India offered a chance to reset faltering ties

June 20, 2009 - 0:0

In September 1993, Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao visited Beijing and signed a landmark agreement with Chinese premier Li Peng — to preserve peace and tranquility along their badly defined Himalayan borders. That was the time when Kashmir was on the boil and Pakistan believed it had wrapped up a long fight for victory over India. That victory never came and, today, it is even less likely to come, at least not in the way Islamabad had seen it in the 1990s.

For India, an institutionalized mechanism to keep the eastern borders quiet, therefore, came as a godsend. It allowed Rao to deal better with Pakistan’s surrogates in Kashmir. The pact worked well for China too. It had enough on its plate with a frequently overheating and unwieldy economy. Beijing, I learnt, was also already working hard on its Olympic campaign. It was in anticipation of that gala event that Li persuaded Rao, on the margins of the border pact, to send across a few dozen water buffaloes he needed to kick-start China’s non-existent dairy industry. Chinese have no use for milk products, whose use they consider gross. But global athletes and other Olympic guests would surely ask for it. The sheer planning for milk supplies was so Chinese.
I remember during that visit standing at a handshaking distance from Li as he arrived in his shining black limousine at the Great Hall of the People to meet Rao. I learnt later from my Chinese interlocutors that the physical access given to Rao’s accompanying media contingent in Beijing was a rare accommodation that the Chinese do not otherwise make. They will not let foreigners get near their leaders. The terrifying sight of a burly security man bodily lifting and hurling to the ground a western photographer confirmed this.
The poor fellow had done nothing wrong except that his toe may have crossed the line prescribed for the global media to keep strictly within. The bruised and bleeding lensman turned out to be a colleague with the news agency I was representing on the visit. The 1993 accord built on the 1988 path-breaking visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It was widely hailed as India’s well-considered initiative to mend fences with a neighbor after the 1962 fiasco when its troops were humiliated in a short border war with China. That 1993 was a diplomatic asset for India is a claim I can attribute to Rao’s Foreign Secretary Mani Dixit who later became the National Security Adviser under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Rao’s China initiative helped him focus better on India’s border with Pakistan. It gave him the breathing space to work on Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms and enabled him to pass in parliament an unprecedented resolution on Kashmir: that the region belonged to India, and it was not negotiable. Today the tables have been turned on Pakistan. The same forces have cornered it at home that it once diverted to Kashmir. However, Pakistan is not alone in turmoil. India has been bruised too.
The Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus, whose dramatis personae were once handpicked by their western minders, turned upon their former mentors. Worse they are threatening to impose their barbarism on everyone in sight should they be allowed to succeed.
Hence the talks between President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are extremely crucial.
But that does not mean that India moves its military hardware from the western borders to the east. In fact, it took the world by surprise in May 1998 when India under an ultra-nationalist government, sought to justify its nuclear tests by citing China as its greatest threat. That was an incredible somersault in policy. I think the Congress criticized it. Nobody was asking India to explain the tests even though they were (rightly) outraged by it. To shoot off a letter to the American president, which U.S. officials leaked to their media, considerably undermined an average Indian’s pride in his country’s sovereignty.
This is not to say that the average Indian was happy with the tests. In fact, India needs to explain to its citizens why within 10 years of Rajiv Gandhi’s handshake with Deng Xiaoping and barely five years after Rao had sealed a badly needed treaty, India declared Beijing its biggest threat. The Indian Air Force chief, just before he retired last month, repeated the same words. Then came reports that former army chief Gen J J Singh, in his avatar as the governor of the eastern border state of Arunachal Pradesh, had asked for stepped up army deployment on the eastern border. Gen Singh knows only one way to handle neighbors. He had earlier stalled a deal with Pakistan on the Siachen Glacier.
On Saturday, the United News of India, reporting from Guwahati, said a low-key induction of nuclear-capable Sukhoi fighter aircraft in the eastern skies took place on 13th June as the squadron had already moved in on Friday. The ceremony was quiet in view of an AN-32 plane accident there a few days earlier which left seven air force personnel and six army men killed. The Indian Air Force is bringing in a squadron of Sukhois to Assam to safeguard the eastern sector,’ the report said. It quoted its sources as saying the first four Sukhois of the squadron would ceremonially take off from Tezpur air base of the IAF on June 15. Later another squadron will be inducted in Chabua of Upper Assam.
Before it was officially announced last week that Dr. Singh would attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia as an observer there was whisper campaign to the effect that his fabled loyalty to Washington would not allow him to go there. The timing of the induction of the air force squadron on bases along the eastern front was similarly noteworthy. Old and patently irrelevant arguments were circulated advising India to take on the Chinese as someone cheers a charged-up cricket contest. One frenzied commentator claimed that China had spawned Muslim extremists and Maoists to shackle India, a charge that even the Indian government would find embarrassing to support.
The Chinese, not known to let a serious allegation go unanswered, responded in an unusually stern tone to hysterical commentaries on the need for a nuclear deterrent on the eastern borders.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang summed up China’s response thus: “China and India have never demarcated the border. To resolve this issue at an early date is one of the 10 strategies to improve China-India relations. The two countries have reached a consensus on resolving this issue, and we hope the two countries will follow the 10 principles and jointly safeguard stability and tranquility in the border areas. China has always followed such an attitude to settle the issue.”
The People’s Daily said in an editorial on Thursday that a decision to move more troops to the border would lead to a rivalry between the two countries, and asked the Indian government to consider ‘whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.’
It said: “China is seen in India as both a potential threat and a competitor to surpass. But India can’t actually compete with China in a number of areas, like international influence, overall national power and economic scale. India apparently has not yet realized this.”
The paper described as “wishful thinking” that “gratitude for India’s restraint” in joining the “ring around China” established by the United States and Japan would see China deferring to Indian demands on territorial disputes. “China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India,” it said. These are serious and alarming statements between two nuclear-armed countries. Pakistan is passé.
So while India needs to sort out many urgent issues with President Zardari during Dr. Singh’s Russian sojourn this week it must desist from falling prey to its advisers who may want to see it moving its military hardware from the western to the eastern front. (Is there nowhere else to park them?) Dr. Singh’s meeting with President Hu Jintao will be as important as his talks with Mr. Zardari.
(Source: Dawn)