Vajpayee's China fiasco

Print edition : October 24, 1998

The Vajpayee Government has systematically derailed the process of normalisation of Sino-Indian relations. To expect it to "untie the knot" is futile, and the only way to mitigate the loss is to encourage people-to-people contacts between the two countries.

INDIA'S China policy is more or less a shambles today and the 'credit' for that belongs to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. This is not the first time that he has been 'a bull in a China shop'. In 1977-78, Prime Minister Morarji Desai had carefully calibrated the normalisation of India's relations with China that had begun with my first trip to China, with Morarji's full support. It led to Vajpayee being invited to visit that country in October 1978. Vajpayee, however, cancelled his trip at the last minute because of a "stomach ache", throwing the normalisation process into disarray since no one believed his excuse. The real reason, however, was that the Soviet Union and the Soviet lobby within the Janata Party had opposed tooth and nail the process of normalisation of Sino-Indian relations. Vajpayee was afraid of annoying them. But after much goading by Morarjibhai, Vajpayee went to Beijing a few months later, in February 1979, but had to come scurrying back home because China had - as Deng Xiaoping had vowed to do - militarily intervened in Vietnam while Vajpayee was in China. The whole world knew that China was going to take this action and so did Vajpayee before he departed, but the howl in Parliament of the now-defunct "Friends of the Soviet Union" about "Chinese aggression" made him cut short his visit; this, of course, scuttled once again the Janata Government's normalisation programme.

The normalisation process was initiated again in 1981, when in a meeting I had with China's supremo Deng Xiaoping, he unexpectedly announced that China's Foreign Minister would visit India to pick up the thread from where it was cut in 1979. At that meeting, Deng also agreed to reopen the long-closed Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrim route, a decision that was widely welcomed in India.

Indira Gandhi was then in power. She was too much of a realist to ignore these announcements and their long-term value for India's security, Soviet Union or no Soviet Union. Her official spokesman, therefore, immediately welcomed the announcements, and the normalisation process began to pick up again. Thereafter our relations steadily improved, even if only haphazardly. The foundation for a structured and systematic process of normalisation was, however, laid by her son Rajiv Gandhi, who as Prime Minister went to China in December 1988. During his visit, an India-China Joint Working Group was set up at the Foreign Secretary-level; it has met 11 times since. This announcement was followed up by an Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (signed in 1993, when P. V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister). Earlier, in February 1991, I as Commerce Minister had signed the First Trade Protocol in Beijing. Since then bilateral trade has increased, and interestingly the trade balance with China is in India's favour. There are now over 50 Chinese joint ventures in India and five Indian joint ventures in China. As a consequence of that Trade Protocol, border trade between the two countries has also been opened up.

In December 1996, when H. D. Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to India. An Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas was signed. This led to substantial easing of tension along the Line of Actual Control.

In substance, thus, owing to about 15 years of hard and sustained effort, the wounds of 1962 appeared to have healed for both countries; the two giant Asian neighbours, which together account for 40 per cent of the world's population, were getting together, opening the possibility of correcting and balancing the unisuperpower hegemony in the future. Now, all that, however, seems to have been derailed. The years of efforts lie in waste. How did the Vajpayee Government undo in weeks what practically every patriotic Indian wants, namely, a friendly China? Was it due to India's nuclear tests, which brought forth a harsh reaction from China?

When on May 11, 1998, Vajpayee announced the nuclear tests, contrary to popular belief it did not disrupt the normalised Sino-Indian relations. In fact, the Chinese Government's official reaction, although critical of the tests, was not hostile or shrill. On May 12, the Chinese Government spokesman merely stated that it was "seriously concerned" and that the tests were "detrimental to peace and stability in the South Asian region." This was in sharp contrast to the language of the United States' reaction, which had accused India of "creating a dangerous new instability in the region," the U.S. also termed it "a very, very negative development". (This reaction was accompanied by the imposition of sanctions by the U.S.) Germany went even further and called the tests "a slap in the face" of the 149 countries that had signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The sharp Chinese reactions, however, came only after May 15, when it called the tests an "outrageous contempt of the common will of the international community" and said that the tests "threatened not only China but other neighbours as well." Thereafter China has progressively hardened its stand, and has practically frozen any politically significant interaction with the Indian Government. When Jaswant Singh met the Chinese Foreign Minister in Manila during a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Chinese were courteous but declined to take any notice of the not-so-subtle hints from India that China should invite Jaswant Singh to Beijing so as to patch up the differences. The Chinese Foreign Minister did not also meet Prime Minister Vajpayee when he was in New York recently for the United Nations General Assembly session.

During my recent week-long visit to China at the invitation of the Chinese Government's think-tank, the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, I gathered from my discussion with a cross-section of the Chinese leadership that they are not interested in a mere "patch up" with India. What they are looking for is a rectification, for amends that are so concrete that the confidence that has been shattered is repaired. To use their words, they want the Indian Government to "untie the knot" which it tied in the first place.

Subramanian Swamy with Jiang Jinyun (third left), member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of China and Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, after an hour-long meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 26. Others in the picture are India's Ambassador to China, Vijay Nambiar (far right), and Janata Party leaders V.S. Chandralekha (second left) and Lakshmi Bai (second right).-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

NOW what is this knot? And what happened between May 12 and May 15-18 that has so thoroughly shaken China's confidence in India and embittered them? A series of actions and words from the Vajpayee Government since it came to office on March 19, culminating in that diplomatically silly letter written by the Prime Minister to the U.S. President (which the latter dutifully leaked to The New York Times), has according to my understanding convinced the Chinese leaders that the Indian Government is laying the foundation for emerging as a "counterweight" to China and to pursue policies that would seek to undermine China's security and integrity. The tone and content of Vajpayee's letter to Bill Clinton, which was intended to be kept confidential but was made public by the latter, display the mentality of a petitioner, and of a Prime Minister who wants U.S. patronage for India to emerge as the "counterweight".

For example, Vajpayee's letter to Clinton has clear references to the "threats" from China and Pakistan, but not from the U.S. If what happened in 1962, 1965 and 1971 with China and Pakistan constitute a continuing threat in 1998, does not the U.S.' despatch of its Seventh Fleet task force led by aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, with enough nuclear weapons on board to wipe out India's civilisations, into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war constitute a continuing threat from the U.S. in 1998? This omission from Vajpayee's letter cannot be treated as an oversight. It was obviously intended to placate the U.S.

The inclusion of China and Pakistan in Vajpayee's letter - or rather, the omission of any reference to the 1971 U.S. threat - makes his communication to Clinton a pathetic petition, an attempt to curry favour, and an inane oblique suggestion that India was ready to be considered as a counterweight to China. The U.S. did not bite, and by leaking the letter to The New York Times, Clinton showed up Vajpayee in very poor light. Of course, if India in its own right emerges as a counterweight to China, the world would admire India and acknowledge the fact; but to expect that a superpower would invest in a large country like India to develop it as a counterweight to another large country, and a neighbour to boot, is not only unrealistic but betrays a sneaky mentality. Diplomacy is never conducted this way.

Vajpayee's letter thus confirmed, and placed in a disastrously negative perspective, the anti-China allegations that had been made, one after another, by Defence Minister George Fernandes. No reasonable observer could buy the ridiculous story put out by the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External Affairs after the furore, that Fernandes is out of control and speaks only for himself. Thus the crystallising effect of Vajpayee's letter, and the Chinese shift in tone from mild to harsh, in just four days after May 11, shredded the Sino-Indian normalisation process.

The question before the nation is not whether we can dare to annoy China or not. The crucial query instead is how our policy toward China should be: friendly or adversarial? So far, since 1978 when the Janata Party Government initiated the normalisation, there has emerged a growing and now an overwhelming consensus in the country that India should befriend China, irrespective of what had happened in the past. There are sound strategic reasons for such a policy. First, it is the unanimous opinion of the chiefs of India's defence forces that defending a China-Pakistan joint attack is nearly impossible for India's armed forces. This fact will remain true for the foreseeable future. Therefore, India should strive, for security reasons, to separate China and Pakistan, however onerous and difficult the task may be. Second, China is geo-strategically located to cause India enormous problems - if China wants to - in Kashmir, the Uttar Pradesh border, Sikkim and Assam. Further, in combination with Pakistan, such problems will have a multiplier effect. Indira Gandhi understood this strategic fact, especially in the context of the agitation by the All Assam Students Union in Assam. I was in fact specifically requested by Indira Gandhi in 1981 to discover the Chinese intention on this agitation by raising it with Chairman Deng. And now it is an established truth that China consistently discouraged any attempt by extremist Assam agitators to go to China illegally across the borders and to internationalise the issue. India has gained tremendously from this cooperative non-interference.

LEAVING aside for the moment all the positive gains from India-China friendship in the U.N. bilateral trade and so on, these two immutable strategic facts make it imperative that any Indian Government strive for Sino-Indian rapprochement. This basic strategic understanding and sense of history has unfortunately eluded Vajpayee's comprehension.

Vajpayee is immune to receiving this strategic wisdom for two basic reasons. First, in the final analysis, despite all his superficial posturing, he is a volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS world-view has been laid bare for the initiated in the "saffron" press, for example, the Organiser and Panchjanya (although it would be more accurate to call them yellow rather than saffron).

Subramanian Swamy with Dr. Shu Ku Kang, Director-General of China's Atomic Energy and Arms Control Agency, at a meeting at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on September 25.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A gleaning of this press reveals without doubt that the RSS is an addict of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington's thesis that the 21st century is going to witness a clash of civilisations, between the Islamic and other civilisations. The RSS indoctrination today through its networks is just this: that India should team up with the U.S. in wiping out the "evil" Islamic civilisation. As a byproduct, the RSS suggests that India identify itself with the U.S. in whatever it does. This is the bottom line of the RSS world-view. I believe that Vajpayee's letter to Clinton was drafted not by seasoned officials of the Ministry of External Affairs, but dictated by the unenlightened RSS types working as accountants and office clerks in the U.S. They had obviously got their way in making Vajpayee write this petition-letter to the U.S. President on May 11, thinking that the U.S. would be so pleased by India's implied desire to be a counterweight to China as to take India to its bosom and promote it all the way to permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. One can now see how wrong they were by the way the world treated Vajpayee when he was in the U.N. recently. No world power leader wanted to meet him. For two days, he had no visitors at all! As for Clinton, he simply left New York for Washington as Vajpayee came in and soon thereafter announced the cancellation of his proposed visit to India despite Jaswant Singh's assurance to the contrary. Perhaps the RSS should realise that Harvard is not the U.S., Professor Huntington is not Nostradamus, and Washington is not as dumb as Jhandewalan (the RSS Control Centre).

The second immunising factor is that the Vajpayee Cabinet consists of esoteric anti-China elements who have been weaned for decades by Tibetan expatriates and the Taiwanese anti-Communist League. Their involvement with these anti-China forces has been so deep and multi-dimensional that they cannot disentangle themselves even if the Prime Minister asked them to do so in the national interest. On the contrary, having been weaned by them, the Tibetan expatriates and the Taiwan leaguers are aggressively calling from them for what in business is called "closure", namely delivery on promises made by them. Nothing else can explain the wild, irrelevant and baseless remarks by Defence Minister George Fernandes that were tailor-made and timed to disrupt Sino-Indian relations, or of the Taiwan trotters (last trip: 1995), the Hegde-Jethmalani duo, who in Cabinet meetings whenever possible egg on anti-Chinese posturing by other Ministers. These three Ministers have, of course, the full backing of the RSS Commissar in the Cabinet, namely, Home Minister L. K. Advani, who additionally has the satisfaction of seeing Vajpayee stumble and fumble his way across the globe.

These two immunising factors will ensure that Vajpayee will fail to see the strategic value of Sino-Indian friendship. Having thus been blinded, the Chinese are bound to make countermoves, or simply wait it out for a new Government to come to office. In either case, we are losing valuable time in furtherance of our national interests.

We can, however, mitigate this loss by encouraging, for the time being, people-to-people contacts between the two countries. One way is for Indian business to take active advantage of the Chinese investment opportunities which are vast today and which offer high returns. The other is for the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Vice-Chancellors of universities, and editors and owners of news media organisations, to promote exchanges between equivalent counterparts of the two countries. My visit to China convinces me that this will be fruitful, and will lay the foundation for a quick restoration of relations when the conditions became appropriate in the future. Relying on the Vajpayee Government to undo the damage, or untie the knot, is futile.

A former Union Minister, Janata Party president Dr. Subramanian Swamy is a China scholar.

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