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May 19, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Professor Giri Deshingkar

'The Chinese suspect that India and US will get together against Beijing'

Professor Giri Deshingkar, at present with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is an old China hand. Besides being the former director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and a professor at Delhi University's Department of Japanese and Chinese Studies, he has written numerous books and articles on the Middle Kingdom.

President K R Narayanan is due to visit China from May 28 onwards. Professor Deshingkar discussed the likely impact of the visit with Amberish K Diwanji.

How important is the President's visit to China?

It is a very important visit. It is the first visit by a high ranking Indian official after the Pokhran blasts and the letter from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to US President Bill Clinton (in which Vajpayee had justified the nuclear tests on the grounds of threat from China). What that letter did was to take a good situation to bad and then from bad to worse.

The situation was only slightly salvaged because somewhere in December 1998 or January 1999 the Indian President made a statement wherein he said that China was not a threat to India. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was in a soup over Vajpayee's letter and Defence Minister George Fernandes's earlier statement (where he called China India's number one threat) and the President rescued them.

The other advantage is, of course, that the President knows China and the Chinese know him. He was on the China desk of the ministry of external affairs and later the first ambassador to China when we upgraded relations in 1974. All these factors make this visit important.

But is not the President's visit somewhat symbolic rather than substantial?

I have heard this statement and I don't think it will apply to this President. First, the Chinese don't regard him as a mere symbol. In their own political system, the President does exercise substantial powers and they probably expect Narayanan to wield some influence over the government of the day. The very fact that Narayanan is scheduled to meet both, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji shows that they treat this visit as important.

Second, our President is not really a figurehead. In the past he has made statements clearly showing his independence of mind rather than toeing the government's line. For instance, he has spoken about the Constitution review, about China not being a threat, during Clinton's visit he spoke about not having a global policeman, something which the Indian government did not like, and so on.

It is true that the President cannot negotiate with the Chinese but his general statements can have an impact on both sides. In that sense his visit will be important. I expect a lot to come out of this visit as compared to what our former President R Venkataraman's visit in 1988 achieved.

How would you categorise Indo-China relations?

Our relations today are good on a day-to-day basis. But there is no warmth or trust in our relationship, elements which are clearly seen in the China-Pakistan relationship. And without such warmth our relations cannot progress. Let me stress that such warmth will take time. Many people don't realise that Sino-Pakistan relations took about 20 years to reach where they are today.

There are two reasons for this. First, there are many high up in the Chinese establishment who probably believe that Vajpayee's letter to Clinton contains the true thinking of India's relation with China -- that China is a threat to India and should be kept at a distance. Such elements create serious doubts in the minds of the Chinese about us.

Second, there is some concern among the Chinese about the increasing interactive links between India and the United States. The Chinese have always believed that India will align with the US and that the US in turn is preparing for the day when China becomes a major power (but not a superpower).

We must remember that unlike India. China thinks years ahead. In fact, I think that the shortest time they think ahead is 50 years, usually it is about 100 years ahead. We in India rarely see beyond the next few days! So the Chinese have this suspicion that India and the US will get together against Beijing. And they seriously see India as being part of the Western camp, which we really are. In ideology and attitude, we are far closer to the West than to China.

But we have also begun a security dialogue with China?

Yes, that is true. Both sides have been claiming that the other side was keen to have a dialogue but regardless, the fact is that it has begun. Now, China is keen on having a separate dialogue on the nuclear issue which is really a tricky situation. India has voiced concern over the years about Chinese transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan, but the fact is that we have not given any specific information about this transfer. Most of the information we have has come from the US and we have only added our corroborative information.

But there is a change in China's position. China earlier denied any technology transfer, but from 1995, when the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, it has been saying that since they are part of the treaty, they cannot transfer technology. I'd say that China does not want to admit that it has been transferring technology to Pakistan.

What are your comments on reports about Chinese bases in the Coco Islands in Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal? Do they pose a threat to India?

These and other such ports on the Bay of Bengal are supposedly Chinese bases. These have been constructed by the Chinese but are run by the Myanmarese. The Myanmarese are an extremely xenophobic race. They hate Indians and they hate the Chinese and it is inconceivable that the State Law and Order Restoration Committee will allow the Chinese to run these bases.

The SLORC has many enemies, including our Defence Minister George Fernandes, who has his own private agenda vis-a-vis Myanmar. The SLORC is worried about arms smuggling in the Bay of Bengal and were keen to have installations on the Bay of Bengal to help them monitor such activities.

The Myanmarese and the Chinese have an agreement that is similar to the Sino-US deal to monitor the Soviet Union's activities along the Sino-Soviet border. The US set up the installation and equipment, but it was the Chinese who used it to collect information. And they would only share that information which the Chinese wanted to. Similarly, the Myanmarese collect the information and pass on those parts of it which they wish to, to the Chinese.

I have heard that apparently the Myanmarese invited the Indians to inspect the installation on Coco Islands, but we declined. The tragedy is that Fernandes does not check facts before shooting his mouth. It is hardly a Chinese base as our politicians make it out to be. Some time back there was this story about missile bases in Tibet. Now Tibet has no trees, so if there are bases, surely the high-resolution spy satellites can photograph them.

What about the Indo-Vietnam naval exercises in the South China Seas?

This exercise is really bizarre! It makes absolutely no sense. The official reason is to curb piracy activities. Most of the piracy occurs in the Bay of Bengal, on this side of the Malacca Straits, not in the South China Seas which is on the other side of the Malacca Straits.

Secondly, I don't see how Indian ships can routinely cross the Malacca Straits to patrol the seas on the other side. Yet, strangely, on this side there is much piracy. The Indian ships may call on the Vietnam ports but active participation on the other side of the Malacca Straits really sounds bizarre. I think this is one more case of Fernandes shooting his mouth off, terming this whole thing as an exercise and which word the US media picked up.

Incidentally, is this "exercise" really on? I have not seen any reports about it after the initial flurry of reports in the newspapers.

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