Deployment of Indian troops in Iraq emerges as the major topic of debate during Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's first visit abroad after the war in the Gulf.
PRIME MINISTER A.B. VAJPAYEE'S visit to Germany, Russia and France, from May 28 to June 3, was his first official tour abroad after the war in Iraq. The three countries Vajpayee visited were the most forthright in their criticism of the United States' military adventure in the Gulf country. They have also been vocal in calling for a multi-polar world, whereas New Delhi's criticism of American hegemony is quite muted.
France, Germany and Russia want the United Nations to take over the peace-keeping role in Iraq while the Indian government is considering the deployment of Indian troops in Iraq alongside the American occupation forces. Vajpayee maintained during his trip that no decision had been taken on the dispatch of troops but confirmed that Washington had been making requests for the stationing of Indian forces in Iraq.
Vajpayee told the media that clarifications had been sought from Washington about the terms and conditions under which Indian troops would operate in Iraq. He said that Indian troops, if and when deployed, would not serve under American military command. The Bush administration clarified that that was never an issue and that Indian soldiers would be allowed to do peace-keeping on their own. New Delhi has also apparently told Washington that it is not willing to deploy its troops for an indefinite period.
Vajpayee's visit came about after New Delhi and Islamabad announced new steps to restart bilateral talks. The international community has welcomed the easing of tensions between the two neighbours. All the leaders Vajpayee met made it a point to stress the need to restart the dialogue process with Islamabad. The Indian side raised the issue of cross-border terrorism. Indian officials claim that their point of view was well received but there were no statements openly supportive of the Indian position of accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism.
Indian officials highlighted the invitation to Vajpayee to attend the G-8 (Group of Eight) summit at Evian, France, and his sharing of the "high table" with President George Bush and Russian President Vladmir Putin, as further proof of India's enhanced standing in the international community (see separate story on page 57). Three countries each from Latin America, Africa and Asia were invited by the French who hosted the summit. At St.Petersburg, for the 300th anniversary celebrations of the city, the seating arrangements had more to do with the personal predilections of Bush. Both at Evian and at St. Petersburg, Bush went to extraordinary lengths to avoid talking to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The Bush administration's policy after the war in Iraq has been to "forgive Russia, ignore France and punish Germany".
Vajpayee's visit to St. Petersburg was meant primarily to participate in the celebrations along with other world leaders. The visit to Evian was to participate in the dialogue organised by French President Jacques Chirac. On the sidelines of the G-8 summit, Chirac wanted to highlight the developmental and security issues that faced the world.
Berlin was the only capital where some substantive talks were held. Although the talks in Germany focussed more on bilateral issues, the Indian side found it difficult to avoid matters relating to U.S. unilateralism. When Vajpayee was in Europe, Washington raked up the issue of Moscow helping Iran in its nuclear programme. Both Iran and Russia have insisted that the programme is a peaceful one, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Indian position was similar to that of Moscow, Berlin and Paris, which want the issues between Washington and Teheran to be settled bilaterally.
Indian Foreign Secretary Kapil Sibal, who was part of the Prime Minister's delegation, told mediapersons in St. Petersburg that India attached considerable importance to its relations with Iran. Sibal did not attach any significance to Washington's claims about Teheran's alleged links with Al Qaeda elements.
External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told the media in Berlin that Germany and India agreed that the United Nations should play an "essential role" in Iraq. He said that Germany, like India, was in favour of an international consultative process on Iraq, like the existing one in Afghanistan. Vajpayee stressed the importance India attached to ties with the European Union (E.U.). At a press conference in Berlin, Vajpayee said that India and Germany shared a common vision of "a cooperative multi-polar world".
Addressing members of the German Parliament, Vajpayee said that he "extended the hand of friendship" to Pakistan while at the same time continuing to deal with the "specific problem of cross-border terrorism". He expressed the hope that his recent actions would "initiate a process leading to peace, friendship and cooperation" between New Delhi and Islamabad. He urged "friends and partners" in the international community to convince Islamabad to end its support of cross-border terrorism. Vajpayee also assured the German parliamentarians that India would remain a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Germany, like many other countries, has been critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's handling of the communal situation in Gujarat.
THE meeting between Vajpayee and Chinese President Hu Jintao in St. Petersburg, coming only a few weeks before Vajpayee embarks on his important visit to China, was the first between the two leaders. Upbeat after the meeting, Indian officials said that the Chinese President accorded the highest priority to friendship and cooperation with India.
According to the officials, Vajpayee told Hu Jintao that cooperation between the two countries could result in the 21st century becoming an Asian century. Kapil Sibal told the media in St.Petersburg that both countries wanted to "deepen and diversify their relationship and synergise their respective economic potential and growth". He said that there were no discussions relating to the sensitive border question. Indian officials, however, claimed that the meeting between the two leaders would help accelerate the process of solving the long-running dispute over the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
There has been some criticism regarding the haste with which the date for the Prime Minister's China visit was announced. Initially there was speculation that the visit would take place at the end of the year, after more progress had been made to resolve the border issue.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan described the meeting between Vajpayee and Hu Jintao as "very successful". He noted that the two leaders had pledged to make "concerted efforts" for the advancement of bilateral relations. The spokesperson said in the second week of June that Beijing was happy that relations between India and Pakistan had "gained momentum". He went on to add that it was China's "sincere hope" that both countries would further improve their ties and work for peace and development in the region.
Kapil Sibal said in St.Petersburg that the "central message" of the meeting between Vajpayee and Hu Jintao was that the two countries were big nations and should cooperate with each other. The Chinese side also felt "encouraged" by the improvement in Sino-Indian relations.
According to Indian officials, Jintao had "noted" that it was Vajpayee who had taken the diplomatic initiative to resume dialogue with Islamabad.