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Is the Chinese Dragon smiling?

October 15, 2003 15:13 IST

It's certainly a goodwill gesture.

But lest we get carried away by the euphoria over the removal of Sikkim as a separate nation from the Chinese foreign ministry web site, it is important to note what that ministry's spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said a day later.

'On the question of Sikkim, this is an issue left over from history. On this issue, we must respect historical facts and at the same time take into account the present circumstances. We hope the Sikkim question will be gradually solved.'

In other words, Sikkim may have been removed as a separate nation (listed below Singapore) from the front page of the ministry's web site, but look inside for the real picture.

Whether or not that page changes ought to determine the level of jubilation in India over this 'diplomatic coup.'

No, I am not being a wet blanket.

For China, atmospherics, symbolism and gestures are crucial facets of statecraft, and the removal of Sikkim as an independent nation from the front page of the foreign ministry web site is in its own way most significant.

But what has actually happened? Simply put -- like we have done in the case of the border issue, the Tibet question, and the continued Chinese military support to Pakistan -- we have moved yet another contentious issue to the back burner... or in this case, to a back page. Meanwhile, we continue to work on developing ties in other areas.

The system works, but many find that it also allows these festering issues to be raked up at convenience.

China has always been suspicious of India's motives in giving shelter to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile in Dharamshala. While periodic forays by the People's Liberation Army into the high reaches of Arunachal Pradesh serve to remind us that China still considers huge parts of that state as its own.

Following Indian reports that a Chinese patrol had breached the Line of Actual Control on June 26, 2003 in the Asaphila area of the upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese reaction was simple.

'We have noted the relevant report. China does not recognise the so-called Arunachal Pradesh mentioned by the Indian newspaper report,' said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan on July 25.

India, for its part, tried to play down the incident, saying 'This is an area where there are differences in perception of the LAC between the two sides.'

But while no other nation recognised Sikkim as a separate nation after its accession to the Indian Union on May 16, 1975, China's refusal to acknowledge this was a big thorn in bilateral relations. This non-recognition of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim had led to piquant situations where Indian diplomats and officials from these states were sometimes denied entry to China.

Both sides realised that the rules of the game had changed after two events, the May 1998 nuclear tests in the subcontinent, and 9/11 and the subsequent upheaval in the world order.

In August 2001, then Indian foreign secretary Chokila Iyer led the Indian delegation to the 13th round of the India-China Joint Working Group on the boundary issue in Beijing. Though born in Darjeeling, Iyer is of Sikkimese origin. There were no murmurs from the Chinese.

Astute Indian diplomacy and Chinese realpolitik following the subcontinent's nuclear tests of 1998 ensured that Beijing quickly forgot Defence Minister George Fernandes' agreement with the notion that China was India's enemy number one, and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's letter to then US president Bill Clinton citing China's growing military clout as one of the reasons for the Indian tests.

After going through the affronted neighbour routine, China decided to stay neutral over the Kargil episode in June 1999 despite frantic appeals from Pakistan. And when then foreign minister Jaswant Singh went to China during the Kargil crisis, his tacit apology and contention that India did not see China as a threat was quickly accepted.

Then came 9/11, and the realisation that both India and China faced similar problems with terrorism. While overtly maintaining excellent relations with its long-term friend Islamabad, China is also aware that a lot of the religious unrest in Xinjiang province is linked to radicals in Pakistan.

In January 2002, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited India, and in March that year, Jaswant Singh made yet another visit to China.

Finally, George Fernandes visited China in April this year as a precursor to the visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and returned claiming that he had seen the light, and it came from Beijing.

People who slammed the prime minister for re-opening the Nathu La pass in Sikkim (and according to some reports, also Nyoma in Ladakh, Kashmir) for trade and reiterating that India saw Tibet as a part of China without getting much in return must have squirmed slightly over Beijing's decision to remove Sikkim from the list of independent nations on its website.

But those bullish about Indo-China relations would also do well to remember that China has long perceived, and perhaps even tried to ensure, that India is nothing more than a regional upstart.

While that image may have changed somewhat over the past five years, we must not expect radical changes overnight.

Ramananda Sengupta