A hawkish line on China

Print edition : May 23, 1998

Is Defence Minister George Fernandes' aggressive posturing on China part of his own anti-China agenda, or has the BJP-led Government used him as a signal flare for the Pokhran tests?

THE real question about George Fernandes' hawkish posturing on China was whether it was an individual exertion or part of an official enterprise. If Fernandes' claims that China is India's "threat number one" were merely the outcome of his visceral distaste for that country, they might just be dismissed as ill-informed fulmination. But the fact that the Defence Minister's latest polemical attacks on China came just days before the nuclear tests at Pokhran gives reason to believe that they reflect the ascent of a certain mindlessness among India's foreign policy and defence establishment. Fernandes' latest criticism of China for what he believes are that country's sinister designs on India came in the wake of the visit of the Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, General Fu Quanyou, in April (Frontline, May 22, 1998), a visit that was almost sabotaged by a first round of fulmination by the Minister. If the Chinese Government chose to exercise restraint then, its responses to Fernandes' later statements made clear its displeasure.

The Defence Minister's position on China became public after the end of Quanyou's visit, when a television channel broadcast on May 3 an interview with Fernandes. The interview, sources told Frontline, had been recorded prior to Quanyou's visit, and its broadcast was delayed in response to requests from officials in the Ministry of External Affairs. In the interview, Fernandes argued that Chinese defence strategy was working to encircle India. "China has provided Pakistan with both missile as well as nuclear know-how," he said. "China has its nuclear weapons stockpiled in Tibet right along our borders." "On the eastern frontier," the Minister continued, "the Chinese have trained and equipped the Myanmarese Army.... From 170,000 six years ago, its strength today is 450,000 and by the turn of the century, it will be half a million. Myanmar's population is only 42 million." Fernandes elaborated on this theme by claiming that 11 airstrips in Tibet had been lengthened to house new-generation Sukhoi combat aircraft, and argued that China must be perceived as a threat by "any person who is concerned with India's security."

Fernandes followed up this broadside while speaking to journalists after delivering the V.K. Krishna Menon lecture the same evening that the interview was telecast. Although he expressed satisfaction at Quanyou's visit, Fernandes said: "Our past experience has shown that talks are not enough." Negotiations on border demarcation which had begun with the Joint Working Group talks of 1993, he said, "should also reach a decisive stage."

On just how he intended to bring this about, Fernandes had nothing to say. In his lecture, Fernandes had referred to the alleged nexus between Pakistan and China, and claimed that Pakistan had ceded some 5,000 sq km of Indian territory under its occupation to China. On the nuclear cooperation issue, he was somewhat similarly blunt. "When nations give support to each other on weapons of mass destruction, it becomes all the more necessary to see that all issues are resolved." Interestingly, the Defence Minister, while defending his statements on keeping India's nuclear options open, categorically stated that any decision on this issue would be made only when the recently-announced strategic defence review process was complete.

AT least two things were significant about Fernandes' statements. The first was that his charges against China were by no means based on uncontested wisdom: indeed, the Defence Minister's earlier claims that China had built helipads on Indian soil had been rebutted by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself. China denied having set up any base in Myanmar's Coco Islands or having massively expanded its airbases or offensive capability in Tibet. Nor was it clear whether Chinese missiles that could target India were built for that purpose. United States-based expert Michael Krepon, for example, told The Indian Express that the Dong Feng missile, the first Chinese missile capable of hitting targets deep in Indian territory, was in fact designed to engage with United States military facilities in the Philippines. Some analysts believe that China had even scrapped plans to upgrade the Dong Feng's range to 1,700 km, a move that would have brought major southern Indian targets within its reach. "There is no Chinese nuclear threat to India," proliferation analyst Eric Arnett wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "Chinese military officers say they have not done contingency planning for a war with India for decades."

The second reason why Fernandes' remarks appeared mystifying was that India's relations with China have appeared to be improving in the recent past. The formula for bringing about peace and tranquillity on the border, which emerged from the 1993 talks, had positive results. What military officials described as "eyeball-to-eyeball" confrontations on the border had come to an end, in large part as the consequence of Confidence Building Measures that were agreed upon during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to India in 1996 (Frontline, December 27, 1996).

Clearly, the least that Fernandes could have done, if he felt compelled to voice his convictions, was to express them in private. China responded with understandable anger. Having remained silent in the face of Fernandes' comments prior to Gen. Quanyou's visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spoke out on May 5. Fernandes' allegations regarding a Chinese nexus with Pakistan, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao said, were "utterly fictitious and entirely baseless." "(They) have seriously sabotaged the favourable atmosphere for improving bilateral relations between China and India. And China cannot but express its utmost regret and resentment." Bangzao refused to respond to Fernandes' claim that China was potentially a bigger threat to India than Pakistan; the spokesperson described the claim as "unworthy of refutation". "China does not pose any threat to neighbouring countries," the spokesperson said, adding that Fernandes' statement on Chinese military cooperation with Myanmar and Pakistan "is utterly fictitious and has no basis in fact." An official statement from Myanmar, too, said that it was "regretful that India's Defence Minister chose to claim without substantial evidence that China is using Myanmar's Coco Islands for strategic defence measures."

POLITICAL reaction from Opposition parties in India was no less severe. Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral described Fernandes as "temperamentally an adventurist." Gujral noted that in his first speech in Parliament after taking over as Prime Minister this time, Vajpayee had promised that he would "sustain the consensus-backed foreign policy." But, Gujral said, "his silence, either by accident or design, is sending out a different signal."

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), for its part, was even more outspoken. "He should tell us how, within a matter of six weeks, the threat perception has changed so dramatically," Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said. Yechury referred to recent United States-India joint military manoeuvres, and said that such cooperation was premised on the existence of a mutual enemy - in this case, clearly, China.

Congress(I) spokesperson Salman Khurshid, too, demanded that the BJP-led Government "put an end to the confusion the Defence Minister is creating."

But an embarrassed External Affairs Ministry maintained a stoic silence, which was only occasionally punctuated by statements that there was nothing to add to Fernandes' position. Other officials expressed relief that China had not criticised India and had named only the Defence Minister.

Fernandes initially responded to the criticism by seeking to smooth ruffled feathers. In a statement issued from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, he said: "It appears that there is a feeling in certain circles that I am not keen on an India-China dialogue to resolve the outstanding issues between our two countries." The thrust of his V.K. Krishna Menon Memorial Lecture, Fernandes claimed, was on the need for "creating peace and amity between India and China and India and Pakistan... I reciprocate China's commitment to the ongoing dialogue with India, and believe that it will lead to a satisfactory settlement between our two countries."

Since his conviction that "talks are not enough" had been broadcast on television just three days earlier, this statement clearly marked a remarkable volte face. But it took less than 24 hours for him to execute another dramatic turnaround. Arriving in Calcutta after his sojourn in the Andaman Islands, Fernandes was asked by journalists about the border dispute with China. "We need to strengthen our borders with China," he replied, "and there will be no cut in the strength of our armed forces in those areas."

Since troop cuts were an integral part of India's agreement with China, the statement was clearly a repudiation of the 'peace and tranquillity formula'. The Chinese Foreign Ministry again protested. Fernandes, in due course, claimed in an interview to a magazine that his statements had been blown out of proportion by "sub-editors", and that he had been "quoted out of context". But these claims have little credibility: it seems less than probable that journalists in all the major newspapers were engaged in an anti-Fernandes conspiracy; further, the context in which Fernandes' statement was reported was very much of his own making.

The Chinese Government again displayed maturity. The temptation to score a point by granting the secessionist All-Party Hurriyat Conference an audience with the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi was resisted. More important, a May 12 statement by the Chinese charge d'affaires in New Delhi, Lin Shanglin, repudiating Fernandes' claims, again blamed "some people" who had "sabotaged the sound atmosphere of improving and developing Sino-Indian ties," rather than holding the Indian Government at large responsible.

SOME sources said that Fernandes was acting to further his own anti-China agenda, which includes a commitment to Tibetan independence. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office claimed that their silence on his remarks was the consequence of political constraints, and that Vajpayee's initial refutation of Fernandes' claims on Chinese territorial intrusion made clear that the Minister was not speaking for the Government. But with hindsight, it is far from clear whether the thinking at the highest levels of the BJP establishment was in fact at variance with Fernandes' stand. In the context of the imminent nuclear tests, it probably suited the Government not to rebut the Defence Minister fully.

If India did not indeed face a significant and immediate nuclear threat from China, there would have been little reason to rush to test and establish its nuclear capability. Since the Pokhran tests of May 11 and 13, nuclear proliferation by China and its long-range missiles, both key components of Fernandes' arguments, have been important themes in the Indian Government's justification of its course of action. Although it is far from clear that the Defence Minister knew of the decision to carry out the tests (some accounts claim that he was informed of the decision just 10 minutes before the Prime Minister made the announcement), it is evident that his aggressive stand helped in shaping a climate in which the decision could be legitimised. Seen in this context, Vajpayee's silence does not appear to be the consequence of political compulsions but part of a well-thought-out strategy of using Fernandes as a signal flare.

Even more important, Fernandes' stand wove seamlessly into an emerging paradigm of India-United States military relations. On May 9, in the midst of the crisis created by Fernandes' statements, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Stanley Roth, told a Sub-Committee of the House International Relations Committee about China's alleged role in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. "We continue to have concerns," he said, "about reports of missile equipment and technology transfer to Iran and Pakistan, and we are troubled by the ability of Iran's chemical weapons programme to obtain assistance from Chinese entities... We recognise that China remains a major producer of nuclear, chemical and missile-related equipment, materials and technology." Roth said that the U.S. was urging China to strengthen its commitment to the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines and parameters to strengthen its chemicals exports controls and to "increasingly integrate into international non-proliferation regimes".

These U.S. objectives in China, and their underlying strategic objectives, are not new. If India is now willing to be a partner in the U.S' enterprise, it could end up sabotaging the prospects of building an abiding regional peace.

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