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Pranab Mukherjee's Second Visit to China

Shri Pranab Mukherjee, who visited China as the Defence Minister in June 2006, is now visiting the country again as the Minister for External Affairs from June 4 to 7,2008. Among other engagements, he is scheduled to inaugurate the Indian Consulate at Guangzhou (old Canton). This will be the second Indian Consulate in China after the one in Shanghai. China has allowed this to be opened in return for India’s permission to re-open its Consulate in Kolkata, which was closed down after the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The Chinese Consulate at Kolkata is expected to start functioning this year.

2. Before 1962, Beijing had allowed India to have a Consulate at Lhasa in return for a Chinese trade office at Kalimpong in West Bengal. The Indian Consulate at Lhasa also became a victim of the strained Sino-Indian relations after the Khampa revolt in Beijing in the 1950s, which was suppressed by the Chinese and the flight of his Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. India was keen that the improvement in the bilateral relations between the two countries should be marked by the re-opening of the Chinese Consulate at Kolkata and the Indian Consulate at Lhasa. The Chinese were not prepared to let India re-open its Consulate at Lhasa and proposed that it instead open a Consulate at Guangzhou. Instead of standing firm on its request for re-opening the Consulate at Lhasa as a quid pro quo for the re-opening of the Chinese Consulate at Kolkata, India accepted the Chinese suggestion during the visit of President Hu Jintao to India in November,2006.

3. After the recent outbreak of a revolt against China in Tibet, which has since been brought under control by the Chinese, it is unlikely that China will agree to an Indian Consular presence in Tibet in the near or medium-term future.

4. While there is an improvement in the outward bonhomie between the two countries complemented by a galloping bilateral trade, there is an undercurrent of suspicion and concern on both sides. The suspicion and concern on the Indian side arose from the Chinese insistence on India agreeing to the transfer of at least the Tawang Tract, if not the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, to China as part of any eventual border settlement. It has been made clear to the Chinese by Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh during his interactions with the Chinese leaders that no Government in New Delhi would be able to sell to the Parliament and the people of India any agreement which would entail the transfer of any populated area to China. The Chinese, who seemed to be responsive to this argument, have since been insisting that Tawang should be treated as an exception to this general proposition and transferred to China. No Government in New Delhi might be able to agree to this.

5. Even as the special representatives of the two Prime Ministers negotiating on the border problem were grappling with the issue of Tawang in order to find a way out, the Chinese added to India’s suspicion and concern through a more activist presence of their military across the Sikkim border and by raising untenable objections to defensive constructions of the Indian Army in Indian territory in Sikkim. When Shri A.B.Vajpayee was the Indian Prime Minister, the Chinese had given a formal assurance during his visit to China in June,2003, that Sikkim was no longer an issue between the two Governments. Are they trying to wriggle out of this assurance in order to pressurise India to concede their claim to Tawang? Their past assurance that they no longer considered Sikkim to be an issue between the countries was not followed, as one would have expected, by a declaration that they considered Sikkim to be an integral part of India. Either you give us Tawang or we go back on our past assurances on Sikkim. That seems to be their negotiating strategy.

6. Will the recent uprising in Tibet make the Chinese more amenable to reason or will it make them even more adamant on Tawang? That is a question which would be in the mind of Shri Mukherjee as he meets Mr.Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabo.It is likely that it will make them even more adamant than in the past because they have always considered their presence in Tawang as crucial to pre-empt any threat to their control over Tibet in the event of any instability in Tibet after the Dalai Lama. The recent uprising in Tibet could have made them even more determined than before to assert their claim to Tawang.

7.The suspicion and concern of the Chinese vis-a-vis India arise from two factors—– India’s strategic relationship with the US and the activities of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) against China from Indian territory. China’s concern over the Indo-US strategic relationship has three root causes—- India’s support for the global community of democracies idea proposed by the Clinton Administration which was supported by the Vajpayee Government; India’s support for the idea of a concert of democracies involving India, Japan, the US and Australia; and the five-power naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in September last in which the navies of India, the US, Japan, Singapore and Australia participated. The Chinese viewed all these ideas as directed at containing China’s influence in Asia and at destabilising it under the pretext of encouraging democratic forces in China.

8. The Chinese suspicion that democracy was sought to be used as a strategic weapon against China was enhanced when the Vajpayee Government succumbed to pressure from the Clinton Administration and agreed to co-sponsor a conference on the Community of Democracies idea in Warsaw in 2000. Subsequently, it also allowed the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of the US to have a presence in New Delhi. The NED was keen to have a presence in India for using it to back pro-democracy forces in Myanmar and the pro-Dalai Lama forces in Tibet. Even though the NED has strongly refuted Chinese allegations that it had a role in instigating the recent uprising in Tibet, Chinese suspicions in this regard persist.

9. The Chinese concerns over the four-power concert of democracies have since disappeared after Mr.Kevin Rudd, the new Australian Prime Minister, dissociated Australia from it. The present Government in Japan too has marked its distance from it. It is likely the present Governments in Australia and Japan would in future avoid any joint naval exercises, which might cause concern to China.

10. Openly, China has been appreciative of the politically correct role played by India during and after the uprising in Tibet. The Manmohan Singh Government did well in ignoring suggestions from some retired bureaucrats and others to take advantage of the opening provided by the uprising to use what was projected as the Tibet card to re-open the issue of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Beijing was also gratified by the action taken by New Delhi to ensure the smooth passage of the Olympic Flame through Delhi.

11. China’s open expression of appreciation of India’s correct role during and after the recent uprising in Tibet conceal an underlying suspicion of a possible Indian complicity with the NED and the increasingly radical Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) in what China sees as their efforts to destabilise Tibet under the pretext of promoting democracy there and improving the human rights situation. The Chinese are particularly concerned over what they view as the anti-China role being played by some American citizens of Tibetan origin in supporting and instigating anti-Beijing elements in Tibet. If not now during the visit of the Foreign Minister, sometime or the other in the near future, the Chinese are likely to raise the issue of the activities from the Indian territory of Tibetans holding American nationality.

12. Despite the persisting suspicion and concern on both sides, the comfort level in the bilateral relations has been increasing but at different speeds. It has been increasing faster in the economic ministries of the Government of India and in the private sector, which see immense scope for further strengthening the bilateral economic and commercial relations. It has been increasing rather slowly in the Ministries and Departments responsible for national security such as the Ministries for Defence and Home Affairs, the Armed Forces and the intelligence community. They are not yet convinced that the Chinese intentions towards India are totally benign.

13. The different speeds will continue till a mutually satisfactory solution is found to the border issue and till China implements a policy of genuine reconciliation with the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama, which gives them a place of honour in China and genuine autonomy which permits them to manage their own affairs—political, economic and religious— in accordance with their genius and traditions while continuing to be a de jure part of China. Inspiration for Tibetan culture and traditions has always come from India and not China. Any mutually satisfactory solution to the Tibetan problem should preserve and further promote Tibet’s religious and cultural bonds with India while maintaining its administrative links with China.

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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