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The Rediff Special/Ramananda Sengupta

April 21, 2003

The red carpet welcome accorded to Defence Minister George Fernandes in Beijing indicates China is probably willing to forgive, though not forget, his hawkish remarks against it before India's nuclear tests May 1998.

Fernandes' arrival in Beijing April 20 coincided with the sacking of the city mayor and the Chinese health minister over the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic sweeping the nation.

He will be the first Indian minister to meet China's new leaders who assumed charge after the internal elections in the Communist Party last November and the government in March.

The visit comes days after China and Pakistan signed a charter to step up bilateral defence cooperation 'to help maintain peace and stability in South Asia'.  The April 2 agreement followed Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali's visit to Beijing in late March.

While many experts see Fernandes' visit as sort of 'making amends' for reportedly describing China as 'enemy number one' five years ago, others see it as a sign that Beijing wishes to prove to the world it does not dwell on the past.

But Fernandes -- the first Indian defence minister to visit China after Sharad Pawar in 1992 -- is expected to bring up certain contentious issues during his weeklong visit at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart General Cao Gangchuan.

Chief among them is India's concern over China's continuing military assistance to Pakistan's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Other areas concerning India include the increasing Chinese military presence in the Bay of Bengal, including 'listening posts' in the Coco islands, off the Myanmar coast.

"China's assistance to Pakistan to develop nuclear and missile technology and its role as Pakistan's biggest supplier of conventional military weapons is an obstacle to building trust between the PRC and India," asserts former Indian ambassador to China C V Rangnathan.

The delineation of the 4,057 kilometre long Line of Actual Control between the two nations is also expected to figure in Fernandes' discussions with the Chinese leaders.

So far, the two sides have only managed to exchange sample maps of the 'middle sector' of the disputed region. The far more difficult western and eastern sectors remain unresolved. In the western sector, which includes 33,000 square kilometres of Ladakh's Aksai Chin plateau, the issue has been further complicated by Pakistan ceding a portion to China in 1963.

Apart from talks with Cao, Fernandes will call on the chairman of the Chinese Military Council and former president Jiang Zemin, Premier Wen Jiabao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and other senior leaders. A meeting with Hu Jintao, the new president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, may also take place.

During his weeklong visit, he is also expected to visit several military installations across the country.

But those looking for an immediate breakthrough are likely to be disappointed; that is likely to be left for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China slated for later this year.

In fact, Fernandes -- who is accompanied by a 16 member team, including Defence Secretary Subir Dutta, Secretary (defence production) N S Sisodia, Vice Chief of the Army Staff Lieutentant General Shantanu Choudhary, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral R Gopalachary and senior defence and external affairs ministry officials -- is expected to prepare the ground for Vajpayee's visit.

In a letter to then US president Bill Clinton that was leaked to the media, Vajpayee had cited the Chinese threat as one of the main reasons behind India's nuclear tests May 1998.

Though the ensuing slide in bilateral relations was checked by some major visits -- including then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and former chief of the Chinese National People's Congress Li Peng's visit to India, followed by former president K R Narayanan's and Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh's visit to China -- Fernandes' visit is expected to finally vanquish the ghosts of the past.

But while the bonhomie that is likely to be displayed between Fernandes and the Chinese leaders many not be faked, India's perception of China as a military threat is unlikely to diminish.

A recent internal document circulated in the defence ministry says India will need to follow an 'effective deterrence through dissuasion against China.'  The Chinese military is being strengthened and modernised, and whether Beijing will be a threat or a rival would depend on India's ability to match those capabilities, it says.

China seems to be actively pursuing its desire to become a superpower, both economically and militarily, the paper said. The People's Liberation Army has radically redefined its role and doctrine, setting up specialised 'rapid reaction forces' to fight local wars under hi-tech conditions.

The paper also warned that while Pakistan was likely to take advantage of any military friction between India and China, it was unclear whether China would do the same in case of an Indian war with Pakistan. Hence, India had to have a credible deterrence against conventional and nuclear threats from both nations.

China, on the other hand, is concerned over India's growing military relationship with the US and believes India has deliberately kept the Tibet issue alive by giving refuge to the Dalai Lama. Fernandes has been known to be supportive of the Tibetan groups who demand freedom from China.

So, while Fernandes' visit is seen as crucial in many ways, relations between the two neighbours will continue to be tentative until and unless these suspicions and doubts on both sides are resolved amicably.

Image: Dominic Xavier

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