March 30, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

True friendship begins by getting to the bottom of yesterday's problems
What Jaswant Singh's visit to China augurs for Sino-Indian relations

Though it passed unnoticed in India, a very interesting book was published recently. This book should be read by all those interested in the strategic relations between India and China.

Spy on the Roof of the World (Penguin) is the true story of Sidney Wignall, a British mountaineer who, in 1955, went on a perilous expedition inside Tibet with the full knowledge and complicity of Indian Military Intelligence to check on the progress of the strategic road between Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang).

Wignall gives us a lively account of how the Indian army, including then army chief, General K S Thimayya, already knew in 1955 that the Chinese were building a road across Indian territory. MI asked Wignall to get proof of the project. It was the only way to convince Jawaharlal Nehru how misconceived his Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai policy was. Thimayya had been very suspicious of the Chinese who had declared they wanted to defend 'their western borders.'

One of the most distressing parts of this story is that when Wignall offered his manuscript to Indian publishers he was politely told they could not publish 'this stuff' in India. He had no other choice but to first publish the book in the UK.

I do not know if Jaswant Singh, the minister of external affairs who is on a five-day visit to China, has read Wignall's book, but one can hope that his advisors are aware of the details of the occupation of this part of Indian territory.

While 'official' Indian history tells us that the building of the road was discovered in 1958 when an Indian patrol was arrested by the Chinese People's Liberation Army for trespassing on Indian territory, the matter only became public in 1959 when it was raised in the Lok Sabha. If one accepts Wignall's version, which is corroborated by several other facts, the Government of India kept secret the occupation of a part of Jammu and Kashmir state for four/five years. In 1959, in Parliament, Nehru first dismissed the whole affair thus -- why to 'fight for a few rocks'? Or for a place 'without a blade of grass?' But later he had to admit the blunder.

The road had already been inaugurated by Zhou Enlai in 1957; the Chinese media had widely broadcasted the event. On October 6, 1957, in an article in the magazine Kuang-ming Jih pan, the Chinese government announced: 'The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway -- the highest in the world -- has been completed. During the last few days a number of trucks running on a trial basis have arrived in the Ko-ta-ke in Tibet from Yehch'eng in Sinkiang.' The article added 'two trucks fully loaded with Hami melons, apples, pomegranates, all natives products of Sinkiang, headed in the same direction. These fruits were gifts brought specially by the road builders of Sinkiang for the people of the various nationalities of Ko-ta-ke.'

One wonders who these nationalities were because except for some forced Tibetan labour and poor Han recruits, nobody was around. One also doubts if the toilers ever tasted the fruits of their hardship for building this crucial road link on the Aksai Chin plateau, but this is another story.

Wignall, after having discovered that a road was indeed being constructed in great secret, was caught by the PLA, interrogated and kept prisoner for several weeks. He was later released in the middle of winter in a high altitude pass. The Chinese thought he would never survive the blizzards or find his way back to India. After an incredible journey, he managed to reach the Uttar Pradesh border with Tibet and was able to report the construction work to the army who, in turn, informed Prime Minister Nehru and Krishna Menon, then defence minister.

However, at that time it was more convenient for the politicians not to believe a Britisher. He was later told by his army contact:

'Our illustrious Prime Minister Nehru, who is so busy on the world stage telling the rest of mankind how to live, has too little time to attend to the security of his own country. Your material was shown to Nehru by one of our senior officers, who plugged hard. He was criticised by Krishna Menon in Nehru's presence for 'lapping up American CIA agent-provocateur propaganda.' Menon has completely suppressed your information.

'So it was all for nothing?' I [Wignall] asked. 'Perhaps not,' Singh [Wignall's contact in the army] responded. 'We will keep working away at Nehru. Some day he must see the light, and realise the threat Communist Chinese occupation of Tibet poses for India.'

Indeed, it would take a few more years for the Indian prime minister to see the light. This sad incident is not complete without mentioning that Wignall's contact in Military Intelligence was killed at Sela Pass when the Chinese attacked India in 1962. It also perhaps explains why, when Timmy, (as General Thimayya was known by his junior officers), was forced to retire in 1961, he declared in his valedictory address to the Indian Army officer corps 'I hope I am not leaving you as cannon fodder for the Chinese Communists.'

It is good to remind the Indian public that everything is still not great between India and China. On the eve of Jaswant Singh's departure for Beijing, Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters: 'The Chinese government attaches great importance to the long-term, stable friendly relations and good-neighbourly cooperation with India.'

Though we can only join Zhang in hoping that 'this visit will yield positive results and play a constructive role in promoting the friendly exchanges and cooperation,' the past can not be brushed aside and a solution for this nearly 50-year-old problem will have to be found.

Singh could certainly take the opportunity of his meetings with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, Vice-Premier Qian Qichen and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan to refresh Chinese memories that today's true friendship starts by getting to the bottom of yesterday's unresolved problems.

This visit comes at a strange moment for China. Social unrest has been on the high and the least one can say is that the Chinese empire is not stable at a time when the State prepares to renew its Politburo and find a new secretary general for the Communist party as well as a new president.

Take Daqing, the mythic paradise for Chinese toilers; it is in flames.

In the fifties, Mao Zedong immortalized this oil town; he wanted to create a few such centres which, he believed, in a short period of 10 or 15 years, would produce more steel than the UK or the Soviet Union. His policy eventually led to the 'Great Leap Forward,' which took China 20 years backward, but Daqing remain the myth of a new self-reliant China.

Today, the reality is harsher, with China fast becoming a capitalist country. Of roughly 260,000 workers, more than 86,000 workers have been sacked by the Daqing Petroleum Administration since 1999. During past weeks, something unbelievable happened. Daily, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the freezing cold outside the company's 40-story headquarters. They demanded a hearing with the management and re-employment. Hundreds of workers have been arrested, but if one believes Mao's famous slogan: 'In industry, learn from Daqing,' it means China's industry has a serious problem.

It is not the only one. China's relations with the US have deteriorated swiftly during the past few weeks. Just a month after US President George W Bush visited Beijing, the Chinese media said the United States had shattered the euphoria of the visit with a series of insensitive and offensive moves. The China Daily stated in an editorial: 'Beijing feels betrayed.'

Using its strongest language against the United States, China accused Washington of 'nuclear blackmail.' Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing protested strongly at a US policy review describing contingency plans to aim nuclear weapons at China among several other countries. A television program quoting Li said 'China wants to make it very clear that China will never yield to foreign threats, including nuclear blackmail. The days when China could be bullied are gone forever.' However, the fact remains that with Sino-American relations deteriorating fast, China's economy may go deeper in distress.

Another factor of instability is the Falun Gong issue that Beijing has been unable to handle, except by force -- and even this with little result. After centuries of colonisation (like India), first by foreign powers and then by a foreign ideology (Marxism), China is searching for its roots again. The old generation of party apparatchiks is confronted by something Marx forgot to explain. China had a spiritual tradition -- whether it was Confucianism, Buddhism or Taoism -- and the spirit of the past always returns searching for a deeper slogan than Deng Xiaoping's motto 'To become rich is glorious.'

President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues are incapable of grasping this other dimension of Chinese culture and have so far answered a genuine quest only with brutality. We have no place here to deal with the food production problem which may soon become the No 1 problem for Beijing; 'Who will feed China?' American food expert Lester Brown wrote a few years ago. Today some of his predictions are coming true.

To compound these problems, China has been unable to make one step forward towards solving the problems of its so-called minorities which are becoming more and more restive, particularly the Tibetans. This, in spite, of the moderator role played by the Dalai Lama who has been making compromise after compromise to try and bring Beijing to the negotiating table.

Early this month, his more than middle-path propositions were again rejected. All doors seem now closed to even discuss the Tibetan issue. The Chinese leadership are only banking on the Dalai Lama's age.

Another issue which gives Beijing sleepless nights is the problem of Xinkiang. With the opening of the Karakoram highway in 1987, a strategic umbilical cord was open between Pakistan and China. Military aid could flow to the Muslim state and China could engage India in a proxy war in Kashmir. One more front was open against the Indian State at minimum cost. The legitimate Burmese government was replaced by a junta favourable to Beijing; the old Maoist agitation could be revived in Nepal; Indian forces were kept busy by the insurgency in the northeast; in Pakistan, the Chinese had just to send some missiles and tell their Pakistani friends how to make an atom bomb. But they had forgotten the 2,500-year-old teaching of the Buddha that every action has a consequence.

In this case, the consequence started being visible to all (particularly in Beijing) after September 11. The same road, used for delivering military equipment to Pakistan, was now bringing jihad to Xinkiang. There is great fear in Beijing that if they lose control of this region -- the gate to badly needed petroleum in Central Asia -- the high rate of development of the Chinese economy may not continue, which will result in more social unrest.

Beijing has randomly arrested ethnic Uighurs in Xinkiang and also increased the speed of transfer of the Han population to its western province, but will it succeed in controlling the jihadi overflow from Pakistan?

In the circumstances, the Beijing leadership is very keen to see Mr Singh offer them a settlement on the border issue, particularly for Aksai Chin which is located so close to Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the Karakoram ranges, between India and Xinkiang. One can only advise Mr Singh not to go for a 'quick' solution, which will ultimately solve nothing.

There is no doubt that India, in spite of the recent communal disturbances, is today a more stable State than China. History seems to dictate that India should be patient and not see some short-term 'propaganda' gains. 'Stability' in bilateral relations can only be built through solutions which are sustainable in the long run. Else in 50 years, another Indian minister will again visit Beijing and the Chinese government spokesperson will continue to hope for 'stability' in relations. What a waste of time!

PS: One solution for the future of Aksai Chin could be the admission by China that they have built the road on Indian territory. The Government of India, in turn, could lease the land occupied by the road to Beijing. It has to be noted that Nehru had envisaged such a solution a few months before he passed away. But before such a step can be taken, the problem of Tibet and Sinkiang needs to be satisfactorily worked out.

Design: Dominic Xavier.

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