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Ad-Hawk Noises

Why is Vajpayee not using his diplomatic skills to soothe the antagonised Chinese?

Ad-Hawk Noises
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

EVEN defence minister George Fernandes, a strident anti-China campaigner, must have been surprised at the rapid-fire slanging match between India and China post Pokhran. More so because the man who precipitated the row was none other than Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Once Vajpayee shot off a letter to President Clinton, explaining the rationale behind the nuclear tests—the broad hint to a threat from China—the Chinese exploded. And just when Vajpayee, who also looks after external affairs, should have mouthed a few diplomatic words, he took a vow of silence. Suddenly, everyone other than the external affairs minister were waxing eloquent on foreign affairs. Consider the list: home minister L.K. Advani, Fernandes, political advisor to the PM Pramod Mahajan, principal secretary to the PM Brajesh Mishra. Even parliamentary affairs and tourism minister Madan Lal Khurana pitched in with a war-mongering statement on Kashmir. Vajpayee, as Outlook had once said about former prime minister Gujral, was ‘missing in action’.

The end result was that Sino-Indian relations, on the mend despite problems, dipped dramatically. "It came like the cyclone and took the form of a public brawl," says Giri Deshingkar, a China expert at the Institute for Chinese Studies, referring to the sudden slide in relations. Just two months ago when the BJP came to power, it was widely assumed that there was a general consensus on foreign policy issues—and that the coalition only squabbled over domestic issues. After all, Vajpayee had headed Parliament’s standing committee on external affairs in the last session. If anything, he was hailed as a man with considerable expertise in foreign policy.

But two months down the line, that’s what seems to be lacking. The result: the Indian foreign policy management is sounding like the Tower of Babel. After triggering off five nuclear explosions, the government should have used its diplomatic skills to soothe the neighbours. Forget diplomacy, ill-considered statements of various Indian leaders opened up two sore fronts at the same time, Pakistan and China. Leaving the MEA befuddled. Says former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit: "In a democracy there are always different voices. But the problem here is that there are different voices in the same government expressing contradictory views on important issues."

In the process, it threatened to negate 10 years of hard work that went into improving ties with China, starting with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in December ’88. Says G.P. Deshpande, dean of the School for International Studies, JNU: "Successive governments had achieved considerable progress in India-China relations, but it has received a setback by the current distressing effort to make China the centre of our strategic perspective. What surprises me is that the government has felt it necessary to publicise it."

THE Chinese didn’t take long to respond. The People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily came out with blazing guns. "Usually it is the party centre which circulates a note on the policy on a particular issue, called the Zhong-fa, which contains the salient points. Newspapers, the People’s Liberation Army and others take their line from it. Which is why the commentary in the Liberation Army Daily was harsher than in the People’s Daily," says Deshingkar.

They were naturally reflecting the party line. A commentary, circulated by China’s official agency Xinhua, referred to the "repeated smearing attacks on China" by India. It hit back at Vajpayee, saying that his claim of China’s invasion of India in 1962 "historically brooks no distortion". It claimed India was occupying 90,000 square kms of Chinese territories between the traditional line in the eastern section of the borders and the illegal McMahon Line.

It was New Delhi’s turn to go hawkish. The MEA did its bit by asking its ambassador in Beijing, Vijay K. Nambiar, to return to Delhi for consultations. But when it was in the process of formulating a response to Xinhua, Mahajan, sitting under the tamarind tree in his house, held forth in his inimitable style: "ulta chor kotwal ko dante. (The thief is scolding the cop.)" This, when the foreign office spokesman was saying the ministry was reserving its comments.

Clearly, the Indians were caught off guard by the strong Chinese outburst. Vajpayee despatched his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, who tried to soothe ruffled feathers, telling journalists that India and China needed to get back into dialogue mode, setting aside the war of words. "We have expressed our concerns, to which the Chinese have reacted. Both sides have said what they had to. We now need to go back to dialogue," said Mishra.

But the Chinese were not convinced. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao was candid: "We have taken note of the remarks by the Indian government official regarding India’s willingness to improve its relations with China. We hope that the Indian side will demonstrate its sincerity through concrete action." Says Deshing-kar: "India seems to have climbed down. The Chinese will draw two conclusions. First, they will invariably think that if they adopt a policy of shouting back, India will stand down. Second, they might also ask—the Indians are so fickle, how do we trust them in future?" But both he and Deshpande think the Chinese will not destabilise relations with India—not yet. "They must realise that there is a certain euphoria and that the Indians are looking for plausible reasons for their nuclear status," argues Deshpande. According to Deshingkar, the experts group over the border issue is scheduled to meet next month. He expects the meeting to take place, but the Chinese may ask "questions and seek clarifications". Hopefully, India would have thought out its China policy by then.

THE rest of the world might be up in arms at India’s nuclear tests, but other than Pakistan and China, the reactions from its immediate neighbours have been rather cautious not to annoy India. While Bangladesh and Sri Lanka mouthed the usual "countries with nuclear capabilities must show restraint" line, Nepal, keenly aware that if relations between China and India deteriorate it would be affected first, tried its best not to antagonise either.

Analysts in Nepal, a signatory to both the NPT and the CTBT, say whether it likes it or not, the Himalayan kingdom will once again become a buffer state between China and India, much like in the ’60s. But Kathmandu fervently hopes that the Pokhran explosions won’t spark off an arms race in the region.

 Meanwhile, Colombo was quiet for two full days as the Foreign Ministry struggled to formulate a position which would not irk New Delhi. "Sri Lanka notes with deep concern the missile and nuclear testing which have occurred recently in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka believes that the entire international community should continue its efforts to achieve global nuclear disarmament leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons without which peace and international security will continue to be in constant jeopardy," the statement said.

 But foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar broke ranks with the global community and backed India’s nuclear tests and condemned the imposition of sanctions against India. But he also indicated that Colombo would respond in a similar vein if Pakistan exploded a N-bomb. Colombo immediately came under pressure to change its stand. Islamabad and Beijing had helped Sri Lanka both materially and diplomatically during the height of the Indian-led diplomatic campaign against Colombo during the 1980s.

In Bangladesh, the official reaction was a bland statement from the Foreign Ministry, urging countries with nuclear capabilities in the region to show restraint.According to foreign policy experts, the perfunctory official reaction is understandable as Bangladesh, surrounded by India on three sides, can hardly say or do anything that could be interpreted as hostile to Delhi. Dependent on supplies of essential commodities from India, Bangladesh can be brought to its knees if New Delhi simply decides to halt the Ganges water flow, experts say.

THE rest of the world might be up in arms at India’s nuclear tests, but other than Pakistan and China, the reactions from its immediate neighbours have been rather cautious not to annoy India. While Bangladesh and Sri Lanka mouthed the usual "countries with nuclear capabilities must show restraint" line, Nepal, keenly aware that if relations between China and India deteriorate it would be affected first, tried its best not to antagonise either.

Analysts in Nepal, a signatory to both the NPT and the CTBT, say whether it likes it or not, the Himalayan kingdom will once again become a buffer state between China and India, much like in the ’60s. But Kathmandu fervently hopes that the Pokhran explosions won’t spark off an arms race in the region.

 Meanwhile, Colombo was quiet for two full days as the Foreign Ministry struggled to formulate a position which would not irk New Delhi. "Sri Lanka notes with deep concern the missile and nuclear testing which have occurred recently in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka believes that the entire international community should continue its efforts to achieve global nuclear disarmament leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons without which peace and international security will continue to be in constant jeopardy," the statement said.

 But foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar broke ranks with the global community and backed India’s nuclear tests and condemned the imposition of sanctions against India. But he also indicated that Colombo would respond in a similar vein if Pakistan exploded a N-bomb. Colombo immediately came under pressure to change its stand. Islamabad and Beijing had helped Sri Lanka both materially and diplomatically during the height of the Indian-led diplomatic campaign against Colombo during the 1980s.

In Bangladesh, the official reaction was a bland statement from the Foreign Ministry, urging countries with nuclear capabilities in the region to show restraint.According to foreign policy experts, the perfunctory official reaction is understandable as Bangladesh, surrounded by India on three sides, can hardly say or do anything that could be interpreted as hostile to Delhi. Dependent on supplies of essential commodities from India, Bangladesh can be brought to its knees if New Delhi simply decides to halt the Ganges water flow, experts say.

Next Story : On The Side Of Caution
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