NATIONAL

Vajpayee cracks the two-front problem

GANGTOK JUNE 26. As he heads home after a productive week in China, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, knows that India's northern and eastern frontiers will never look the same again. In finding a new framework for cooperation with Beijing, Mr. Vajpayee has put the nation well on its way to break out of the two-front problem that has hobbled it for so long.

In reducing the salience of the dispute over Sikkim, agreeing to a political exploration of a solution to the vexed boundary question and unveiling plans for economic integration with China, Mr. Vajpayee has laid the basis for a transformation of India's national security condition.

Much of Mr. Vajpayee's diplomatic energies in the last five years had been spent in trying to define a framework for peaceful coexistence with India's largest neighbours and adversaries — Pakistan and China.

Resolving the Kashmir question with Pakistan and the boundary dispute with China have been at the top of Mr. Vajpayee's foreign policy agenda.

Mr. Vajpayee and his advisers understood that a full normalisation of relations with either Pakistan or China would result in a dramatic restructuring of the national security environment and release India's energies for a larger role in the region and beyond.

While the ups and downs of Mr. Vajpayee's peace offensive towards Pakistan have got all the attention, the quiet initiative with China in recent years has remained out of the public eye. Clearly, Mr. Vajpayee's diplomatic manoeuvre with China has begun to pay handsome political dividends.

This, however, was not the conventional wisdom when India conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998 and Beijing reacted so harshly to them. Mr. Vajpayee was pilloried at home for undermining the relations with China which were lodged on an upward trend in the 1990s.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it was the decision to go nuclear that had created the conditions for a reordering of Sino-Indian relations. India's successful post-Pokharan diplomacy got the attention and respect of China.

And in New Delhi there is an unprecedented level of self-confidence that is necessary to address the sensitive issues with Beijing on a pragmatic — give and take — basis. That is the central message from Mr. Vajpayee's visit to China.

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To understand the political breakthroughs in China, one must turn to Mr. Vajpayee's own instinct to gamble on high risk diplomatic initiatives and the new China policy his advisers had crafted with some skill.

At the bottom of the Government's China policy lies in a bold formulation that made in the Bharatiya Janata Party's election manifesto in 1996: India should seek an early solution to the boundary problem with China. This simple statement was a radical departure from the past positions of New Delhi.

Although relations with China began to improve since Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing in December 1988, the Indian political class was quite happy to go along with the Chinese proposition that the boundary dispute, being delicate, must be left to future generations.

Until now India was not ready to confront the implications of exploring a final solution to the boundary dispute. That Mr. Vajpayee is now willing to think the unthinkable is reflected in his decision to appoint the National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, to take charge of the talks.

The boundary negotiations on at the foreign secretary level, in motion since the late 1980s, did not produce any forward movement. They had become a bureaucratic exercise. Mr. Vajpayee now is suggesting India has the political will to make the adjustments necessary in crafting a final solution to the boundary dispute.

Mr. Vajpayee's decision to explore a political solution to the boundary question comes on top of a number of moves made in recent years. In early 2000, the External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, wrote a letter to his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, calling for an early and time-bound clarification of the Line of Actual Control on their long and contested border.

During his visit to Beijing in May 2000, the President, K.R. Narayanan, told his Chinese hosts that India wants a settlement of the boundary dispute and should not be left to the future generations.

During his trip to Beijing in March 2002, Mr. Singh agreed to launch highly sensitive negotiations on resolving the Sikkim question away from the media glare. The results are with us now.

China had also agreed to accelerate the clarification of the LAC. The two sides soon found themselves in a stalemate and discovered that the delineation of the LAC cannot be separated from the boundary settlement itself. That precisely is what Mr. Mishra will now explore.

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Mr. Mishra's exploration and the decisions to intensify border trade and expand economic cooperation could profoundly alter both the physical and political characteristics of the frontiers between India and China.

While the full implications of Mr. Vajpayee's visit for India's national security will unfold in time, it is likely to have a big impact on the lives of people on both sides of the border.

Nowhere are the hopes as high as here in Sikkim. The de facto Chinese recognition of the State as part of India and the opening up of historic trade route to Tibet, there is confidence here, will eventually lead to a great economic boom.

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