A diplomat’s diary

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GREAT WALL: India’s relations with China have gone through a lot of ups and downs in the past 50 years
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GREAT WALL: India’s relations with China have gone through a lot of ups
and downs in the past 50 years

Maintaining diplomatic links with China has always been a tightrope walk for Indian leaders and diplomats. K. Natwar Singh shares the highs and lows of his experiences with China in his book My China Diary. Excerpts:

IF I were asked to name one achievement in my 50 years’ involvement in foreign affairs and diplomacy, I would, with pride, point to the breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations in December 1988. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit was a landmark event, with wide ramifications. Rajiv Gandhi appointed me as Minister of State for External Affairs in October 1986. Within three weeks of taking over, I arrived at certain conclusions. Indian diplomats had an unenviable task, in conducting and implementing our diplomacy and foreign policy. They went about their task with one hand tied behind their back.

Relations with the USA, China and Pakistan were highly unsatisfactory for a number of years. Our diplomats were not responsible for this. The political masters were. The prime minister, in a light-hearted manner, generally spoke derisively about, ‘you IFS chaps’. This I told him was not fair. Soon after taking over in 1986, I had a long discussion with the Prime Minister. I put it candidly to him, ‘What is your foreign policy vision? What are your priorities?’ He countered, ‘What are yours, Natwar?’ This gave me the opening I was looking for. ‘I have one paramount priority — to improve relations with China.’ We now have three options. (1) Not to disturb the status quo. (2) War. (3) Negotiations. Status quo suited China. War was not a realistic option. Negotiation was the only practical policy. And negotiation had to be held at the highest level. Even in November 1962, Nehru had told Parliament that ultimately the dispute had to be resolved through negotiation.

Rajiv Gandhi was an impatient listener. He asked me what I had in mind. I said the time had now come for him to seriously think of paying an official visit to the People’s Republic. His grandfather had made his passage to China in October 1954. For all practical purposes our relations with China had been in the diplomatic deep-freeze for over two decades. One of the reasons was the existence of an influential anti-China lobby in New Delhi. These heavyweights included P.V. Narasimha Rao, G. Parathasarthi and S. Gopal. All three had the 1962 hang-up. These well-meaning pundits had immobilised Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy. Mao Tse Tung’s gesture to Brajesh Mishra in 1970 was unfortunately, not taken seriously. Times, I said, had changed. But we had not. Our inactivity had been exploited by Pakistan. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger had used Islamabad as their link to China.

By this time the Prime Minister was both, restless and interested. I told him I would take only a few minutes more, ‘You have 413 Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha. You are Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandson and Indira Gandhi’s son. No one can ever accuse you of any foreign policy sell-out. A prime ministerial visit to Beijing was overdue.’ I remember his exact response, ‘I have no 1962 hang-up. You start thinking about a possible trip.’

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was endowed with an uncluttered, practical, not an introspective mind. Action, not reflection was his forté. He did not spend time contemplating problems; he was looking for answers and solutions. He could be impetuous and infuriating. He could equally charm you by his disarming candour. Like his grandfather, he had not an iota of the poison of malice or pettiness in his character. He was only 40 years of age when fate thrust the prime ministership on him. The circumstances could not have been more painful. He rose to the occasion, like a modern day Caesar. His stunning good looks, his style, his panache, his sang-froid, his capacity to switch off, his natural wit, his immense self-confidence made him an enormously large figure. He always looked fresh and buoyant. Some of that freshness rubbed on us. Like John F. Kennedy, Rajiv Gandhi had a gamesman’s sense of politics. I don’t want to carry this comparison too far, because Kennedy had an acute sense of history that Rajiv Gandhi lacked.

Unlike his grandfather, his mother and Kennedy, Rajiv Gandhi did not read books. This was a serious shortcoming. Michael Foot wrote, ‘Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power.’ This is an extreme view, but there is much to be said for it. Rajiv Gandhi made no claims to being an intellectual. But he was receptive to ideas. Rajiv Gandhi enjoyed being prime minister; sometimes excessively.

On China, he excelled himself. This would be his enduring foreign policy achievement. For decades we had, for all practical purposes, no realistic China policy. Rajiv Gandhi changed that. While he spent some time on acquainting himself with the essential nitty-gritty of the Sino-Indian relationship, he looked at the larger picture. That is an essential quality of leadership. Most importantly he was not intimidated by any of the Chinese leaders, whose experience compared to his, was vast.

This was then the background in which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi undertook his historic visit to Beijing in 1988. Expert in playing the power game, Deng Xiaoping was aware that the India of 1988 was not the India of 1962.