I have been racking my brains to divine the exact purpose of the three-day visit to India by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr.Yang Jiechi, on September 7-9, 2008. There was, of course, for starters, the official invitation from India’s External Affairs Minister, Mr.Pranab Mukherjee, and, yes, the small chore of formally inaugurating China’s Consulate General in Kolkata. If I am to sum up Mr.Yang’s desultory visit, I can do so in just three words: He came, he smiled and he left!
The billing by the External Affairs Ministry prior to Mr. Yang’s visit referred tantalisingly to talks between the two Ministers on ‘a wide range of bilateral and global issues’. The visions this evoked were of the two delegations hard at work hammering out momentous agreements on important issues such as expansion of avenues of trade, achieving breakthrough in solving the border dispute, meeting of minds on the situation in Tibet, combating terrorism in the light of the finding of the US about Pakistan’s support and incitement to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the impact of financial turmoil through which the US is passing, the overall economic outlook, promotion of regional cooperation and the complementarities in the roles both countries can play on the world stage.
Not one of these issues seems to have been touched upon, leave alone covered in depth, as is evident from the fact that both sides did not find it worthwhile to issue a joint statement. To all appearances, the visit has turned out to be a damp squib. It could not be otherwise because it was only in June, a little more than two months ago, that Mr.Mukherjee had been to China. Mr.Mukherjee too returned from that visit with little to show for it other than the opening of a new Indian consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou. Even the meeting scheduled with the Prime Minister, Mr.Wen Jiabao, was cancelled. Nothing significant had transpired in this brief period between June and August to warrant any comprehensive parleys.
Mr.Yang brusquely disposed of the boundary dispute with some platitudinous pronouncements. “In handling these issues”, he intoned, “we should adopt a strategic approach and think about the larger interest of our relations.…We should respect and accommodate each other’s interests and concerns and properly manage boundary dispute and other sensitive issues. We have our respective concerns… We should properly manage the outstanding issues through consultations in the spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation. This is an arduous and complex task.”
India was left guessing what Mr.Yang really meant by strategic approach. Delving into the dictionary brings up two possible connotations: one that the approach should be relevant to an integrated whole or a planned outcome and the other that it should be designed (in the words of the dictionary) “to strike an enemy at the sources of its military, economic, or political power”. Which one did Mr.Yang have in mind? India will certainly hope that it is not the second. On trade too, there was not a whiff of a blueprint for jacking up two-way trade from the present $ 37 billion to the target of $60 billion by 2010. In fact, neither side breathed a word on trade.
Truth to tell, the explanation for the inchoate nature of the powwow is simple: The visit was hijacked by the raging controversy over the reports of China’s perceived stonewalling of the proposal for the granting of India-specific waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at Vienna.
Although Mr.Yang claimed to have been ‘shocked’ by adverse references to China on this matter and insisted that China took a ‘responsible and constructive’ stand (students of Freud will note that he avoided the use of the word ‘positive’ throughout!), two events make it look like an exercise in doublespeak.
One was the public avowal of the National Security Adviser, Mr.M.K.Narayanan, about being surprised and disappointed by the Chinese queering the pitch. In diplomatic parlance, to say one is disappointed is tantamount to censuring the party concerned. Some observers go to the extent of contending that China deliberately encouraged countries such as Austria, Finland and other nuclear non-entities, to stall the deliberations by raising objections in order to damage the prospect of approval of the 123 Agreement by the US Congress.
Mr.Narayanan, in fact, was sore enough to say that India would take up the issue of China’s stand at the NSG meet with Mr.Yang during his visit and “we will convey some kind of disappointment to him because we expected something more from them”. Read this with Mr.Mukherjee’s cryptic statement: “Whatever was necessary to convey to (Mr.Yang), I did exactly that … what exactly was to be stated, what correct postures were to be made, I did exactly that” and it is patent that to New Delhi the attitude of China at the NSG meeting was not all that responsible and constructive, leave alone being helpful.
Sources from the Prime Minister’s Office buttressed this by stating in clear terms, “We are deeply disappointed with the Chinese and this will be conveyed to the Foreign Minister when he calls on the PM.”
The other proof of China’s unhappiness at India receiving favourable treatment at the hands of the NSG was in black and white in the commentaries of the country’s officially controlled media. The People’s Daily left no one in any doubt about the prevailing current of opinion within the Chinese establishment by bluntly attacking the nuclear deal. Here are its exact words: “Irrespective of the fate of the US-India nuclear agreement, the United States’ multiple standards on non-proliferation issues have met with a skeptical world….Whether it is motivated by geopolitical considerations or commercial interests, the US-India nuclear agreement has constituted a major blow to the international non-proliferation regime”.
Sly and subtle plea
Surprisingly, or perhaps conveniently, the paper passed over China’s multiple standards on non-proliferation which led to the building up of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the reckless spreading of the contagion by A.Q.Khan.
At about the same time the People’s Daily was pontificating, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying, “China hopes the NSG finds a way to strike a balance between nuclear non-proliferation and the peaceful use of energy”. Nobody would miss the thrust of this as a sly and subtle plea for extending the benefit of the same type of civilian nuclear agreement to Pakistan, the ‘favourite son” (to borrow an expressive American phrase) of China and the arch proliferator of nuclear weapons technology with its tacit acquiescence.
While Mr.Yang expressed shock at reports circulating in India about China’s unhelpful attitude at the NSG, he carefully and cleverly avoided giving any clarification of the news stories put out by the People’s Daily and Xinhua. On the contrary, he chose to reiterate during the visit their fear about India’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy coming in the way of non-proliferation regime. The inference with which one is left is that he was not equally shocked by their unfriendly tone towards India.
Mr.Yang has no doubt gone back thinking that with his suavity and polish, and good command of English, he has been successfully able to put the lid on an unpleasant episode. It will do him good to remember that India is as ancient a civilisation as China, and if China had Confucius, India had Chanakya. Neither country can hope to lead the other down the primrose path. Not sophistry, pretence and dissembling but transparency, good neighbourliness and mutual respect should be the only sheet anchors for happy and harmonious relations between the two countries.
(The writer, Mr B.S.Raghavan, is retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service. He is a former Advisor to the UN and Chief Secretary, Governments of West Bengal and Tripura.He is presently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies).