Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie was due to start a four-day visit to India on Sunday with concerns over competing influence across South Asia likely to be high on the agenda.
General Liang was expected to arrive in Mumbai from Sri Lanka, and would hold talks with his counterpart A.K. Antony in New Delhi on Wednesday, the Times of India newspaper reported.
The visit is the first by a Chinese defence minister in eight years, and comes amid India’s fears about Chinese activity in nations such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh that India sees as within its sphere of influence.
India and China also have territorial disputes along their shared border, particularly in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the two countries fought a brief but brutal war in 1962.
The presence of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala is another cause of prickly relations between the two emerging nations.
On Sunday, Tibetan exiles held a small demonstration close to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi to protest against Liang’s visit, burning a Chinese flag and shouting slogans demanding freedom for Tibetans living in China.
While in Sri Lanka, Liang stressed China sought only ‘harmonious co-existence’ with other countries.
‘The Chinese army’s efforts in conducting friendly exchanges and cooperation with its counterparts in South Asian nations are intended for maintaining regional security and stability and not targeted at any third party,’ Liang said.
Indian government officials confirmed Liang’s trip but declined to give further details.
The Times of India said he would be travelling with a 23-member delegation and that renewed joint military training exercises would be discussed during talks.
‘With China itself requesting the visit, it’s a significant step towards repairing the cracks in bilateral defence ties,’ an unnamed official told the newspaper.
China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh as well as other areas in the northwestern province of Kashmir in disputes that have been the subject of 15 rounds of fruitless talks.
A build-up of Chinese military infrastructure along the border has been a major source of concern for India, which increasingly sees Beijing as a longer-term threat to its security to traditional rival Pakistan.