing U.S. 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 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 discussed progress in 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 Myanmar, 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.