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Interview with Shri C. V. Ranganathan IFS (Retd.), Former Ambassador of India to China; By Preethi A

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Article No. 004/2018

Ambassador C.V Ranganathan

Ambassador C. V. Ranganathan is Vice President, C3S. He received his education in Madras University and he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1959. He was former Ambassador of India to China, in addition to serving the Government of India with great distinction in Bonn, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Moscow and Paris. He was Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow during 1998-2000, Convener, National Security Advisory Board, Government of India 2000-2003, Co-Chairman of India-China Eminent Persons Group, Co-author with Amb. V. C. Khanna, India and China – The Way Ahead and contributor for several books and journals. He is presently the Chairman of the core-group on China in the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). 

Preethi Amaresh

Below is the text of an interview of Amb. Ranganathan conducted by Ms. Preethi Amaresh, Secretary, Young Minds of C3S and Former Research Officer, C3S

1. As a former Indian Ambassador to China, what do you think about today’s times as compared to the time you lived in China?

Answer: In 1987 I was posted to the People’s Republic of China as Ambassador, after completing two years in Moscow as Deputy Chief of Mission, in the rank of Ambassador.

From the very beginning of my posting to China, the message from the high to the working levels at the Chinese Foreign Office was that China would welcome an official visit of the Indian Prime Minister to China. The situation along the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary witnessed a stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops at a place called Sumdorung Chu (Wangdong) and the Chinese Press indulged in serious warnings and allegations about Indian violations of the Line of Control (Macmahon Line). In spite of this the verbal invitations for a visit by the Prime Minister of India to China were repeated.

Towards the end of 1987 it was the turn of the Vice Minister of China to visit India, in accordance with an institution of annual exchanges at this level of Indian and Chinese officials.Practically the only major item on his agenda was to extend an invitation to the Prime Minister, Shri Rajiv Gandhi, to make an official visit to China. This happened when he was received by the Prime Minister. The latter accepted the invitation in principle and added that proper preparations including preparing public opinion for the visit should take place before the visit.

The date for the visit was fixed for December 1988. Preparations were spread over almost a year. My colleagues and I were kept busy in arranging meetings between senior members of the Congress Party, well known journalists and others who were handpicked by the Govt. of India to meet with prominent Chinese and make assessments of the Chinese mood. All the Indian visitors confirmed the Embassy’s reports that The Prime Minister would be warmly welcomed, that contentious subjects would not be raised by the Chinese, and that public opinion in China would be prepared. Separately at the official level, visits were arranged for meetings between the Indian Foreign Secretary and his delegation with counterparts to finalize logistical matters.

The visit of Shri Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi finally took place in December 1988. His delegation consisted of the Foreign Minister, Shri Narasimha Rao, three other Ministers, Foreign Secretary, senior officials of the PMO and other senior officials of the M.E.A. and other Ministries. One could not help recalling that the last visit by an Indian Prime Minister to China was in 1954, when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited and this hiatus in exchanges at that level was a reflection of all that went wrong in India-China relations for a period of 34 years. The last visit by the Chinese Premier to India was in 1960 by Zhou Enlai, when he appealed that just as China took a realistic view of the situation in the Eastern Sector, India needs to take a realistic view of the Western Sector (where China was in occupation of the Aksai Chin area). Since there was strong political opposition to any territorial loss Nehru did not consider this proposition.

High level meetings were arranged for the Prime Minister with Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader, Li Peng, the Premier, Zhao Zeyang, the Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Yang Shangkun, the President and at an evening reception arranged by the Embassy he met prominent Chinese intellectuals, writers, some of whom had studied at Viswabharati, artists and academicians and Indologists some of whom had translated into Chinese Ramayana, Kalidasa’s works as also Tagore’s etc. The universal message conveyed by all was to heartily welcome the initiative by our P.M. to visit China and wishing that relations between China and India would be restored to the high levels of the fifties.

The most significant meeting was the one with Deng Xiaoping. His very long handshake with P.M. was widely covered. He went on to say that references in the Western media that the 21st century would be an ‘Asian century’ but he could not agree with this statement. He felt that unless India and China improved their economies by a very large margin it cannot be said that the 21st century would be an Asian Century. While wishing for establishing and improving India-China relations in all fields he advocated that the differences on the boundary should not come in the way of relations in other areas.

As for comparing the present times with the past, as can be seen from the above, in 1987-1988 the Chinese government invested heavily in the visit by the Indian Prime Minister and for several years after academicians, the intellectuals and government officials used to refer to the visit as the major turning point in India-China relations. The formula used by Deng that bilateral relations should be made to improve in various fields in spite of differences over the boundary continues to hold to this day after all these years. The major change from those years is that both countries have grown stronger, both in an economic sense and in the military sense. Indeed there is a wide asymmetry between China and India, in these two vital areas and this fact also influences relations between the two countries. Secondly, in the decade of the eighties under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the overall conduct of China in the international field was governed by the maxim “to bide one’s time and wait”, in other words not to be seen as assertive in its external relations. This was in big contrast to its contemporary conduct, where one can see strong adherence to Chinese viewpoints on its territorial or maritime claims. This policy may have cost the Chinese goodwill from those who share these claims. Its growing economic strength has led to the initiation of ambitious projects with global implications, such as the BRI. The existing differences over some issues between India and China figure in the public domain in China more often. India’s relations with the major powers such as USA, Japan as well as its relations with China’s neighbors are looked upon as aimed against China, but in pursuing multifaceted relations in the military and other fields with Pakistan China has strengthened Pakistan’s hostility towards India. It is a big challenge to the political leadership in both countries, its diplomats and also different branches of the media, academic specialists in countries, businessmen and industrialists to build up the important stakes that are necessary in both countries, which could influence the qualitative change for improved political relations between the two countries.

2. Describe the scenario regarding people to people contacts during your tenure in China.

Answer: A few scholarships were given to Chinese students to study in JNU in Delhi and in certain other Universities. Similarly there were scholarships offered by the Chinese side and administered by the Department of Education in India for Indian students to study in prominent Chinese Universities for subjects varying from language and literature to social sciences, etc. There were active exchanges in the field of dancing where interested Chinese teachers and students were sent to Kalakshetra in Chennai and to the Sahitya Academy in Delhi. An interest in Indian films in China was there from the fifties with films such as Awara with Raj Kapoor’s name becoming well known. This interest was revived within a new Cultural Agreement signed when Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988. This agreement also envisaged exchanges of visits by both sides of cultural troupes, writers, journalists and academicians from think tanks. Although the mutual exchange of businessmen, entrepreneurs and traders was not vigorous, this picked up after 2000 when both trade and investment figures rose steeply. At present many thousands of Indian tourists visit China and vice versa Chinese tourists visit India.

3. Today Xi Jinping has become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after a new body of political thought carrying his name was added to the Communist party’s Constitution. What do you foresee in Xi Jinping’s leadership during his 2nd term?

Answer: Today Xi Jinping has become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after his theoretical contribution on Socialism with Chinese characteristics has been added to the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. However, the big difference between Mao and Xi is that the latter has undertaken many populist policies such as fighting corruption within the Party and government where high level Party cadres and senior officials were arrested and convicted in a law court. In the external field, since Xi has held office over the last five years and elected for a second term of five years, the determination shown over land and oceanic territorial claims has resonated well with a public which has become more nationalistic. Grandiose projects such as the BRI initiative have been received by support from countries stretching from Asia to Europe.

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