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May 30, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ C V Ranganathan

'Narayanan can help improve ties with Chinese'

While presidential visits, from the Indian point of view at least, are seen as ceremonial events, President K R Narayanan's visit to China is slightly different. A former ambassador to Beijing from 1976 to 1979, he is considered an old China hand, with friends in high places, and someone who can contribute in no mean way to bettering Sino-Indian relations.

C V Ranganathan is another former ambassador to China and has been with the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. In his small study, lined with books on China, he spoke to Amberish K Diwanji on why the visit is important. Excerpts from the interview:

In what context is the President visiting China?

He is seen as an old friend. The Mandarin terminology -- Lao Pengyo -- means familiar with person. He is also deeply respected by the Chinese as he has been an actor, since the 1960s, on the India-China scene.

In the 1960s, he was a director on the China desk in the ministry of external affairs, when Sino-Indian relations were at a nadir; in the 1970s he went as ambassador to Beijing, when diplomatic relations were raised to that level; in the 1980s he was minister of state for external affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet and in the 1990s he visited China as a vice-president.

The Chinese respect him. After the 1998 Pokhran tests, relations with China were strained. But in 1999, he told a Chinese academic delegation, led by a former Chinese ambassador that India and China need not regard each other as military threats.

The President added that an economically strong and stable China could be a significant factor for Asian peace, which India welcomed. This statement was published in the People's Daily, showing that the Chinese welcomed it.

Yet, given his position as head of state and not government, is that a factor?

Only in India we keep looking at the difference between constitutional and government heads. The Chinese don't see such differences.

For them, he is the voice of India and nothing precludes the Chinese making a major statement during his visit.

So do you expect something major to come out of the visit?

Let us look again at the international background today. The world is in a flux. The Chinese have seen Western countries beat a path to India. Today the West, especially the United States, sees India as a factor for stability and a supporter for democracy even as it manages economic reforms. India has thus become a creditable partner of the West.

This does not mean that something dramatic will come out of the visit, but the Chinese are very good students of international affairs. They have seen the West support India and they realise that if they have to make a dent in Sino-Indian relations they have to be more articulate and use this visit to create an atmosphere of trust.

India sees China as a supporter of Pakistan. Is that not a hurdle?

There is this perception that China supports Pakistan but there are constraints. China is not keen to be dragged into taking sides between India and Pakistan.

If there is an Indo-Pakistan war, it will give the Americans a chance to play a role in South Asia, which China sees as its neighbourhood.

There is also the nuclear element that makes any conflict between India and Pakistan dangerous to everybody.

The Chinese have come to respect the basic stability that large civilisational multi-ethnic, multi-religious countries like India and China provide.

China is concerned about cross-border terrorism.

It has sensitive regions in Sinkiang and Tibet and would not like to see them go the way of Kashmir. In fact, China even held a conference with Russia and Turkey to find ways to curb terrorism.

What about disputes that dog Sino-Indian relations, such as the border question?

There is a disputed boundary that saw a conflict in 1962 and some near episodes later. But on the other hand, no shot has been fired in anger in three decades.

There is a de facto arrangement on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Ladakh that has by and large remained inviolate. This has happened because of frequent meetings between the two sides. Peace treaties signed in 1993 and 1996 ensure military stability along the LAC.

Moreover, to carry out security arrangements further to cover drug trafficking, terrorism and nuclear arms, a new task force was set up in 1999.

The President's visit can expedite the 1993 and 1996 agreements so that the de facto arrangement becomes de jure. His visit will not result in a border agreement but will help build an atmosphere of trust and confidence that will later help in territorial adjustments.

There was talk of India, China and Russia aligning to prevent a unipolar world. Is that possible?

India and China are not comfortable with a unipolar world dominated in economic and military fields by one nation. Both have commented that the world should be multi-polar.

Russians mooted the idea of a Russia-China-India alliance when they were unhappy with the US.

But there is a problem. It is neither in India or China's interest to oppose the US and Western powers like Japan and Europe in seeking to oppose a unipolar world now. China has a deep trading relationship with the US and Japan, while India is on the threshold of new ties with the US. Neither side wants to upset this fundamental fact.

The question also is, can India or China afford to a political conflict with the US and the West while seeking stronger economic ties? I see no merit in talk of a grand alliance.

Moreover, the days of an alliance are gone. We have to avoid Cold War thinking. Our interests today are best served by having good ties with the developed world.

What is your assessment of Sino-Indian ties?

No relation can thrive unless there is a deep substance, such as economic links, trade, cultural ties, communications and exchange of people. We have such a relationship with the US and that is why ties with it will never fall below a certain level because of all these links. Similarly, Sino-US ties are deep because of the many connections.

However, China and India lack a similar network in their relations. Our trade is far, far below its potential, cultural and people exchange is limited and on the whole both sides remain unaware of each other. Unless the links are created and strengthened we can never have deep ties with China.

That is why I am glad that the presidential itinerary includes Dalian and Kunming.

Dalian is the third largest port and has a huge Japanese presence. It is implementing the third generation of reforms for China.

Kunming is even more interesting. It lies a few miles east of India, in Yunan province. Some years ago, there was an academic discussion on allowing transborder trade between northeast India, northeast Bangladesh, northwest Myanmar and southern China.

The Chinese first spoke of trade in this region in 1988 and we agreed, but wanted to involve Bangladesh and Myanmar. The time is right for such trade and I hope the President's visit will help push the idea forward. This region has historic ties among different people.

There was talk of allowing trade across Nathu La.

Nathu La is in Sikkim and if we trade from this border post, it means that the Chinese recognise Sikkim as a part of India. Frankly, the Chinese de facto recognise Sikkim as a part of India and now want to do it de jure. Perhaps the idea of a trading post at Nathu La will allow them to do so.

New Delhi is keen that China first recognise Sikkim as a part of India and then trade, while Beijing wants to do it the other way round.

It is only a matter of time before the issue is sorted out. Incidentally, we need to encourage more cross-border trade.

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