If, instead of greeting each other with the usual handshake, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, had hugged and kissed each other the way Leonid Brezhnev used to greet his east European counterparts, it is very likely that much of the criticism about the prime minister’s visit to China last month would have been muted. Indians are so used to signals from the Chinese leadership ever since the prolonged handshake between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988, that they have regrettably come to attach greater importance to gestures than to substance in Sino-Indian relations. Actually, the absence of signals similar to the Rajiv-Deng handshake during Vajpayee’s visit to China is itself a signal that the prime minister’s trip has been more substantive than what its critics are willing to acknowledge.
Gestures like the one from the Chinese leadership in a setting like the Great Hall of the People 15 years ago are useful while breaking the ice in Beijing. The normal encounter between Vajpayee and Wen is an indication that the two countries have travelled quite a bit along the road to a rapprochement since Rajiv Gandhi went to Beijing. It is no longer necessary for the Chinese to convey messages by being inscrutable in their dealings with India. Instead, they engage in normal state-to-state business upfront.
India’s relations with China are determined by a complex amalgam of history, geography, economics and the arithmetic of international power play. Not so with any other country. Neither history nor geography are relevant to India’s ties with the United States of America, only power politics and economics. With Pakistan, history and geography are important, but not international relations and economics — at least not for now. History and a strategic partnership matter in New Delhi’s relations with Russia. Therefore, Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing last month was not the product of any whim. The prime minister did not fly into Beijing looking for a photo opportunity, which would go down well back home.
It was preceded by the most intense, threadbare debates in South Block which have only one parallel in recent times in terms of preparation: Jaswant Singh’s meetings when he was deputy chairman of the planning commission and later external affairs minister with Strobe Talbott, who was Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state following the 1998 nuclear tests. So, when Vajpayee proposed the name of Brajesh Mishra, his principal secretary and national security adviser, as India’s special representative to negotiate the border dispute with China, what was uppermost in the prime minister’s mind in Beijing was a meeting 34 years ago between Mishra and Indira Gandhi.
As Mishra prepared to leave for Beijing as India’s charge d’affaires in 1969, he called on Indira Gandhi for the customary meeting which ambassadors-designate have with the prime minister. “I am in a box so far as relations with China are concerned”, Indira Gandhi told Mishra, “I want us to get out of that box”. He went to Beijing and as charge d’affaires tried to carry out his mandate of improving relations with China. But he was hamstrung by the Chinese unwillingness to move forward.
For a considerable period of time, Mishra could not even get any meeting at the political level with the Chinese. Then came May Day in 1970 and Mao Zedong stopped to greet Mishra, smile at him and warmly shake his hand in a gesture that was a signal, according to the folklore of Sinologists, who interpreted every movement of every nerve on Mao’s face in those days. This incident took place on the ramparts of Tiananmen, where heads of diplomatic missions had gathered to watch the May Day ceremonies.
According to Mishra’s account of the meeting, Mao not only asked the Indian envoy to convey his greetings to Indira Gandhi and the president, V.V. Giri, but rhetorically asked Mishra why “we” (India and China) were quarrelling the way they were then! Shortly thereafter, Zhou Enlai met Mishra at a diplomatic reception and verbalized what Mao was trying to communicate through his famous gestures. Encouraged by all this, Mishra travelled to New Delhi for consultations during which Indira Gandhi reiterated her mandate to Mishra to pursue an improvement in relations with Beijing.
The events in 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, set back those efforts while Lin Biao’s plot against Mao, followed by the flight to his doom, upset the equations in China’s domestic politics and changed China’s priorities. K.P.S. Menon — son of the senior K.P.S. Menon, who was India’s first ambassador to China and foreign secretary from 1948-53 — was India’s envoy in Beijing when Rajiv Gandhi visited China. He is on record that Rajiv proposed to the Chinese a ministerial adjunct to the joint working group of officials on the border question. The Chinese response was swift and negative. What Rajiv proposed then was similar to what Vajpayee suggested in Beijing last month, with Mishra as his special representative. This time the Chinese readily accepted the proposal and named Dai Bingguo, the senior-most vice-minister in the Chinese foreign ministry, as Mishra’s counterpart.
During Rajiv’s visit, the Chinese agreed on a JWG because that was literally what they wanted: a group of officials from both sides working jointly on the border issue instead of the earlier practice of two teams conducting negotiations like rivals if not enemies. The Chinese did not want ministerial intervention until sufficient progress had been made in bilateral relations, creating greater confidence between the two sides.
Those who criticize Vajpayee’s visit for its alleged lack of progress on Sikkim and other similar subjects fail to understand that there is a method in what China tries to do in its relations with the outside world. Indians have to accept that if they are looking for a stable relationship with the Chinese. Just as there is method in China’s dealings with the outside world, it has come to be accepted that there is a pattern to leadership change in China. It now takes place about every 10 years. By visiting China last month, Vajpayee became one of the first foreign leaders to meet the new Chinese leadership made up of Wen, president Hu Jintao and others who represent a generational change.
At one meeting in South Block, during the days when the SARS contagion had raised question marks about Vajpayee’s trip, it was forcefully put across that the new leadership in Beijing ought to endure for a decade and that if India engaged them early enough at the highest level, they would have a full 10 years to work on changing the gamut of Sino-Indian ties.
On Sikkim, India had two options. One was to approach the Chinese frontally during the talks preparatory to the visit and seek a full acceptance of Indian claims on the state. It had been tried once before, nearly a decade ago. The Chinese had then come back, demanding that, in return, India should accept China’s historical claims on Tibet. That was not acceptable to New Delhi then, nor is it acceptable now. The alternative was to gradually get China to recognize the Indian position using border trade as a mechanism. Contrary to criticism that China has not gone far enough on Sikkim, a careful reading of the memorandum on expanding border trade, signed during Vajpayee’s visit, designates Changgu in Sikkim as the venue for “border” trade market.
Implicit in this is that trade is between two “borders”. In 1991, India and China signed a memorandum on the resumption of border trade. The following year, they signed a protocol on entry and exit procedures for such trade. Both the memorandum and the protocol will apply to border trade with Sikkim — which means that the border between India and China in Sikkim will be no different from the Sino-Indian border elsewhere.
Besides, the Chinese have accepted, through the memorandum signed last month, that “entry and exit of persons, means of transport and commodities engaged in border trade” in Sikkim will be through the Nathu-La Pass. According to internationally accepted cartographic standards, a “Pass” is only at an international border. Therefore, progress on Sikkim from India’s point of view has been much more during Vajpayee’s visit than what its critics are honest enough to concede. A perusal of historical records shows that India has conceded nothing on Tibet during Vajpayee’s trip, contrary to the superficial impression created in the public mind.
In the archives in South Block, there are four documents which outline India’s position on Tibet. Of these, three were jointly agreed between India and China in 1954, 1988 and 1991 respectively. The fourth was a note sent by South Block to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in 1958. The joint declaration signed by Vajpayee and Wen in Beijing last month is fully consistent with India’s stand on Tibet all along, as outlined in these four historical documents.
It said “the Indian side recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position and reiterates that it is firmly opposed to any attempt and action aimed at splitting China and bringing about independence of Tibet”.
Tibet got its autonomy in 1965, leading to the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is smaller than Tibet, the historical homeland of the Tibetan people. The People’s Republic of China was created in 1949. All that Vajpayee agreed in Beijing is that the “Tibet Autonomous Region” is part of the “People’s Republic of China”. If he had said that Tibet is part of China, he would have done the dalai lama in and fundamentally changed the Indian position which does not recognize China’s disputed claims on Tibet as a whole. That was what the Chinese wanted in return for a full and open acknowledgment of Sikkim as an inalienable part of India. Vajpayee and Wen could have quarrelled about it in public, recording their disagreements during the visit.
Was that the purpose of the first visit by an Indian prime minister to China in a decade' It would have achieved nothing. Instead, the two sides opted for a decent, diplomatic way out of their disagreements. That, after all, is what summits are about. There is no doubt that, because Vajpayee went to Beijing last month, disagreements between India and China on these scores will be sorted out before the next round of leadership-change in Beijing in the next decade, if India follows up on the decisions reached in Beijing. That is the way the Chinese do things.