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Professor M.L. Sondhi

Ex-MP, Jawaharlal Nehru University 1988

A view of the transcripts issued by the official “News from China” on some of the events connected with the Beijing Summit with the Chinese leaders reveals that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi had to yield ground on a number of issue areas.

In an essay with the heading “Where do correct ideas come from?” Mao Zedong had affirmed that “those ideas that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect”.  Maoist thinking has undoubtedly influenced the way in which the Chinese side structured the summit talks.  Chinese Premier Li Peng played the “Tibet card” with great skill and imposed situational constraints on the Indian side.  There was no visible payoff on the Indian side and all that comes through is a series of uncritical interpretations of the Chinese behaviour.  The Xinhua report on the December 19th talks between Li Peng and Rajiv Gandhi depicts an asymmetrical exchange.  It does not sustain the construction that some Indian papers have tried to place upon it.  To quote the report on Mr. Gandhi: “The Indian Prime Minister agreed that the border dispute is the knottiest problem in Sino-Indian relations.  He said both sides ought to solve this problem through peaceful and friendly consultations.  India is determined to solve the problem in the spirit of mutual benefit and reciprocity”.   This formulation can clearly give support to the Chinese to develop their case further against Indian border claims on unsubstantiated premises, if they can prove mutuality of benefit or reciprocity in their diplomatic manoeuvres.  The Chinese Premier continued the discussion with a dialectical refinement:  “Reviewing the “very friendly” relations between China and India in the 1950s the Chinese Premier said for reasons known to all, unfortunately bilateral relations took a turn for the worse and the deterioration even amounted to confrontation.”  The Chinese attack on India in 1962 shattered the unity of the Third World and had convulsive effects on Indian and Asian politics.  Chinese criticism of Nehru and of India during this period cannot be explained away by the phrase “for reasons known to all”.  The words “the deterioration even amounted to confrontation” do not confront the evidence that the Chinese attack on India surely disrupted the “very friendly” relations between the two countries.  The concluding part of the reportage shows that the integral nature of the Chinese negotiating strategy was not to get out of the conventional ruts of thinking but to maximise the benefits by seducing the Indian side to a disadvantageous position.  We can look at the logic of the following arguments: “During the talks, Li expressed admiration for the Indian Government’s principled position on the Tibet issue”.

“The Chinese Government has noted, he said, that all Indian Governments have stuck to the following positions in this regard:  Tibet is part of China, and India will not interfere in China’s internal affairs, nor will it allow Tibetan separatists in India to conduct political activities aimed at splitting China up”.

“Gandhi reiterated that the Indian Government holds that Tibet is an autonomous region of China.  The Indian government does not allow any political forces in India to engage in any political activities harmful to China’s internal affairs.”  This is not a policy of Sino-Indian détente based on discussing all problems, including Tibet in a humane manner and within an atmosphere of relaxation and openness.  The policy implications derive from a political culture which justifies hegemony, and pushed the Tibetans into a pariah position.  There is an aggressive stance which the Chinese could not have taken with any of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s predecessors in office.

The Beijing Banquet in honour of Rajiv Gandhi also serves as an explanatory factor for understanding the asymmetry of Sino-Indian bilateral relations.  Again Premier Li’s theoretical starting point on the border question demands a sacrifice from India without any prospect of tangible net benefit.  According to Li: “Sino-Indian relations have improved in many fields in recent years.  We look forward to a further improvement of our bilateral relations with the impetus of Your Excellency’s current visit.  We always maintain and sincerely hope that there will be a fair and reasonable settlement of the outstanding boundary question between our two countries through friendly consultation in a spirit of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation….”   In a historical perspective the boundary question developed after the Chinese colonisation of Tibet by the PLA without going into the historical and genetic explanation of the problem, Li demands accommodation from Rajiv Gandhi, which could only come from the sacrifice of Indian securities and national interest.  The plea for a fair and reasonable settlement does not hide Chinese truculence against the strategic interests of India even at a Banquet speech.

So far as one can judge the hour long meeting in the Great Hall of the People between Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese President Wang Shangkun was a grand lesson in Chinese state ideology – in a historical and comparative fashion - for the young Indian Prime Minister.  President Yang neatly skirted the question of Tibetan participation in political and social tasks as free agents by pontificating to Rajiv that “the Central Government helps the Tibetans take charge of their own affairs, helps Tibet overcome financial difficulties and develop education and culture in the Tibet Autonomous Region”.  Yang’s theory of political consciousness and his ideas on the development of education and culture do not indicate that the Chinese leaders have developed any taste for glasnost.  Also we are not told by Xinhua whether the lecturing and didactics by Yang included anything on the Chinese Central Government’s help to the Tibetans to develop a free press to voice their opinions confidently.  Pondering the statement of Yang that “We respect the religious beliefs and customs and habits of the Tibetan people, and they enjoy the freedom of religious belief”, Rajiv Gandhi did not read out a litany of crimes against the Buddhist religion or express himself strongly on the destruction of cultural property, including monasteries in Tibet.  Rajiv Gandhi’s crisis of confidence in the values which pluralistic and democratic India represents is illustrated by  his response: “Rajiv Gandhi reiterated the Indian Government’s position that Tibet is an autonomous region of China and that India does not believe in interference in China’s internal affairs.”  It is interesting to speculate what the Chinese answer would have been if it was India which had occupied Tibet and the roles in this conversation had been reversed.  It would be a profound mistake to ignore the inequalities and imbalances which have surfaced in the logic of the new relationship which Rajiv Gandhi claims to have established with China.  It is not only in terms of the immediate political benefits that Beijing has derived from this summit that we should perceive the event and draw appropriate lessons.  Even more important is to grasp the reality of the incipient Chinese effort to impose a patron-client relationship on an Indian leadership which lacks self-confidence.

Evaluating the situation the Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping said that China and India “should forget the unpleasant past of their bilateral relations and should have an eye on the future.”  This was an opportunity for Rajiv Gandhi to have provided some solid intellectual fare to his octogenarian “friend” on the need for a truly historic compromise on Tibet which would ensure that the unpleasant past would never return again.  He could have emphasised that Chinese nuclear and conventional deployments in Tibet speak of hostile political intentions and expansionist aims.  Mr. Gandhi’s comment as published in the Xinhua report of December 21st represents a complete retreat from a strict assessment of reality to which India has adhered in defence of its territorial integrity.  “Rajiv Gandhi said, ‘There have been a few difficulties in between (Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit in 1954 and his own visit in 1988), I hope to bring things back and get over those difficulties.”  Manifestly catastrophic possibilities lie hidden in those words about “a few difficulties” and Mr. Gandhi’s over simplification is irrelevant to the complex architecture of ideas with which the Chinese are self-confidently tackling their political and military tasks.

As the record of the negotiations at Beijing indicates, there is a strong empirical basis for contrasting the self-confidence of the Chinese side and the diffidence of the Indians.  If Indian diplomacy is to cope with the Chinese mode of political thinking and their hard bargaining behaviour, we must give up the craven and obsequious mentality which characterised the 1988 Summit.  A new outlook is necessary which avoids further psychological damage to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile.  India will encourage the Chinese to develop more humane relations bilaterally if it does not offer appeasement to Chinese monolithic assertiveness but rewards Beijing’s openness and pluralism.  Instead of throwing the Tibetans to the wolves, India and China should seriously consider functional alternatives to war in the first place by making Tibet the symbol of an enduring and congenial Sino-Indian relationship in place of a bridge-head of conflict and confrontation.

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