In a departure from usual protocol, the defence minister, George Fernandes, has announced that Atal Bihari Vajpayee will visit China next month. Vajpayee’s delayed visit during these troubled times of the severe acute respiratory syndrome will undoubtedly be appreciated by the Chinese who have had to see the cancellation of several travel plans including that of the United States of America vice-president, Dick Cheney, and of the Singapore prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.
Vajpayee’s will be the fourth prime ministerial visit in the last 50 years. Jawaharlal Nehru received a very warm welcome in October 1954 and the detailed record of his wide-ranging discussions with Mao and Zhou Enlai contained in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (Second Series, Volume 27) makes fascinating reading even today. After the long chill following the 1962 war, it was Indira Gandhi who began the process of normalization of bilateral relations on January 1, 1969 by a statement that “the Indian government would be prepared to try for ways of solving conflicts with China through talks that are not based on any pre-conditions”.
However, she was unable to go the full distance because of some of her foreign policy advisors who kept reminding her of Chinese “perfidy” in 1962 that killed her father and of some others who were Sovietphiles. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit of December 1988 transformed the bilateral relationship. P.V. Narasimha Rao who, during the tenure of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, did all he could to slow down the rapprochement, was a changed man when he became prime minister and visited China in 1993. It was under his leadership that the landmark “Agreement on the maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” was signed in Beijing in September 1993. This was followed up by another historic “Agreement on confidence-building measures in the military field along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas” that was signed in November 1996.
Vajpayee himself first went to China as the external affairs minister in February 1979 and met with Deng Xiaoping himself. This Vajpayee visit was indeed a breakthrough in a number of areas although it was to be overshadowed by China’s attack on Vietnam that led him to cut short his visit. Vajpayee would undoubtedly be accompanied by his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra. There is some history here too. Mishra was the Indian charge d’ affaires in Beijing when on May 1, 1970 Mao, perhaps in response to Indira Gandhi’s earlier statement, turned to him at the podium of Tiananmen Square and said “India is a great country and the Indian people are a great people. Chinese and Indian people ought to live as friends, they cannot always quarrel.”
Vajpayee’s visit is taking place when bilateral trade is galloping and Indian business has developed a great deal of self-confidence vis-à-vis China. Corporate morale was low five years back but today the picture is completely different. Vajpayee will do well to take a strong business delegation with him. This would also give an impetus to the first-ever “Made in India” show that the Confederation of Engineering Industry is organizing in October 2003 in Beijing. While our thrust into China must be our own, there is some mileage to be had by using Singapore as a bridgehead as well. This would also, in some ways, acknowledge Goh Chok Tong’s sustained advocacy of India in spite of the bad experience of Singapore Airlines in this country.
The Chinese would undoubtedly have taken note of Vajpayee’s statement in Parliament on May 8 to the effect that while Pakistan’s nuclear programme is India-centric, India’s nuclear programme is based on threats from other countries in the region. There is nothing new in this formulation. But it is clearly time to do something about it.
Our approach to nuclear issues has been global. While this is laudable, we must explore regional options as well. A trilateral confidence-building non-proliferation initiative involving India, China and Pakistan is in our interest. The Treaty of Tlatelolco that establishes a nuclear-free South America suggests itself as a model although it was championed by two nuclear-capable powers — Brazil and Argentina — and not between two nuclear weapons states. Even so, there is an urgent imperative for some “out of the box thinking” to deal with the consequences of nuclearization of our region.
Such an initiative could well be kickstarted through a non-official Track II that has yielded such good results on the Indo-American front. There are other regional bodies like the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization that are of great interest to India. Energy linkages with the Tarim Basin Asia could usefully be explored in an Eurasian framework. The “Kunming Initiative” involving India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, that envisages land connectivity, trade and mutual investments is particularly significant for our Northeast.
Although the Indo-US economic relationship is not as dynamic and spectacular like the Sino-US economic relationship, Indo-US military ties have grown impressively in the last two years with many high-level exchanges of defence officers, joint army, air force and navy exercises, cooperation in training and procurement. The Chinese have watched warily. The challenge for us is to convey in as clear a fashion that deepening military collaboration with the US is not directed against China in any way even if Washington sees the rise of Chinese power as one of its three most crucial strategic concerns, next only to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Vajpayee will also be going to Beijing at an unusual moment of time when there is, in the words of C.V. Ranganathan, India’s former envoy to China and who is still among our foremost scholars on that country, “a parallelism or even coincidence of Chinese and American interests vis-à-vis the subcontinent”. These include the promotion of an India-Pakistan dialogue, curbing proliferation of nuclear weapons, destroying terrorist networks and support for Pakistan’s economic development as a modern, secular nation.
This opens up new opportunities for us to try and manoeuvre an increased understanding of India’s positions in relation to Pakistan with Chinese interlocutors. China’s policy in the subcontinent has become more nuanced, nuclear and missile sales to Pakistan notwithstanding. China will not abandon Pakistan nor will the US — indeed, a constructive US-China-Pakistan triangle could well be in our interest.
That apart, our position on Pakistan would get a great boost in China if we are seen to be expediting movement leading to mutual agreement on the line of actual control along the Sino-Indian border. In a recent seminar organized in the capital by two think tanks, Ranganathan identified how more imaginative use could be made of the existing 1993 and 1996 agreements to arrive at a delineation of the line of actual control without prejudice to the positions of the two sides on the contentious boundary question.
A new economic China is manifest. But a new political China is also emerging. SARS will undoubtedly trigger a new culture of transparency and openness. Alas, most Indians are trapped in the old mindset and are unable to see the profound implications of the transitions that have taken place across the Himalayas.