Tuesday 9 June 1998

A Friend Returns to Beijing

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

When Kocheril Raman Narayanan returned to New Delhi from 
Beijing in end—1978, after serving for two-and-a-half years as 
India's first Ambassador to China since the 1962 war, he could 
not have foretold that nearly 16 years later, he would be 
returning to Beijing as the Vice-President of India. Narayanan  
finds a delegation that is visiting China between October 21 and  

The Chinese have long memories, as witnessed at the royal 
treatment they gave Richard Nixon even after his fall. They will 
not, therefore, forget that since 1969, from within his perch in the   
Foreign Ministry as a career official, Narayanan has pushed for 
normalisation of relations between the two Asian giants. Between 
1963 and 1967, he was Director (China) in MEA, thereafter going 
as India's Ambassador to Bangkok. On his return in 1969, he took 
over as Joint Secretary (policy planning), and promptly began  
initiating studies on how ties could be retrieved from the deep 

Just as in the US it was Richard Nixon’s personal intervention  
that led to ties between Washington and Beijing, in India, it was 
the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who encouraged a small  
clutch of MEA officials to pursue their goal of a reconciliation it
between India and China. Within the MEA, two lobbies opposed  
this: the West-centric lobby, that did not want yet another
diversion from its efforts at making India a strategic partner of 
the US and West Europe; and the rival Soviet lobby, that 
responded to Russian uneasiness at the prospect of better Sino- 
Indian ties. If officers in the MEA are to be believed, neither 
Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta nor his successor Kewal Singh 
were enthusiastic about..the efforts at normalisation.

However, support from Indira Gandhi continued, and in
1976 it was decided to take a political risk and announce the
appointment of an Ambassador to Beijing. This was done without
first ascertaining from the Chinese whether they would reciprocate
by appointing an Ambassador to New Delhi. Within the MEA,
opinion was strong that unless such a commitment was first
secured, India should not risk a snub by moving first. However,
the Prime Minister took the plunge and appointed Narayanan to
the post. As it happened, even while India’s Ambassador-
designate to China was in Hong Kong en route to Beijing, the
Chinese Foreign Ministry announced the appointment of an
Ambassador to India. And thus, for the first time in 15 years, top-
level diplomatic ties were resumed.

1977 saw the first defeat of the Congress party in national
elections, but fortunately for the nascent shoots of Sino-Indian
normalisation, the new Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, was as
much committed to the policy as Gandhi. Thus he also overruled
the timidity of a section of the foreign policy establishment and
encouraged the exchange of high-level delegations between
India and China. First a FICCI delegation went, followed by
journalists and then a cultural troupe. The Chinese reciprocated
with delegations of their own.

However, not everybody in the Morarji government shared
the Prime Minister’s eagerness for closer ties with China. Whether
because of his own predilections or because of pressure from
hard-line elements in the former Jana Sangh, the then external
Affairs Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, called off his scheduled 1978
visit to China a week before take-off. The reason? A stomach
upset. Fortunately, the tender state of Vajpayee’s digestion did
not derail the normalisation process, in view of Gandhi’s return
to power in 1980. She had always sided with those who felt that
better ties should not be hostage to a resolution of the border
question, calculating that better ties would, indeed, help in an
amicable settlement (of the border issue).

Another quantum jump in relations took place in 1988, with
the visit of an Indian Prime Minister - Rajiv Gandhi - to Beijing. By
this time, the rot within the USSR was becoming clearer, and
hence the need for a policy of developing ties with other powers.
More than China, the emphasis was on better relations with
Washington, a goal that was brought closer by the visit of Rajiv
Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi to Washington, and their very cordial
reception by the Reagans.

Since that time, an unstated keystone of India’s foreign `
policy has been better relations with the US, a policy that has  
lasted despite the odd hiccup, such as the V. P. Singh government’s 
tilt to Iraq during the Gulf crisis. China also, despite occasional 
public shows of displeasure, has been careful not to provoke
Washington. However, both countries are aware of the utility of 
improving ties with each other and with alternative power
centres such as Europe and South-east Asia. Even Russia, despite
its current propensity to chaos, is a once and future superpower. 

That, however, seems very much in the future. In the case of 
India, hemmed in by a dominant superpower unsympathetic to
its independent strategic ambitions and, if certain US officials are 
to be taken seriously, to its very integrity as a unified country,  
national interest dictates better relations with the merging 
superpower on our northern borders. This need is further
enhanced by the Benazir Bhutto policy of aiding subversive 
movements within India. 

It is anybody’s guess as to the demons the Pakistan Prime
Minister is hoping to exorcise by her covert war on the Indian
state. It could be an expatiation of the suggested Bhutto guilt in  
the vivisection of Pakistan. For it is on record that General Yahya 
Khan ignored the results of the free election held in Pakistan 
years ago because, had he accepted the results, Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman and not Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would have been the Prime 
Minister of (united) Pakistan. Mr Bhutto's tacit encouragement 
to the brutal army crackdown in East Pakistan fuelled the
separatist movement in what is now Bangla Desh. Thus it could 
be that Benazir Bhutto seeks to make up for this smudgy
historical record by attempting yet another vivisection, this time
of India. 

Keeping China friendly is an essential component in India’s 
defence against Pakistan’s war. Apart from this, the other 
advantages of closer ties are cooperation in science and 
technology; more joint ventures between the two countries and 
a better understanding of how China has opened up its economy 
to foreign investment without surrendering sovereignty over
crucial decisions. Closer ties with China would also help in the 
integration of India with the rest of Asia. In its partly West
centric and partly Soviet-centric orientation, the country’s foreign  
policy mandarins neglected the country’s own backyard, with 
the result that India is not a major player in any Asian grouping .
except SAARC. 

Despite murmurs that it is choking off India’s strategic  
independence by ’underfunding' the nuclear and missile
programmes, the Narasimha Rao government has in fact taken 
significant steps to improve its ties with the rest of Asia. Apart
from the present Prime Minister’s visit to China itself in 1993, 
there have recently been trips to Viet Nam and Singapore, with
more Asian visit in the pipeline. According to policy planners,
the present Indian prime minister is as committed to better Sino-
Indian ties as Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Rajiv Gandhi were.

The Vice-President, therefore, goes to a country with whom
ties are steadily growing, the major remaining irritant being (on
India's side) the sporadic public activities of the Tibetan refugees
on Indian soil, and (on China’s side) the arming of Pakistan.
During his week-long stay, the Vice-President is expected to meet 
with `China's President, Prime Minister and other leaders confident
that the policy of rapprochement has wide support at home. A 
far cry indeed from the lonely days of the late 1960s, when 
suggestions for India-China friendship faced an atmosphere
made hostile by memories of the 1962 war.