August 15, 2020
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Shifty, Uncertain Steps

Diplomats will have a hard time explaining our shifting posture on CTBT. We will have to counter the inference that our concern for justice lasted until we joined the haves.

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Shifty, Uncertain Steps

THREE months after trying to attain the status of a nuclear power with the Pokhran II series of explosions, the image India presents abroad is of a confused nation very much on the diplomatic defensive. This sums up the views of the diplomats, officials, journalists and businessmen I met in Manila and Hong Kong after the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) session, and earlier in London and at a conference in Mexico City.

In contrast, after the initial shock of being named as a threat by India's defence minister, Beijing has lost little time in projecting the message that it will not accept any rival in the big power stakes in Asia, a status endorsed later by US president Bill Clinton. The line was set by envoy Zhou Gang in his interview to The Hindu on July 9 demanding explanations for New Delhi's "totally unreasonable and groundless" accusations against China before the knot in Sino-Indian ties could be untied. It was followed up by Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan at the ARF when he said: "The act of creating imaginary enemies or fabricating sources of threat directed at a third country can only harm others and more so oneself."

Beijing has begun backing up its displeasure with economic measures. It is diverting imports of iron ore and other materials from India to Australia and other countries. Harry Banga of the Noble Group in Hong Kong, which handles shipping and imports to China, told me the diversion could cost India up to $300 million a year. Beijing was also persuading other countries to divert imports from India. Beijing seems to be underlining the thesis that regional status stems more from economic strength than N-weapon capability. It has a considerable lead in both.

In Hong Kong, Chinese displeasure has not been directed against Indian citizens or business interests. Indian visitors can stay in Hong Kong without a visa for three months, as they did before it returned to Chinese rule. Indian businessmen continue to profit from a disproportionate share of Hong Kong's trade, though the volume has been hurt by economic recession. But Hari Harilila, doyen of India business leaders in Hong Kong, told me that China's leaders had expressed grave shock and disappointment to him in early May when India's defence minister was reported as describing China as "enemy number one". Even he was unaware but relieved to hear that George Fernandes had not used the word "enemy" but "threat", and that only potential.

Everywhere abroad, too, I found the "enemy" version current, with all its implications. Irresponsible press coverage and diplomatic bungling in New Delhi exacerbated the tension. Our missions abroad have not received the transcript of Fernandes' remarks in the TV interview of May 2 that sparked the tension. It would have helped them contradict the "enemy" version and place his remarks in perspective. It would also show that he made them in response to needling; they were not a new policy pronouncement.

Only after returning to New Delhi could I secure the precise words used in the interview. The relevant sentences were: "It will not be appropriate to call China India's enemy number one. China can be described as potential threat number one." Fernandes also stated: "Chinese military activity is going on to encircle India. China is helping the Pakistan missile programme. Chinese missiles are in Tibet. China has trained the Burmese army. China has established a surveillance system at the Burmese Coco Island, north of the Andamans. " This, too, needed to be backgrounded by previous defence ministry reports publicising the same threat perception to show that there was no change of policy.

When Fernandes' remarks were followed by Pokhran II, it was assumed abroad that he had provided advance justification for the test. Even in distant Mexico City, the alleged use of "enemy" for China and reports of the home minister's warning to Pakistan, combined with the dancing in the streets after the tests, evoked images of a new aggressive India, threatening its neighbours.

But the switch from the defence minister's outspoken stance to the defensive, placatory crouch adopted by ministerial spokesmen more recently has not improved India's image. Instead of speaking with the power and authority nuclear status is supposed to provide, the impression projected is of an uncertain India trying to make up for the injury done to world opinion by Pokhran II. The prime minister's conciliatory statements in Parliament have not assuaged Beijing, which continues to demand a virtual apology.

China is not regarded as a benign power in the Asia-Pacific region. Soon after the ARF session, US defence secretary William Cohen arrived in Manila to finalise arrangements for resumption of the large-scale joint exercises at US military bases there. Filipino president Joseph Estrada, who, as a senator, had insisted on the closure of the bases in 1992, justified the turnaround by emphasising differences with China over ownership of the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. Even Fernandes was not quite so specific, but the threat Estrada described had no nuclear overtones.

It is not only China and Pakistan that create challenges for Indian diplomacy. We will have a hard time explaining our shifting posture on the CTBT. Smaller countries of the region were given the impression India refused to sign the treaty because it was unequal. Unless the ban on N-testing was accompanied by a commitment by N-powers to disarm, we argued, CTBT would perpetuate their domination. As New Delhi now indicates willingness to give up this condition before signing, our diplomats will have to counter the inference that our concern for injustice lasted until we joined the haves. India has much to lose by exchanging the moral high ground for realpolitik. The former has imparted credibility to its diplomacy for most of 50 years. To the world it now gives the impression of being more willing to bow before pressure after claiming N-status than when it stood up against the CTBT.

Our isolation is complete. No nation has endorsed Pokhran II. At the ARF in Manila, substitution of "grave concern" by "deplore" in the sentence in the joint communique on the tests was actually hailed as a victory by New Delhi. But the communique went on to state that the South Asian tests had "exacerbated tensions in the region and raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race". The only other victory India could claim was to insist on keeping Pakistan out of the forum, to the embarrassment of other members.

India's image has deteriorated after Pokhran II because it drew attention to its economic backwardness, governmental instability, parliamentary confusion, diplomatic unpreparedness and social unrest. The excuse of a threat to national security requiring N-deterrence has few buyers; the tests are seen as a search for status. But they have had the opposite effect. Seen from abroad, nuclear weapons are credible symbols of power if built on a wide range of national achievement; otherwise they expose national deficiencies.

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