A friendship renewed

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi on October 29, 1954. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh's visit to Vietnam further consolidates the foreign policy gains of the past and gives a boost to bilateral relations.

THE recent visit of Minister of External Affairs K. Natwar Singh to Vietnam turned the spotlight again on India's growing links with South-East Asia in general and Vietnam in particular.

The 12th meeting of the India-Vietnam Joint Commission, which was held in mid-October, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ho Chi Minh. To commemorate the event, the Institute of International Relations organised a special seminar in which several distinguished scholars from both countries participated and analysed in depth the whole gamut of India-Vietnam relations. The Vietnamese, like Indians, have a profound sense of history; the two countries, poised on the threshold of a new era, have an excellent opportunity to consolidate the gains of the past and give a fillip to bilateral relations.

Credit for the successful completion of the visit should, in large measure, go to Natwar Singh and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Dy Nien. As a diplomat Natwar Singh has had the rare privilege of witnessing the tumultuous developments in India's neighbourhood in the post-Independence era; he is conscious of India's seminal diplomatic role in the Geneva Conference in 1954 and the attempts to make Indo-China an "area of peace" between 1954 and 1958.

In fact, during the Third Indo-China War, Natwar Singh as a member of the government, played an important role in bringing about reconciliation between Hanoi and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). India was against ostracising Vietnam and was convinced of the futility of the confrontational politics in South-East Asia. It was this realisation that finally led to the conclusion of the Paris Agreements, the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and the gradual lessening of tensions, paving the way for the admission of the Indo-Chinese states into ASEAN.

Vietnamese leaders have acknowledged the spontaneous support and solidarity that the people and the government of India have extended to their heroic struggles - first against the French colonialists, secondly against the forces of neo-colonialism led by the United States, and finally against ASEAN, supported by United States and China for their own selfish reasons.

Ho Chi Minh is a household name in India; millions of Indians refer to him as Uncle Ho and Indian historians consider him as a "cross between Mao of the Long March and Gandhi at the spinning wheel".

As far as civilisational states such as India and Vietnam are concerned, no epoch in history is complete by itself; it is both a continuation and a beginning. Natwar Singh and Nguyen Dy Nien are sensitive to the working of historical forces. And, therefore, the relationship that India seeks to build with Vietnam today is being fashioned on twin foundations, the benign interaction of the past and the mutuality of interests that exists at present. The politics of the unipolar world and the trend of countries trying to befriend the U. S. at any cost should not make one oblivious of historical realities.

Even during the anti-colonial phase, Jawaharlal Nehru underlined the need for a reorientation of the Indian outlook on world affairs. He was mainly instrumental in making the Indian National Congress take positive a stance on issues relating to freedom from colonial domination and the fight against Fascism and Nazism. His well-known biographer Sarvepalli Gopal has written: "Jawaharlal Nehru played a decisive role in the history of the twentieth century - as the leader of the Indian people, as a representative of the new mood of Asia and as a spokesman of the international conscience." No other nationalist leader of the 20th century, except perhaps Ho Chi Minh, was able to understand and mould the history of his people in the context of world history and universal culture.

With their passionate commitment to anti-colonialism, it was but natural for Indian leaders to identify themselves with the political aspirations of the South-East Asian peoples. As early as 1927, Nehru had condemned the use of Indian soldiers in China, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya (now Malaysia) and other countries in furtherance of imperialist interests. In December 1945, he expressed resentment at the use of Indian troops by Lord Mountbatten's South-East Asia Command against Indonesian nationalists.

Indicative of the emergence of this Asian perspective, or to quote Nehru's words, the "Awakening of Asia", was the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in March-April 1947, which was attended by delegates from 28 Asian countries. India also played a notable role in arousing world opinion in favour of Indonesian nationalists and in the transfer of power from the Dutch to the Indonesians in 1949.

Simultaneously India articulated the policy of non-alignment, which meant refusal to accept the division of the world into two opposing blocs and meaningful involvement in world affairs in furtherance of world peace. Initially the policy was opposed by both superpowers, but gradually India did succeed in removing the fears and misgivings of the Soviet Union and China. India's successful mediation in the Korean War and its appointment as the Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission were clear evidence of improved relations with the communist world. The dramatic changes in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the acceptance of the policy of peaceful co-existence by the new Soviet leadership further facilitated the improvement of relations between the communist and non-aligned worlds.

The high watermark of this new trend in improvement in international relations was the signing of the India-China Agreement on Tibet in April 1954, which incorporated the five principles of peaceful co-existence. The acceptance of these principles, Nehru believed, would enlarge the "Area of Peace" in Asia. He visualised a situation where a large number of countries in Asia, more particularly in South-East Asia, would be uncommitted to either of the two power blocs, which had polarised the post-Second World War world. Prime Minister U Nu of Burma and President Sukarno of Indonesia shared India's views; it was, therefore, no accident that India came closer to Burma and Indonesia than the other countries in the region.

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh (centre) with Vietnamese officials at the function organised in Hanoi on October 18 by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisation in connection with the 50th anniversary of Nehru's visit.-

The prospect of a world war breaking out in Indo-China as a result of massive U.S. and Chinese intervention in 1953-54 brought Indian diplomacy into full play. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles accused the Soviet Union and China for conniving with the Vietminh and held them responsible for increased Vietminh military activity. The U.S. stepped up military and economic aid to France. Indicative of U.S. brinkmanship was the statement issued by Vice-President Richard Nixon that there was no possibility of a negotiated settlement when people in Vietnam were held under communist bondage.

Nehru was keen to prevent a war in a sensitive region so close to India. Peace, for Nehru, was not just a hope, it was a necessity. Though India was formally excluded from the Geneva Conference, V.K. Krishna Menon played a notable role behind the scenes to bring about broad areas of agreement among the major participants. The proposals put forward by Nehru in Parliament were later endorsed by the Colombo powers and influenced the negotiations and final agreement on Indo-China. The behind-the-scenes participation of Krishna Menon was so successful that Pierre Mendes-France, the Prime Minister of France, spoke of the conference as "this ten power conference - nine at the table - and India".

In India's view the struggle in Indo-China was essentially a nationalist one and its solution could best be accomplished by direct negotiations between France and the Indo-Chinese states. Thus, Indian diplomacy was mainly geared to remove all external influences from Indo-China and to ensure that the independence and neutrality of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were guaranteed by the Great Powers, especially the U.S. and China. In Geneva, thanks to Indian diplomacy, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Mendes-France assured Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai that there would be no U.S. bases in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that would pose a danger to China's security. Zhou Enlai, in turn, assured the others that China would respect the territorial integrity of Indo-Chinese states and would persuade the Vietminh to withdraw its forces from Laos and Cambodia. Thus, behind the idea of neutrality was India's keen desire to keep both China and the U.S. out of Indo-China and thus extend the area of peace and non-alignment.

The Geneva Agreement represented a great success for Indian diplomacy. As Prof. Sar Desai, the Indian scholar who has specialised on the subject, has written: "From the position of an outcast at the Geneva Conference, India had moved to occupy the central position of a custodian entrusted with the supervision of the Geneva Settlement over Indo-China."

In the days following the Agreement, India tried to make China and North Vietnam repeatedly commit themselves to the principles of peaceful co-existence and thus tried to allay the fears of the non-communist countries in South-East Asia. This was all the more necessary because of the establishment of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), whose primary aim was to prevent the spread of communism in the region.

The military approach, as embodied in the SEATO, was fundamentally opposed to India's policy of peaceful co-existence with all countries, irrespective of ideological affiliations; SEATO was doomed to failure from the very beginning. Only two countries, Thailand and the Philippines, joined it. Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and Prime Minister Katay Sasorith of Laos for some time toyed with the idea of joining SEATO, but were won over to India's point of view by Nehru's diplomacy.

In the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, not only Laos and Cambodia, but also China and North Vietnam subscribed to the principles of peaceful co-existence. Nehru also arranged private meetings in which Zhou Enlai and Prime Minister Phan Van Dong assured Sihanouk and Katay Sasorith that China and North Vietnam would respect the neutrality and territorial integrity of Laos and Cambodia. Phan Van Dong also agreed that the differences between the Pathet Lao and the Royal Laotian Government were purely internal matters of Laos and that North Vietnam would not support the Pathet Lao forces.

India's policy towards Indo-China was diametrically opposed to that of the U.S. and Indo-U.S. relations reached an all-time low. The U.S., during this period, was also providing military aid to Pakistan. The U.S. not only did not sign the Geneva Agreement, but went all out to scuttle the unification of Vietnam and propped up discredited South Vietnamese leaders as showpieces of anti-communism in South-East Asia. Encouraged by the U.S., President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem repudiated the Geneva Agreement and put obstacles in the way of the functioning of the International Control Commission, of which India was the Chairman.

Thwarted in their efforts to unify Vietnam through peaceful means, the Vietnamese nationalists resumed the liberation struggle. Laos could maintain its position of neutrality only for four years; the U.S. succeeded in ousting the "neutralist" Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma in the middle of 1958 and the right-wing government led by Phoui Snanikone immediately reversed the policy of neutrality and accepted U.S. military aid. The Pathet Lao resumed the guerrilla struggle and North Vietnam started rendering aid to its ideological ally. Despite U.S. pressures and aggressive postures by South Vietnam and Thailand, Sihanouk could maintain his country's independence. But, in 1970 the U.S. succeeded in ousting Sihanouk from power and installed the pliable Lon Nol in power.

By the end of the 1950s India's policy in South-East Asia had lost its momentum. The U.S. scuttled the Geneva Agreement and propped up its allies in South Vietnam and Laos. India-China friendship got frozen in the snows of the Himalayas and India's foreign policy was conditioned by increasing China-Pakistan collusion in the subcontinent and the unwillingness of Indian leaders to follow policies that might conflict with those of the superpowers, on whom India increasingly depended for military and economic assistance. The South-East Asian countries were also drifting apart and there was tension and violence in the air. Indonesia followed the policy of confrontation against Malaysia; the Philippines broke off diplomatic relations with Malaysia on the question of Sabah; Cambodia's relations with South Vietnam and Thailand got strained; and Burma, unable to maintain political stability, withdrew into monastic seclusion. Above all, the tragic conflict in Vietnam and Laos, and later on in Cambodia, continued without any end.

V. Suryanarayan is Professor of Maritime Studies, University of Calicut, Kerala.

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