A successful atmosphere-building visit

Published : Jun 10, 2000 00:00 IST

President K.R. Narayanan's State visit to China was highly successful. It helped to re-create an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation and to align current government policy with the positive trend in India-China relations established in December 1988.

PRESIDENT K.R. Narayanan's week-long visit to China between May 28 and June 3, 2000 more than accomplished its purpose - re-creating a friendly atmosphere, underlining the "historical necessity" and great contemporary advantage of developing Sino-Indian amity and cooperation, and helping to overcome the effects of the Vajpayee regime-inflicted setback of May 1998 in bilateral relations. The warmth of the reception accorded to India's head of state by China's President, Jiang Zemin, and other top leaders in Beijing and, on specific instructions from the top, by provincial and city leaders in Dalian and Kunming; the meticulously planned programme that departed from the well-trodden conventional official itinerary; the meaningful avoidance of controversial issues, especially the nuclear issue; the absence of jarring notes on either side; and an agreement to set up an Eminent Persons' Group (EPG) to help develop the bilateral relationship were the highlights of the State visit.

In the course of three days, the Indian President had excellent, insight-sharing meetings with the entire top level of China's political leadership: President Jiang, who is General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and also Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and his official team, which included Vice Premier Qian Qichen and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan; former Prime Minister Li Peng, who is Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and the second ranking party leader; Premier Zhu Rongji, also a top party leader; and two other important party leaders, Li Ruihan, Chairman of the Ninth National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and Vice-President Hu Jintao, the youngest member of the Politburo's Standing Committee.

The meetings covered international, regional and some key bilateral issues. Controversial issues were mostly avoided in keeping with the purpose of a State visit marking fifty years of the establishment of diplomatic relations. President Jiang, taking the high ground, favoured a "strategic perspective" for the bilateral relationship, an approach of "scaling high and looking far". The perspective he set out was this: "From a strategic height, the two countries must continue to work for a constructive partnership of cooperation in the 21st century." President Narayanan responded by presenting a vision of friendship and cooperation between two ancient civilisations, the two most populous countries on earth, as a "historical necessity".

India's head of state, who as Ambassador to China between 1976 and 1978 successfully met the challenge of rebuilding the bilateral relationship, brick by brick, after a time of troubles, had no problem discharging his brief relating to how to go about the boundary issue and also the major problem India faced from Pakistan and cross-border terrorism. On the boundary issue, he pressed for greater speed in completing Stage I of the boundary resolution process, the task of delineating the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that came into existence after the 1962 conflict between the two countries. The LAC alignment is in dispute in several areas. As for accomplishing Stage II, the final resolution of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, no one has any illusion that such a happy outcome is round the corner. As the lawyer-journalist, A.G. Noorani, has persuasively shown in a number of in-depth newspaper articles, the unresolved Sino-Indian boundary issue is a recurrent story of missed opportunities. Creative new approaches are eminently feasible. It is not without significance that Bhutan aside, India is the only country with which China has an unresolved boundary problem.

The long-term question is: are the Indian Government and political India prepared to abandon the singularly unproductive track of pressing for a unilateralist resolution of the Sino-Indian boundary question and to go for a "give and take" approach, as Chinese leaders, notably Premier Zhou Enlai and subsequently Deng Xiaoping, have proposed repeatedly? The great Indian revolutionary thinker and doer, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, posed the key questions fairly in an assessment published in The Hindu of July 23, 1987: "We have been trying, and shall continue to try, to convince the people and the Government of our country that the problem of the border between the two countries has to be resolved through mutual discussions and that, for such discussions to succeed, both sides have to adopt a give and take attitude; neither India nor China can afford the luxury of trying to settle the differences through force of arms... We who had to pay a heavy price for taking the stand we did in 1959-62 have reasons for satisfaction at this change in the Government stand. The question, however, remains: have the Government of India, and those Opposition parties which had taken the same stand as the Government in 1959-62, learnt any lesson from the experience of what happened in those days? Do they concede now that our humiliating experience of 1962 was not due only to the Chinese intransigence, that India too contributed its share? Are they prepared now to adopt a give and take attitude?"

Nobody, not even President Narayanan, can answer the last question confidently. He can only hope that the completion of Stage I, a speeded-up delineation of the LAC, will be "an important achievement". Backed by agreements guaranteeing peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China border areas and effective confidence building measures, LAC delineation - "an interim way of living", in the presidential view - can, conceivably, create objective conditions favourable to a final resolution of the Sino-Indian boundary question. Right now, LAC delineation can be seen to be a necessary, but insufficient condition for such a historic outcome.

The current Chinese government position, clearly articulated by President Jiang, is not essentially different from the Zhou Enlai line or Deng Xiaoping's updated approach, indicated to External Affairs Minister Vajpayee in February 1979. The current stand is that "time and patience" are needed to overcome problems "left over by history", that the two countries should "continue their positive attitudes through mutual understanding and accommodation and seek resolution through negotiations", and that "the two countries should take the common interests of both countries into consideration, look beyond certain disputes and promote the development of bilateral relations." President Narayanan's interesting response to this general proposal was that while "it is true these are problems left over by history, these problems need to be resolved and not left over to history again... this is not a problem that should be bequeathed to future generations." It is another question how this knotty problem left over by history will not be left to history, or to future generations, to resolve.

An area of persistent Chinese official concern, forcefully articulated by President Jiang, is the question of the "splittist" activities of the Dalai Lama and his camp, the "Dalai clique". The presence of the Karmapa in India has added a new element to a problematical picture. The Chinese President frankly recorded the apprehension that "the Dalai clique and other anti-China groups may exploit his presence in India." Expressing his appreciation of India's position on Tibet and of the Government of India's "prudent handling" of l'affaire Karmapa thus far, President Jiang expressed the hope that "India would not permit the Dalai Lama to engage in anti-Chinese activities." In response, President Narayanan reiterated the Government of India's position that Tibet was "an autonomous region of China", that the Dalai Lama was "a religious, not political leader", and that the Karmapa would "not be permitted to indulge in political activities". He added that the Karmapa, like other Tibetans who had come over, had been permitted to stay in India, that no other restrictions had been imposed on him, and that it was "up to him to decide what kind of future he wishes".

In the discussions on bilateral issues, President Narayanan concentrated on the task of giving the India-China relationship a much stronger economic content. He found the Chinese leaders very responsive. Informed sources close to the President made it clear to the accompanying media that the President was extremely impressed by the results of China's economic transformation that he witnessed wherever he went. He was particularly impressed by the fact that the process of economic reform and opening up -- applied in a determined and bold way, with specific Chinese characteristics - extended to all levels of the country, from the level of the top Central leaders through the provincial-, sub-provincial- and local-level political leadership to ordinary people.

According to the same sources, a reflective President formed the clear impression that, going by China's post-1979 experience, "Communism is not dead... Communism has adjusted itself" to the realities of a complex world, just as capitalism did earlier. China, in his considered view, had "adjusted to all the developments in the world-without changing its system", had, however, "broken the old mould... the old straitjacket mode of Communism... absorbed many ideas and methods... and got a new life." One thing, the informed sources added, became very clear to President Narayanan: that "concretely speaking, our relations with a major power can develop on a basis of equality and mutual appreciation only if we show we are developing successfully," that "much will depend on our internal strength and the development of our economy," and that "we have to develop ourselves just as they have managed to develop."

President Narayanan, evidently speaking for the executive government, also proposed a new mechanism for promoting bilateral relations - an Eminent Persons' Group, which would supplement the work of the governments and make recommendations. With President Jiang readily supporting the proposal, the two sides (in the words of a report in China Daily of May 30, 2000) "agreed to set up a forum featuring eminent figures from both sides to promote cooperation and mutual understanding."

During the discussion of international issues, substantial common ground emerged between China and India. Both sides noted the considerable convergence on international issues, including the need for reforming and restructuring the United Nations Security Council so that developing countries would have better representation, the need for opposing "unipolarity" and hegemony in international relations, and the need to move towards true "multipolarity". With traumatic and big changes taking place in the world over the past decade, bilateral equations have changed profoundly for China. Areas of sharp contradiction and tension have emerged in U.S.-China relations, especially on Taiwan, "human rights". NATO expansion and U.S. plans to develop an anti-missile defence system.

Against such a background, the Chinese leaders must have noted with interest and appreciation what President Narayanan said in his speech at the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet for President Clinton on March 21: "We believe, Mr. President, that in the post-Cold War world the non-aligned concept of a pluralistic world order is more relevant than the politics of military blocs and alignments... one remarkable feature of the post-Cold War world is this emergence of a large number of developing nations on the political and economic arena of the world... for us, globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography, and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world. As an African statesman has observed to us, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by one village headman. In this age of democracy, it will be headed by a panchayat. For us the United Nations is the global panchayat, and that is why we want it to be democratised and sustained. Globalisation means that global society should be sustained by its units - the nation, states, groups, families and individuals who have their own inextinguishable identities and unique characteristics. In such a globalised world society, there would be no place for war, for hegemonistic controls or cut-throat competition."

PRESIDENT Narayanan, who since 1976 has travelled quite widely in China, and his broad-based delegation (which included BJP, CPI(M), Shiv Sena and Congress(I) MPs and an ex-MP belonging to the Congress) saw something of the remarkable way China has transformed itself economically over the past two decades. In and around Dalian, a great and rapidly modernising cosmopolitan city, economic and technical development zone and maritime gateway in the northeast, and Kunming, the "city of eternal spring" that is the capital of Yunnan Province in the southwest, they saw different facets of an economy that has, in recent times, grown faster than any other in the world. They also had an opportunity to interact with an influential section of China's academics and intellectuals, notably in Beijing University and in Kunming. The President's meeting with octogenarian Guo Qinglan - the wife of Dwarkanath Kotnis, the legendary Indian doctor who served the Chinese Revolution and died in 1942 of a fatal illness brought on by overwork and exhaustion - was both moving and symbolic of the fighting solidarity forged between the peoples of India and China in a heroic era.

There is a difference between creating an atmosphere - a mental or moral environment, a pervading tone and mood, with characteristic associations and effects - and 'atmospherics,' a form of contrived superficiality apparent in the externals surrounding an event, and, characteristically, some of the accompanying media coverage missed the difference. High-ranking Indian officials and accompanying political leaders remarked admiringly on the "personal chemistry" demonstrated between China's top leaders and a statesman esteemed as an "old friend of China." However, in the perception of the Indian President, a veteran China specialist who takes the long view, the visit was to be judged not through the lens of any special attitude shown to an individual, but in terms of taking high-level exchanges forward and also making a symbolic statement about the bilateral and international value of good neighbourliness and active cooperation between India and China.

A section of Beijing's small Indian community greet their President at Beijing Capital Airport on May 28.

Further, the difference, in likely agenda and terms, between a State visit by a non-executive head of state and an official visit by an executive head of government or even by an External Affairs Minister is a real difference and must not be missed. It bears recall that much of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's effort during his June 1999 visit to China was concentrated on undoing the effects of a major political blunder by his government - the public signalling of an unfriendly attitude by Defence Minister George Fernandes during the run-up to Pokhran-II and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's incredibly ham-handed letter of May 11, 1998 to the U.S. President, Bill Clinton (which was promptly leaked to The New York Times by someone in the White House). All in a month's demolition work, Fernandes publicly characterised China as "potential threat No. 1" and levelled false charges accusing it of being the "mother" of Ghauri, Pakistan's Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, and of intruding into Indian territory to build a helipad in Arunachal Pradesh. As though this were not enough, Vajpayee's official letter to Clinton targeted China, along with Pakistan, as the national security-related reason for Pokhran-II and nuclear weaponisation by India. These high-level statements had a very damaging impact on India-China relations.

It is now clear that had the Vajpayee government not scored this own goal, the bilateral relationship would not have suffered the sharp setback it did in mid-1998. The problematical implications of the nuclear explosions for regional relations and the effect of the political follow-up, the akratic targeting of China in order to find a rationalisation for the nuclear adventure, are related, but two quite independent issues. As Zhu Bangzao, the then-Foreign Ministry spokesman, put it to me in Beijing in August 1998: "I believe it is a wrong option for India to go nuclear... It is a greater mistake for India to accuse China and to use it as a pretext to conduct nuclear tests. In fact, on May 11, when India conducted its first tests, China exercised restraint in expressing its position. At quite a late point of time, we expressed our regret... On May 13, after India conducted its second round of nuclear tests and the Prime Minister had sent a letter to President Clinton alleging that China posed a threat, China issued a... strongly worded statement. Why? We didn't understand why India blamed China... it is very difficult for us to understand how we pose a threat to India. When we are making tremendous efforts to improve relations." Drawing on an old Chinese saying, "It takes the one who ties the knot to untie it," he concluded: "India must offer an explanation of what it has done. Secondly, Indian leaders should stop their accusations against China. Thirdly, the Indian Government should show its sincerity through deeds."

Fortunately, it did not take the two countries long to recover from this sharp setback. With Jaswant Singh visiting China to make amends, that is, more or less apologise to the Chinese leaders, for the unfriendly statements, the relationship was brought back on track. The Vajpayee government, and especially its External Affairs Minister, deserve some credit for correcting course reasonably early. While a full year was lost in bringing the relationship back to normal, the setback can be turned to advantage provided Indian political leaders draw the correct lessons from the negative experience.

Had Vajpayee visited China in mid-2000, the nuclear issue would, in all likelihood, have figured in the bilateral agenda in some way, although almost certainly not as a dispute. We can only speculate on how an exchange of views between the Indian Prime Minister and President Jiang or Prime Minister Zhu Rongji on the regional and wider implications of India's and Pakistan's nuclear weaponisation might have proceeded. But even allowing for this difference-in-terms between a presidential and prime ministerial visit, it can be plausibly hypothesised (as high-ranking Indian officials as well as a former Chinese Ambassador to India and leading Track II participant, Cheng Ruisheng, did) that "the nuclear issue has been delinked from the bilateral relationship" and this is a "good sign" for the emerging future. However, as if to throw some cold water on official and media overinterpretation, a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official clarified, in response to the inevitable question from an Indian journalist, that not discussing the nuclear issue with President Narayanan did not mean that China had changed its stand. This remained "consistent" and supportive of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1172 (in essence, the resolution, adopted unanimously on June 6, 1998, calls on both India and Pakistan to undo nuclear weaponisation and accede to the unequal global nuclear bargain).

AT a difficult moment in India's relations with China, after the Vajpayee government had scored its own goal, President Narayanan sent out (in response to a specific question) a positive message in a conversation with me broadcast by Doordarshan and All India Radio: "I feel that these problems are temporary. These problems are the result of misunderstanding of India and Indian objectives in this region. There has been no change in India's need for living in harmony and in cooperation with all our neighbours, including Pakistan and of course our big neighbour China, and others. This is India's need, if I may say so, and India's policy also has been in that direction. And I feel that there is mutuality of interest between India and China in being friends, cooperating with each other fully. Of course, there are problems between us and these problems can be solved and we have been attempting to solve it, both countries, and that process will, I think, go on. Even with Pakistan, I don't despair, in regard to our friendly relations." ("Shri K.R. Narayanan in conversation with N. Ram on Doordarshan and All India Radio, August 14, 1998," transcript published by the Rashtrapati Bhavan.) The same presidential message was sent out, in word and deed, on other occasions in that troubled year. In doing this deftly without exceeding his constitutional role, the President was acting in the country's long-term interest and in line with the positive trend of evolution of national policy on China that he inaugurated as Ambassador (see box on the post-1976 trend).

No one can characterise K.R. Narayanan as a soft touch on the China issue - or, for that matter, on strategic issues that matter to the Sino-Indian relationship. His flanks happen to be well protected. As Director of the China desk in the Foreign Office, he cut his teeth in policy formulation at a difficult time in an earlier era. As Ambassador to China between 1976-78, he did not resort to flamboyance or even 'atmospherics.' It is well known in strategic affairs circles that he has long - in fact, since October 1964 when China became a nuclear weapon state - favoured India's nuclear weaponisation. He has publicly advocated the legitimacy and value of India's "minimum credible nuclear deterrent."

"In India-China relations," remarked the President in an interaction in Kunming with scholars from the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, "I have the impression that we have reached the stage of criticality. From now on, it is bound to increase in intensity and speed." Informed sources close to the President explained that by "the stage of criticality", he meant that "the time of preparation" was over, that it was "time for action," and that "objective conditions were favourable" for the resolution of all bilateral problems.

It must be a matter of national political satisfaction that at least as far as China is concerned, this non-executive President's vision and approach have become the Government of India's line - that, at the very least, he has been able to help current government policy align with the trend line that was established in December 1988, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made his breakthrough visit to China.

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