Perceptions & prescriptions

IT IS inexplicable, it has no firm basis, but it is there. The U.S. factor looms as never before in the chequered history of the India-China relationship, as discussions centre on changing global equations. Diplomatic tongues had been wagging for over a year on the meaning of the new importance of India in U.S. eyes, at a time when American ties with China show strains. There were frequent hints of Washington's interest in building India as a counterweight to China or of using New Delhi as part of its policy to contain Beijing. Beginning with whispered conversations this theory later found its way into loud conversations. And, lately, it has been the subject of serious mainstream commentators. New Delhi would do well to dispel such perceptions - not because the case for enhancing relations with the U.S. is weak but because India's interests will suffer grievously if it allows itself to be sucked in the U.S. wrangles with China. There is perfect justification for building strong ties with the U.S. and, likewise, it is logical for India to be on the best of terms with a large neighbour.

There are several reasons for the sudden appearance of misperceptions - particularly prevalent abroad but not altogether absent in India. The moves to strengthen bilateral ties between India and China have registered steady but slow advance. The efforts to remove impediments such as the boundary problem have taken far too long. China's close ties with Pakistan, described as an all-weather friend, lead to angry reactions here. As against that the relations between India and the U.S. showed a marked improvement and even though Washington has yet to address itself to India's concerns relating to Pakistan, and deal with substantive problems in the bilateral field, the very suddenness of the change produced a strong impact. Coinciding with this new turn was the setback in the U.S. dealings with China - of which the spy plane episode was a recent manifestation. Atmospherics, too, contributed to the strengthening of the peculiar perceptions of the triangular pattern. The External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, in Washington for talks with his counterpart, Gen. Colin Powell, was shown an unusually warm gesture - with the U.S. President, Mr. George W. Bush, happening to drop in during their meeting and taking Mr. Singh to the Oval Room in the White House - just when the plane case took an ugly turn. The world community is not to be blamed if it sees deeper meanings in the Indian Government's euphoric welcome of the Bush proposal for a missile shield.

There was nothing to suggest that, while warming up to India, the U.S. had in mind a specific China-related role for it. On the contrary, Washington was at pains to emphasise that a new substantive beginning with New Delhi was important by itself and was not to be seen as a reaction to Washington's relations with any other country. Gen. Powell, and recently, his deputy, Mr. Richard Armitage - emphasised this point. And they found Mr. Jaswant Singh in complete agreement - India, according to him would not like its ties with the U.S. to be hyphenated with relations with China or Pakistan.

It is in the interest of both India and the U.S. that there are no such linkages, hidden or open. Otherwise there is no guarantee of firmness in their ties - which could crumble when the prop on which they are sought to be rested weakens. In situations like this, New Delhi will have to be continuously alert because suspicions could crop up easily, especially when interested parties are at work to derail India's relations with both the U.S. and China.

So far, the necessary precautions have been taken. India briefed the Chinese side on Mr. Jaswant Singh's talks in Washington and with Mr. Armitage - as also with the visiting Russian Foreign Minister. Mr. Jaswant Singh used the opportunity of his interaction with a visiting Chinese leader, Mr. Li Chungchun, senior member of the Politburo, to explain that India had hailed the Bush proposal on the NMD only in part - to the extent it related to a cut in the nuclear arsenal, de-alert of nuclear forces and the U.S. plan for consultations - and that, on the substantive issue of the missile shield, it would wait for the outcome of the consultations (proposed by Mr. Bush). This interpretation did not jell with the content of the first reaction, made known through a formal press release, but the very fact that Mr. Jaswant Singh chose to put it that way showed his anxiety to avoid misunderstandings. On its part, China kept India briefed on its Prime Minister, Mr. Zhu Rongji's discussion in Pakistan.

So far, the Chinese Government had made no comments on the new turn in Indo-U.S. relations. However, the media in China which, unlike the practice in India and the U.S., reflects the official viewpoint, took note of it, indirectly though. References to the improvement in Indo-U.S. relations were coupled with queries as to why New Delhi's voice on issues such as the American proposal for a missile shield was muted. Questions were raised whether the new development was in India's interest. Pakistan expectedly made much of it, giving unwarranted twists to the changing trends.

In the past, India's special relationship with the Soviet Union was construed - or misconstrued - in Beijing as containing an anti-China sting. When China's ties with Moscow worsened, India was seen on the Soviet side in the latter's pursuit of hegemonistic designs. When the confrontation between the Soviet Union and China intensified, and their divergences, both on the ideological and strategic matters, sharpened, New Delhi's distance from Beijing increased. As seen by China, India was completely identified with the Soviet Union's adversarial policies.

Some among the Chinese thinktanks blamed the Soviet Union, especially its political boss in the 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev, as having deliberately created misunderstandings between New Delhi and Beijing. Moscow, according to this theory, had sensed well in advance a setback in its ties with China, beginning with differences on the boundary issue, and, as such, was interested in having India on its side. Because of New Delhi's unhappy experience with China on the very issue of boundaries, this support was readily extended (according to the Chinese view).

At one stage - before and after Pokhran II - India used to mention the ``China factor'' in its dealings with the U.S. Before the 1998 tests, India cited the presence of nuclear China in the north whenever it was pressed by Washington to contain its nuclear ambition. A similar argument was adduced when the U.S. treated India and Pakistan on a par in its exhortations against an arms race in South Asia. India called for a holistic understanding of its security problem which emanated not only from the west but also from the north. And when Washington took exception to the tests, New Delhi in its defence pointedly mentioned the threat from China. It was this reference in the Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee's letter to the then U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, that caused a serious misunderstanding between New Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately that damage was undone - through the persevering efforts from both the sides.

It is not India alone that has experienced the fall-out of the controversy over the Bush proposal. According to agency reports, the Australian Government's strong support for a wide range of U.S. policies, including the missile defence shield, has strained Canberra's ties with Beijing. A close ally of the U.S., Australia had maintained a delicate balance between this relationship and friendship with China, fostered through sustained conscious efforts. It now finds that difficult. Pakistan was particularly interested in exploiting the new perceptions of Indo-U.S. relations to further its foreign policy end. This effort found full play during the recent visit to Islamabad of Mr. Zhu Rongji. In a representative comment, a Friday Times editorial, noting that the visit aroused interest in the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship and the warming of India-U.S. ties, said: ``This strategic perspective suggests that China may now be more inclined to assist Pakistan in confronting India and the U.S. than in the past. In India, too, there are people who see profit in developing Sino-American contradiction.''

Misperceptions could have a multiplier effect and, therefore, need to be corrected - not only through professions but also by actions.