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The Rediff Special

The Great Leap Backward

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Say 'By George!' in Beijing, and the odds are that it will turn Indian diplomatic circles red with embarrassment. And for obvious reasons. When a decade's hard work was about to yield dividends and Sino-Indian relations showed signs of thawing, the defence minister preferred to question China's intentions. And all the good work done over a decade came unstuck.

In the winter of 1996, the Pakistan ambassador to Beijing was forced to take an unusual step. He had to write an article comparing Sino-Indian and Sino-Pak relations. His contention: Thawing of Sino-Indian relations would in no way affect Sino-Pak relations. What prompted him to write this article was a comment made by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Clarifying the Chinese stand on the Kashmir issue, Jiang said it was a bilateral matter that Pakistan and India needed to sort out between themselves.

It sparked a furore in Pakistan while Indian diplomatic circles stood up in glee. For it was the first time that no less a person that Jiang had said that China had chosen to shift its stand on Kashmir. The diplomats read in it a clear signal from Beijing that after a very long winter in Sino-Indian relations, the time had come for it to thaw. Pakistanis used to counting the Chinese as comrades-in-arms could not stomach it and it showed in the furore that followed Jiang's comment. The Pak ambassador to China had to intervene and publicly clarify the situation to the citizens of Pakistan. But by then, it was party time at the Indian high commission in Beijing.

One-and-a-half years later, the scene is back to square one. While Pak diplomats are making merry, Indian diplomats are busy responding to summons from the Chinese foreign office. And it was all triggered by none other than our irrepressible George.

Fernandes has always been a China-basher. Even after taking over the portfolio of the sensitive defence ministry, he has not moderated his tone. The defence minister has been airing his views on China at every single opportunity, and capped his performance at a function celebrating the 102nd birth anniversary of V K Krishna Menon last month. There, the Indian defence minister chose to lambaste China, and those advocating more warmth in Sino-Indian relations, in no uncertain terms.

Fernandes is reported to have told the gathering that India had forgotten the warnings sounded by leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia and Sardar Patel in the late Fifties against China. He didn't stop there. He said China had taken the Coco Islands from Myanmar to set up an elaborate state-of-the-art surveillance system for keeping an eye over India. He provided more examples as proof, saying, that such statements as Jiang's notwithstanding, the Chinese are still belligerent towards India.

He said the Myanmarese army was being trained by the Chinese to use it against India. The entire northern border of India stood threatened as it was rimmed either by the Chinese army or their stooges, and along the Tibetan border, the airport facilities had been expanded to provide greater striking power to the Chinese Air Force. It would have been mercy yet if he were to stop there. But he did not. In his inimitable style he found in it a rationale to include nuclear armaments in the national defence agenda.

As the defence minister, when Fernandes first bared his fangs against China, he hadn't explicitly mentioned it as India's Enemy numero uno. In response, the Chinese foreign office called in the Indian deputy envoy to air its displeasure. Not only that, it also desisted from leaking the news to the domestic press. The foreign press was told about it, though. To diplomatic circles, it had loads of explicit meaning. The important among them being: the Chinese government did not want to play up the incident as it might provide a major road-block to the ongoing efforts of the normalisation of bilateral relations.

Yet China could not just let the comment pass. So they called in the deputy envoy, not the ambassador, and at the same time preferred to keep Chinese citizens in the dark while letting the world, and most importantly, Indian citizens know that they are not taking too kindly to such irresponsible comments.

And it happened as we landed in China. We witnessed how the game unfolded and how India was letting slip a golden opportunity of taking its relations with China from the nadir to a peak.

On May 13, the Krishna Menon birth anniversary speech was reported. It was apparent that along with finding a justification for his personal anti-China stand, Fernandes had also managed to butcher much of what had been achieved in improving Sino-Indian relations since 1988. The Chinese lost no time in making this a reality. This time the foreign office called in the Indian ambassador. And the news, unlike the first, got reported in the Chinese press.

Despite this being a unique phenomenon in a decade's time, our diplomats are not peeved about it. But what they find galling is their total ignorance of the cause that prompted the defence minister to make such statements. It has come to such a pass that our ambassador to China, Vijay Nambiar, has sought permission to come to Delhi. The reason: to know what prompted George Fernandes to set the Yangtse on fire. In Beijing, there was no way that we could evade the blaze.

The Chinese are indeed hurt. They are angry as well. Chinese foreign office spokesperson Zhu Bangzao didn't mince his words while talking to us. He said, "This (Fernandes' comments) will definitely cast a shadow over Sino-Indian relations. These remarks are baseless and irresponsible. China is a responsible, principled and credible country." The Chinese are not known to articulate their anger. If one takes into account the fact that this was stated by a Chinese diplomat, the Indian side has reasons to worry.

And the spokesperson didn't stop there. When we tried to convince him that what George had said did not necessarily reflect the Government of India's viewpoint, pat came his reply. "Had he said that once there could perhaps be an understandable point in your argument. But it is hard to accept when he keeps repeating the same view." He added that the facts speak for themselves. India not only should desist from suspecting China's intentions, it should also desist from creating artificial barriers in the way of normalising bilateral relations. He said, "It would have been better if he had not made this comment."

Diplomatic circles in Beijing nod in agreement. They say when the Chinese say something technically they are always correct. And what they had variously said by implications is also quite tenable. They think that while the rest of the world has decided to bury the Cold War hatchet, India is still shuddering from its spectre.

Whatever jitters that are visible from the Indian side in bilateral relations are all Cold war syndromes that politicians suffer from. In essence, some important Indian politicians' attitude is dubbed as that of a dinosaur in the current scenario. Obviously, they are referring to George's analysis of the Nineties situation in the perspective of the Fifties.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

The Great Leap Backward, continued

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