New Delhi, Jan. 29: Defence minister George Fernandes today used the platform of a conference on Asian security and China to dispel his ‘China-baiter’ image, make overtures to Beijing, and come as close to being contrite as only he can. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the defence minister are slated to visit China later in the year.
Fernandes referred to the 1962 conflict with China as a “clash” and not a “war” that “we need neither ignore...nor be captive to (this) experience”.
At the peak of the hostilities, when the establishment in New Delhi feared that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could overrun the town of Tezpur, the then Prime Minister, Nehru, said his “heart goes out” to the people of Assam. The 1962 border war propelled the Indian defence establishment to militarise more aggressively than it had in the past and factor in threat perceptions from not only Pakistan but also China. In the jargon of the defence establishment, even the limited conflict of 1999 in Kargil is referred to as “war”.
What is more, Fernandes also said his anti-China line was reflective of pressures at work in Indian democracy and sought to excuse himself for being particularly touchy about China’s aspirations as the biggest Asian power. Two years ago, he said a long-range missile test was carried out by India with not only Pakistan but also China in mind.
To the audience of experts from strategic studies, Fernandes’ stand on China would surely qualify as a “political pirouette”, ahead of his own — and the Prime Minister’s — visit to China. One cynical academic actually muttered under his breath: “We’ve seen George Fernandes do a lot of political somersaults, swinging from one extremity in politics to another. Today we’ve just been witness to another one.”
Speaking of himself in the third person, the defence minister said: “George Fernandes has often been castigated and portrayed as a ‘China-baiter’ — but erroneously.” Among his listeners were Sinologists, defence and diplomatic analysts and academics from China, Taiwan, Central Asia and18 other countries — guests of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.
Fernandes said he was the president of the institute’s governing body and was speaking in that capacity. The IDSA is a think-tank of the defence ministry. Just before taking the podium, Fernandes sought out Fang Jinying, a young professor of international relations from an institute in Beijing and led her by the hand to the dais.
Fernandes’ speech was the climax of the three-day conference and the audience hung on to his every word, trying not to miss a single nuance. Fernandes was obliging with an explanation on why he thought he had been mistaken for a “China-baiter”.
“Many of my observations about China have been reflective of the democratic process that we have in India. I would urge our Chinese friends to note this trait of the Indiana animal. As a parliamentarian, I am elected by the people and when I have been invited to join the Cabinet, my views and positions are derived from this democratic and parliamentary framework. If I have drawn attention to the anxieties generated due to some actions or words of China, it is a reflection of the perceptions of the polity. And as the defence minister, if I have referred to the asymmetry between India and China on the military front, it is to ensure that we in India acquire what we deem appropriate to assuage our security concerns. On certain issues, I have a personal conviction, and like some members of the Long March, I am 70 plus in age and we may be too old to radically change!”
Fernandes was reading from a written speech that was carefully prepared. He did not utter a word outside the script.
The defence minister had fulsome praise for China’s economic and technological prowess. He practically acknowledged that China was the larger power and made a case for it to be more benign towards India without being overbearing or hegemonic. In the South Asian context, he pointed out, India as the largest power was expected to be the same.
“...Whenever India has had to deal with its immediate neighbours, we have always been told that the existential reality is that India is the larger and bigger power. The corollary is that hence a special responsibility devolves upon New Delhi to assuage the concerns of its neighbours and accommodate their interests, even while respecting their sensitivities. This is a valid proposition and political scientists will recognise the Gramscian flavour embedded here. May I suggest that in dealing with China, the matrix for India is inverted. China’s self-image is that of the ‘regional heavy-weight’. This is not my phrase but derived from an official Chinese news agency. This is an existential reality. But then as the bigger power we expect that China will also discharge its responsibility and accommodate our interests, and reciprocate the spirit in which we are conscious of Beijing’s sensitivity on certain issues,” he said.
But even this soft tone could not restrain him from being critical of China for its proximity to Pakistan. “...There is a perception here in India and among other informed external interlocutors, that some actions ascribed to China, are not in conformity with the degree of responsibility and rectitude that is associated with a major power. China has perhaps encouraged or endorsed a revisionist agenda on the Indian periphery and this causes deep anxiety — more so when this heightens state-sponsored terrorism.” Not once in his speech did Fernandes mention Pakistan.