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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji
The ambassador will return as president
President K R Narayanan's visit to China later this month will be unique. For, 26 years ago, when India re-established ambassador-level diplomatic links with Beijing -- broken in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 -- it was Narayanan who was picked to be India's envoy.
"A presidential visit is usually seen as being ceremonial, more grandeur and less official. Narayanan's visit is no doubt ceremonial, but given his background as a former envoy to China, it assumes great significance and important for us to watch it closely," said Dr Swaran Singh, a China-watcher at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Not only was Narayanan the former envoy to China, he also served as director, China, during his tenure in the Indian Foreign Service, a position that allowed him to gain great insights into the Chinese establishment. Not surprisingly, he even speaks Mandarin.
"Narayanan has a genuine interest in China and understands the Chinese better than most others. The impressions he gathers and conveys from this visit will be an asset to the country," said Dr Singh.
An advantage of being the former envoy is that many of the people Narayanan interacted with way back in 1974 have now risen to prominent positions in the Chinese establishment. "Chinese Foreign Minister G Jiaxuan is a friend of his. Jiaxuan was in the 1970s deputy director general of Asia and later director general," said Singh. "Similarly, the present Chinese envoy to India, Zhou Gang, is known personally to Narayanan."
Narayanan also holds the distinction of being India's first vice-president to visit China, which he did in October 1994.
Narayanan's visit is important for other reasons too. This is the first visit by India's highest dignitary after the nuclear tests two years ago, something that was strongly condemned by Beijing. "The very fact that a visit is taking place shows that while the Chinese still maintain that India must roll back its nuclear programme, they also realise that it is important not to let that be a stumbling block," said Singh, who has written several books on China.
But knowledgeable sources warn against having high expectations of the presidential visit. "When the expectations are high, we prepare ourselves for disappointment. The President has very limited powers in terms of what he can do," they pointed out. "His visit will nevertheless create the ground for better ties."
According to the sources, there is already talk of inviting Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to India before the year-end. "What Narayanan can achieve is to create the ambience for political decisions to be taken," said Singh.
The sources said that after the success of United States President Bill Clinton's visit to India, the Chinese have been watching the subcontinent closely and are keen to engage India. "A good example of this is that we had our first security dialogue in March last. Earlier, whenever India asked for a security dialogue, the Chinese position was that since India was not a nuclear power, there was no need for a security dialogue. This is thus a tacit acceptance of our nuclear position," the sources added.
Security strategists never tire of pointing out that it was Narayanan, who way back in the 1970s had submitted a note saying India must go nuclear in view of the long-term threat from China. "This only shows his deep understanding of Indo-China relations," the sources said.
While the details are still not out, Narayanan's visit is scheduled to last a week, beginning May 29. He leaves for Beijing on May 28.
The previous president to visit China was R Venkataraman. Prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao had also visited China during their tenures.
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