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June 21, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Major General (Retd) Ashok K Mehta

Putting the past behind

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's two-day journey to Beijing from June 15 to 17 was meant for mending fences with China. This on-and-off exercise was started first by the present Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979 when he was the foreign minister. Singh told the Chinese that he had been asked by Vajpayee to remind them of this.

India has wasted 27 years in trying to resolve the border dispute and other differences. Thanks to Singh's visit, both sides are now willing and able to address their differences purposefully and provide the much-needed nudge to the Joint Working Group on the border question.

Relations between the two countries descended to their lowest after the 1962 war, last year following India's nuclear tests and India calling China its main threat and the reason for the nuclear tests. The Chinese were incensed over this name-calling and not as upset about the actual conduct of nuclear tests.

Much of the acrimony was put aside during the Singh visit when both sides agreed not to regard each other as a threat. China managed to extract from India a clear articulation that it was not a threat. In fact, according to an official Chinese report, it had made this as a precondition for normalisation of relations. But Singh played down this.

Even before India's word on the prickly threat question was given to China, Indian leaders including the much-maligned Defence Minister George Fernandes had begun correcting the original mistake of singling out China for the nuclear tests.

In a sense India has been forced to eat its words and make yet another concession to China. This, however, is not a big price for putting back on track the normalisation process which was given an impetus by the Treaties of Peace and Tranquillity (1993) and Confidence Building Measures, 1996.

Ministry of Defence (annual report 1998-99) had reported that 'China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme and the transfer of missiles and nuclear technology to Pakistan affect the security situation in South Asia. India does not regard China as an adversary but as a great neighbour... ' The threat perception is missing.

According to the Chinese, India's nuclear tests and citing them as the reason for the tests had put a knot in Sino-Indian relations. When Singh had met his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan in Manila last year on the sidelines of the Asian Regional Forum he had offered to ''untie the knot'' and quipped: "but two hands are required for this."

Singh's visit to China has therefore to be seen in the light of restoring relations to the pre-May 1998 era in essentially a bilateral framework and not in the aftermath of the Kargil war or the Sartaj Aziz visit to China.

The knot was officially untied on June 15 when the two foreign ministers met for an extended session for a comprehensive dialogue. At this level such a visit took place after a gap of eight years. Tang is an experienced India hand.

As vice foreign minister, he led the sixth to tenth rounds of the JWG and also played a key role in the 1996 agreement on CBMs. He told Jaswant Singh that his visit was an important step in building Sino-Indian relations for which the Chinese leadership cares.

The outcome of the talks has led to agreements on a whole range of issues:

*Both India and China will celebrate next year as the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

*The status and nature of future visits at various levels is to be enhanced.

*Further impetus to be given to the JWG including suitable mechanism to boost and implement CBMs.

*Economic and trade relations are also to be enhanced as the two billion dollar two-way figure on trade is considered very inadequate.

*The Chinese have agreed to give clarification on the Line of Control on the border.

*The Chinese have suggested starting a security dialogue at the appropriate level. For this, both sides have agreed to set up a military-cum-diplomatic group.

Clearly the issues which stand out in this package of agreements are the clarification of the LoC, security dialogue and the putting aside of threats. The LoC clarification will start in the least controversial sector --the central sector.

As for the security dialogue, this would appear to be a breakthrough and an acceptance by China to discuss each other's security concerns including the nuclear question. It is quite likely that this dialogue may get upgraded to a strategic dialogue in the future.

India must take this opportunity to tell the Chinese clearly that its nuclear and missile assistance programme with Pakistan is of grave concern to India. China cannot eat the cake and have it too.

In the post-Kosovo world, the Chinese are loudly attacking hegemony and unilateralism, the contemporary political code for the United States of America. They wish to have international relations governed by multi-lateralism.

These views were endorsed by Singh who added panchsheel, the five principles for peaceful coexistence and suggested that these become the code of conduct for international relations. But he warned against reinventing the Cold War.

Public opinion in China is stridently anti-US following what the Chinese believe was the pre-meditated bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. Public anger is incredibly high and has been effectively orchestrated.

The Kargil issue came up during the discussions. Tang shared the Chinese official position on this with Singh and gave him the Sartaj Aziz version of the Kargil flare up. The Chinese have adopted a position of studied neutrality saying it is a historical problem which should be resolved through dialogue and discussion starting with de-escalation.

But there is no doubt that China regards Pakistan as a comprehensive and all-weather friend and brother. Singh was quick to point out to reporters that he had come to Beijing mainly to sort out Sino-Indian relations and not the Kargil war.

Singh summed up his visit saying that relations are back on track and "both have turned over a new leaf."

General Ashok K Mehta

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