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January 25, 2001
High-level visits between India and China are always high on rhetoric and low on substance, with such tours doing little to check the underlying strategic rivalry and tensions that have characterised relations between the world's most populous nations for the past half-century.
Several Chinese leaders have visited New Delhi since the Communists came to power in Beijing in 1949 and soon thereafter gobbled up the historical buffer with India, Tibet. If such visits could banish bilateral problems, China would not have attacked India in 1962, a war that led to a 14-year freeze in relations.
Li Peng's just-completed India tour was typical, with much hype and no tangible result. But this visit by a member of China's ruling triumvirate had one important difference: He returned home on a galling note, with India testing its latest weapon of deterrence against China, the Agni 2 ballistic missile, while he was still on Indian soil.
India has played host to Li at the wrong time. When no major foreign dignitary was willing to shake Li's hands bloodied in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, India feted him in 1991 and carried out a brutal police assault on Tibetan demonstrators. Li was again welcomed in New Delhi this month at the very time the newly-revealed Tiananmen Papers bore out his instigator-style role in the killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student-led protestors.
Li, however, may now regret his latest visit for it came handy to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to avenge two Chinese affronts. In 1979 when Vajpayee was in Beijing as foreign minister, China invaded Vietnam, forcing him to cut short his official visit. Then in 1992 the Chinese carried out their most powerful-ever nuclear test during a State visit by then President R Venkataraman.
Vajpayee now has taken his sweet revenge, visiting Vietnam as Li arrived in India and testing the Agni 2 missile while the visitor was still on Indian soil.
To have a 30-minute minute with Vajpayee, Li had to cool his heels in the Indian capital over a full weekend. No sooner had Li began a tour of southern India than Beijing, along with a number of other nations, received advance notification from India that it was testing a long-range missile.
The missile, which can reach Shanghai if fired from India's northeastern corner, was successfully launched over the Bay of Bengal 130 minutes before Li's scheduled departure.
If India wanted, it could have waited for Li's flight to take off for Beijing before firing the missile. But obviously it wanted to convey a message -- that despite China's fast-expanding capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, India is determined to build a credible minimal nuclear deterrent.
Missiles are at the centre of China's ambitious military modernisation. In the largest expansion of missile capabilities by any country, Beijing has greatly expanded its production infrastructure and deployed hundreds of new medium-range missiles since the mid-1990s, even as it continues work on a new generation of strategic, or intercontinental-range, missiles.
China cannot miss the parallel between its 1992 nuclear detonation and the latest Agni 2 test: Both took place when the visitor had completed official meetings in the capital and was touring another city on the last leg of his visit.
What is likely to sting Beijing the most, however, is that India's action symbolizes its growing confidence in relation to China.
For long, Beijing had taken it for granted that India will continue to pursue a feckless foreign policy toward it. The extended Chinese nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan was designed to lock New Delhi in a low-level deterrent relationship with Islamabad, with the flow of assistance calibrated to match every Indian advance and keep India boxed in the subcontinent. With India seeking to impose no retaliatory costs, the dictators in Beijing concluded that their containment strategy was working, with the Indians tied down subcontinentally and rendered too meek to break out of the strategic straitjacket.
Beijing's first shock came in 1998 when in a 48-hour period India tested thermonuclear and boosted-fission warheads of relevance mainly against China. By firing a missile up Li's tail, India has delivered a second shock.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, is a regular contributor to rediff.com
Design: Dominic Xavier
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