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Better Understanding



Salman Haidar


When I came in here this morning, I thought I must have arrived at a wrong place, the world of culture, arts, liberal thoughts, as the publications in the next room testify, and my sense of bewilderment has been reinforced by Prof. Tan Chungís observations about a holistic perspective, art and culture, messages of love from Guanyin and Krishna and so on. The quotedian world of diplomacy seems far remote from these higher ideas and greater aspirations. Nevertheless, I have to persist and try to say a few words, let me say, couple of preliminaries. I see my colleagues from the East Asian Division*, like me they might be somewhat more inhibited in what they might say in a seminar of this nature. But I have my very distinguished friends and colleagues who were senior to me from the Foreign Service who are extremely knowledgeable about Chins and who might be in fuller flow than those of us who are still sewing in the Ministry.

I am also intimidated by what I am told about the fact that our observations are to be recorded. Well, I hope that this wonít be held against me at any rate about others and furthermore I doubt very much if I can say anything of real substance or anything worth recording. But anyway let me take up some of the points that perhaps can be offered at this stage. We have been engaged for quite some time in repairing and restoring and developing relations with China after a period of strain and tension. I need not go into what was done at the time of Mrs. Gandhi, the fact is that we did develop an approach that did not give primacy to the areas of discord without wishing to turn away or without pretending that they did not exist, and we chose instead to seek for areas of mutual benefit and where we could infact develop our relations. Obviously, this has been productive but it requires a will, a settled purpose on the part of the leadership in both countries.

Prof. Tan Chung did refer to this and quite rightly he made a perfectly valid observation. We have been urging others, our neighbours, to adopt a similar approach in handling the problem, not to permit disputes to dominate, but to seek areas of mutual benefit. The fact that we have not got very far on all fronts underlines the relevance and the importance of this long standing approach that we have adopted on bilateralities with China. Now, there was a steady process of exchange, on border and other issues which was steady but also very slow, and through the first part of the last decade. I think it important to recall that in the middle of the last decade, there was a period of renewed difficulty, when it appeared from both sides that activities were taking place on the border, particularly certain sections of the border that brought India trouble, when there was a build up from both sides and an introduction of alarm, (perhaps, ďalarmĒ is not too strong a word), certainly a great deal of watchfulness and a deterioration in our relationship. Owing to this situation what did happen thereafter was a very notable and a bold step taken by the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who, in 1988, took the step of going to China notwithstanding the fact that there had been a military build up along the border. His visit to China in 1998 to which many of those who are present here in this room contributed in signal measures, brought about a new complexion in relations, which did mean that diplomatically, a negative condition was converted into a positive. It was a kind of rebound from the situation of difficulty, and a momentum was created towards a positive process of discussion on border dispute and other questions. And this process has been in effect there since then. A number of meetings of the joint working group which was strengthened and revitalized and given another name on that occasion and the discussions have been purposeful, being accompanied by a number of confidence building measures on the border. I have had, as many others in this room, the opportunity for being engaged in these joint working group meetings, and we have, in fact, been able to make slow but steady progress. And with the confidence building measures that have been instituted, there is a measurably improved atmosphere along the border.

There has been some thinning out of military forces as we are informed. This is not a negotiated thinning out, but there has been some voluntary action which bears witness to a more relaxed situation on the border culminating in a climax during Mr. Narsimha Raoís visit to Beijing in 1993 when a border peace and tranquillity agreement was signed which gave a stamp on this process and gave momentum for further developments. Since then, the last meeting of the joint working group has resulted in a small withdrawal from both sides of various posts which were within close range and thereby constituted a potential for confidence building. And this has underlined the point that efforts are made on both sides to render the border tranquil, to remove causes of strife and to reduce physical confrontation along the border.

Another point I would like to say is that from what we can see at least when we talk to the standing committee of the Indian Parliament or when the matter is raised in Parliamentary committes or discussions at the Parliamentary level in various ways, there is a consensus that it would be useful and helpful to the country to make progress in sorting out the border problem with China. This is the broad sense of it. I would say that there is a lot of watchfulness, a lot of careful approach to this matter which is recognized as a matter of great complexity and one that has to be tackled with due care and preparation. The broad trend of opinion is, at least in what I am able to see along the lines, what I have just indicated. With that there has been a development in bilateral economic exchanges. Our trade is around $1.2 billion, is increasing rapidly. $1.2 billion is not a dramatic, but quite substantial and measurable increase and is much more than what it was a few years ago. There is a good rate of growth.

In addition to trade, there are a few joint ventures. In this I must say the Chinese have been more active than we have, in selling technology, in finding partnerships in India, and actively engaged in India. But Indian entrepreneurs and business people are also active now in China. In pharmaceuticals recently, a joint venture was set up and there is a sense of substantial potential in this field. We have been hearing many years ago that India and China are essentially competitors in the world and the complementarities are few. But I think that this is not the view that is being sustained by the experience of the business community

on both sides. They have been able to find openings in each otherís countries and there is a sense that there will be further openings available. Border trade has opened in a couple of places, though nothing very much has happened, this benefits small isolated communities, which had all along been trading along the border, and they are now able to revive trade which is useful and encouraging. We are hopeful that this process can be expanded, there are some proposals from each side for additional points of border trade and let us see how soon we can get this going.

I do see a couple of points on the border trade worth noting. I see that some businessmen in Kathmandu are quite interested in exporting Indian products to Tibet. So, instead of going directly across the Sino-Indian border, the trade can be routed through Nepal. One recalls, I donít know how good my recollection is, that this was a traditional route, until some time at the end of the 18th century, when the tolls demanded by the new Gorkha regime in Kathmandu became excessive and then the British started looking for alternatives through Sikkim and also through Bhutan which was not so welcoming. But Sikkim then provided a reasonable access. So, itís interesting that we have come back to that situation, at least that possibility is once gain a useful one to look at. And on the other front, the development of communications between India and Myanmar, and the development of the border trade and the fact that Myanmar does have considerable access to Chinese goods of various kinds, means that another possibility of fairly modest trade, at this stage, along the border, has been created.

Once again, there are historical precedents in this case, I believe, going back to the Tang Dynasty. But I am not too clear about the details of that. Let me refer to one or two more points before I conclude. Recently, for the first time, India took part as a dialogue partner in the ASEAN post-ministerial conference in Jakarta and we were also part of the ARF dialogue, this Asian regional forum, which addresses security issues. It was our first exposure to this forum, which is a broad one that includes China, among many countries. There is a number of non-regional and regional countries that are present in this ASEAN Regional Forum.

I draw attention to this because it is one grouping in which India and China find themselves favourably placed. Some of the concepts, some of the ideas for stabilising the broader arenas, for promoting co-operative andeavour or at least co-operative thinking, if not actions, have been unfolded at this stage. An exploration of each otherís views, that is what such fora excel, can bring our two countries closer.

I donít know whether this points to the larger vision that Prof. Tan Chung alluded to, but it certainly is a broader basis for exchanges, between the countries of the region, including India and China. And I personally believe that there is a considerable potential for looking at each other bearing this perspective. I think that I would like to stop here and also strongly advise Prof. Tan Chung not to either record or print my remarks but that is entirely his decision. I must also thank him and IGNCA for this opportunity. I really come here more in a spirit of solidarity, both with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and with the distinguished representatives here, in order to express Ministry of External Affairís abiding interest in the subject and my desire to be associated with it.


* Mr. Salman Haidar was the Foreign Secretary of Government India when he delivered this talk. He was accompanied by officials of East Asian Division of the Ministry of External Affairs.


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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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