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M.L. Sondhi

What did the Beijing Summit achieve?  Before we review the various facets of Mr. Gandhi’s summit diplomacy, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves that the “fundamental change” in Sino-Indian relations claimed by the official side extends to only three areas:  First the establishment of a working group on the boundary question, and a joint group on economic relations and trade and science and technology; second, a psychological breakthrough by bringing to an end an era of confrontation; and third that the two countries have resolved to contribute to peace and stability in Asia and the world as a whole.  In the context of both national political attitudes and international diplomacy it would, however, be a serious misinterpretation if it is claimed that the two countries have transcended their deep-rooted differences on the border question and their competing interests in other areas which affect the logic of war and peace.  There is no concrete basis for the euphoria being experienced in a section of the press which is echoing the prosaic stuff of platitudes found in the joint communiqué.

Mr. Gandhi’s planning process for the Summit has clearly been faulty.  No meaningful effort was made to achieve even an inter-ministerial consensus with the result that no credible assessment of the threat to India has emerged apart from the routine exercises by the intelligence community.  The need to enter into summit negotiations only when the outstanding issues are ripe for settlement cannot be overemphasized.  Much needs to be done to assess India’s vulnerabilities and capabilities and to identify key indicators of essential information on the Sino-Indian negotiating issues.  Instead of consulting multiple sources of information and improving India’s operational readiness for a proper summit, those political elements were consulted who were inclined to discount or even dismiss the need for formulating principles of protection from China’s claims.  Although the Ministry of External Affairs has claimed to have studied the main issues extensively for the past two years, a wholly new factor entered into the topographic map with which Mr. Gandhi was exploring the diplomatic horizon.  The Soviet moves for détente with China led to fearful fantasies in South Block.  The ebb and flow of action and reaction on the prospects of summitry was also effected by the electoral image in the minds of the Prime Minister’s advisers.  A pro-China image could be used to manipulate the evaluations of the CPI and CPM and to achieve a demonstrative “peace” policy.  This means visualizing diplomatic strategy only in the dimension of a side-show to the conciliatory diplomacy between Moscow and Beijing, or as an operational method for domestic gains.  Unfortunately the broad setting of international politics has been ignored and there has been no effort to optimize national policy goals.  The diplomatic and strategic predicament of the Soviets in Afghanistan and earlier that of the Americans in Vietnam should have suggested that the normative index of progress in Sino-Indian relations is ultimately related to the Chinese evolving a commonsense solution to their substantive clash of interests with India by coming out of their diplomatic and strategic predicament in Tibet.  The Americans found their momentum for military success checked in Vietnam and the Soviets have also discovered the mirage of their military strength in Afghanistan.  It is a major fallacy of Rajiv Gandhi’s diplomacy that he has exaggerated the resilient strength that the Chinese in Tibet derive from the verbal edifice of “sovereignty-suzerainty” which India constructed in the Panchsheel days.  Instead of helping the Chinese to discover the inner reality of the logic of over-extension of military power – as the Soviets and the Americans have discovered – Mr. Gandhi appears to have recommended a course of action to the Chinese which will result in perverse tactical, operational and theatre strategies in an era of declining imperial systems.  Instead of helping the Chinese to come out of their strategic predicament, Mr. Gandhi’s so-called sense of realism is an actual distortion of international reality.

The Pacific Community (October 1976) published from Tokyo carried an article by me entitled “Peace and Diplomacy between India and China.”  This was one of the earliest attempts to examine the scope for peace diplomacy between India and China and recommended a course of action which would release both countries from the logic of confrontation.  While supporting mutual understanding and communication, I found myself obliged to ask that the Chinese convert Tibet from a bridgehead of conflict to a symbol of hope of an enduring and congenial relationship with India.  As one who started the academic discussion in the direction of peace diplomacy and hostile attitudes between India and China, I find Mr. Gandhi’s consignment of Tibet to a new Dark Age puzzling and alarming.  I think it is counterproductive to make false conjectures, favourable or unfavourable about the Chinese leadership.  What is needed is patient effort to bring into a common focus national security practices in China and India and to prepare the way towards an alternative conceptualization which help both countries to live in peace.  Fruitful Soviet-American summits took place when the time was ripe for them and as Gorbachev points out at Reykjavik both sides became convinced that a new and constructive way of political thinking was essential.  The dissonance of the Beijing summit with new political thinking is quite evident from the blatant denial by both India and China of opportunities to the Tibetans to fulfill their political and cultural needs in their homeland.  Mr. Gandhi geared his conduct to tactical moves and did not achieve a constructive exchange of opinions on the Dalai Lama’s 5 Point Peace Plan which can be the basis for coordinated actions essential for the achievement of a just and durable peace in Tibet. 

Mrs. Indira Gandhi had been following a dual policy on the Tibet issue.  She endorsed the continued existence of the Dalai Lama’s Government in exile at Dharamsala without formally recognizing it.  She avoided adopting any stand which would be anti-Chinese at the polemical level.  While brandishing the Beijing Summit as a turning point, New Delhi has retreated from the earlier position without any assurance that the Chinese will adhere to a modicum of restraint in Tibet.  Chinese propaganda will undoubtedly give great attention to the commitment that the Tibetans will not be allowed to carry on any political activity in India.  Despite this diplomatic success, the Chinese will prove no more successful than they did in the past in controlling pro-Tibet protest in India.  There is simply no way in which Mr. Gandhi’s government can prevent Indian citizens including those who are ethnic Tibetans and have close ties of sentiment and religion with the Dalai Lama from expressing their condemnation of Chinese atrocities in Tibet.  Even if Mr. Gandhi wishes, he cannot coordinate his policies on Tibet more closely with the Chinese as long as India remains a full fledged democracy with the fundamental right of Indian citizens to respond to human rights violations.  It may well turn out that as we enter a generally calmer international climate, with even South Africa moving to more rational ways, Tibet will become so much more social dynamite for China and will be the obvious target of the world-wide human rights movement.  Whatever the frantic responses of the Chinese to the increasingly unstable situation inside Tibet, the total control over the political forces in India working for Tibetan rights and freedoms is never going to be achieved.  It also remains to be seen how Mr. Gandhi will make his unguarded remarks and the inclusion of restraint on pro-Tibetan activity in India intelligible and acceptable to the Indian Parliament.

Instead of breaking the logjam on the Himalayan military-strategic problem, Mr. Gandhi has left the field open for the Chinese to increase their megatonage of nuclear explosive and the number of their missiles emplaced in Tibet.  Col.R. Rama Rao in an excellent study “Defence at Bearable Cost” has pointed out that “China is tightening its grip on Tibet and raising its force strength along India’s frontiers.  Indian air space and ground defence are regularly being monitored and Sino-Pakistan axis against India remains firm as ever.  Although Chinese leaders seem to desire normalization of relations with India, they are consolidating their hold on Tibet and over the Indian territory in Aksai Chin occupied by them by force in 1962.  Despite the earnest efforts being made by Indian leaders, it is difficult to see how normalization in relations can be restored till India’s territory under China’s forcible occupation is returned to India as a gesture of friendship.  Till then India will do well to be cautious and be prepared to deal with intrusions from the north.”  These are the views of a person who has been professionally involved in Indian defence research.  After reading him one wonders whether the Prime Minister was speaking for the Indian regime as a whole when he tried to oversimplify the complexities of the Sino-Indian relationship.  By referring to Tibet as an internal matter of China and appeasing the Chinese who are prisoners of an antiquated ideology, was he not taking the country into a political and strategic cul de sac?   The most casual scrutiny of the political parleys in Beijing suggests that the Indian sides on flimsy and implausible grounds believed that the Chinese would not bring up the Tibet question.  The savagery and horror of the Chinese misrule over Tibet did not prevent the Chinese leaders from demanding an assurance from India of non-interference in Tibet.  The whole question of Chinese iniquities in Tibet was ignored and the Chinese secured a limited victory by pinning the Indian side down on the question of anti-Chinese activities by Tibetans in India.

This limited victory will, however, not lend itself to the implementation of policies which Beijing may have in mind.  It will not be unreasonable for the present Indian government or a successor Government made up of the present Opposition, to make it clear to its Chinese counterpart that the foundation for a peaceful, cooperative and stable relationship between the two countries can only be laid in terms of the conceptualization in the Dalai Lama’s 5 Point Plan.  The Chinese position on Tibetan political activity in India is a very parochial view of an enduring cultural and spiritual relationship between Indians and Tibetans which spans several centuries.  The political activity in India to which the Chinese object is not anti-Chinese nor does it aim to overthrow the regime in Beijing.  The time has, however, come when following the example of Sakharov, the Tibetans-in-exile and their Indian supporters begin to openly endorse the Chinese dissidents who are working to liberalise the Chinese policy.  The Chinese leaders would thus be obliged to bear in mind that the political forces operating in Indian political society to which they object are not different from those forces which are working in Chinese and Soviet society to promote glasnost and democratization.  The change in Tibet is inevitable, but it could proceed peacefully if instead of driving the Tibetans to drastic steps the Chinese are prepared to reexamine the terms on which their negotiations with the Dalai Lama should proceed.  It is futile for the Chinese to expect that Indian public opinion will ever disclaim all interest in the state of affairs prevailing in Tibet.

The challenge before Indian diplomacy now is to circumvent the efforts of interpretation in the Tibetan dimension of Rajiv Gandhi’s statecraft and to evaluate afresh the risks, costs and benefits in relation to the evolving agenda of Sino-Indian relations.  We do not need another meaningless summit to address these crucial problems.  Appropriate lessons should be learnt from past mistakes.

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