George Fernandes and Sino-Indian Relations

27 May, 2003    ·   1044

Bhartendu Kumar Singh argues against reading too much into the Defence Minister’s recent visit to China

The recent visit to China by George Fernandes got good media coverage both within and outside India, despite the international focus on Iraq. The reason lay not in his being the first Defence Minister of India to have visited China in a decade, but his being ‘George Fernandes’. It is, therefore, interesting to know what makes George Fernandes so important for Sino-Indian relations. Despite being a proclaimed ‘socialist,’ George Fernandes, in his over five-decade long political career, has associated himself with nearly everything that makes China uncomfortable.

George Fernandes was a committed worker of the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and was a close associate of its leader, Dr Rammanohar Lohia. He was the key spokesperson of the party on foreign affairs and defence, and naturally took a keen interest in these matters. The PSP was high on anti-China rhetoric, particularly after the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949. Unlike the other mainstream parties, which believed in cultivating China, the PSP saw it as danger. China had never accepted the Mac Mahon Line under the 1913 Shimla Treaty that delineated the borders between India and Tibet. Further, China has an ‘aggressive strategic culture’ towards its neighbours. The PSP was, therefore, very critical of China’s Tibet policy. It shrewdly lent support to the Tibetans, who, it declared, had lost their nation and territory.

George Fernandes emerged as a champion of the human rights causes of the Tibetans. He was very pessimistic of Nehru’s friendly overtures towards China, and was very vocal when India surrendered its special privileges in Tibet under the 1954 Treaty. Post-1962, he was even more aggressive towards China. This is documented in his 1966 discussion with a Geneva-based Sinologist, Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China. George presented the case for an independent Tibet. This would have taken care of Tibetan’s search for national identity and met India’s security needs. George continued to speak out for Tibet even after the PSP faded away.

But it was his 1998 statements that made George a ‘villain’ in Chinese perceptions. His remark that ‘China was India’s potential enemy no.1’ was not appreciated by China and since then George has been trying to contain the damage. In January 2003, George Fernandes used the Fifth Asian Security Conference in New Delhi to refurbish his image as a ‘China-baiter.’ Targeting the Chinese audience, he blamed the media for blowing this issue out of all proportion. Some of his observations, he said, were reflective of the democratic processes and parliamentary framework in the country, while urging the Chinese not to read too much into these observations. His description of the 1962 War as merely a ‘clash’ was designed for this purpose.

His recent visit has enabled George Fernandes to undertake this image-building exercise. From his speeches and statements during his visit, he wanted to convey that he was ‘pragmatic’ in his approach. Instead of dwelling on threat perceptions, he talked about China’s developmental success, its excellent work culture, and lessons for India. Moreover, the timing of his visit, when China is facing the ‘SARS’ challenge, earned him the goodwill of his hosts.

Has George Fernandes changed his views on China?  During his visit, he said that both countries should rearrange their civilizational relationship although they cannot become ‘brothers’ as in the 1950s. Sino-Indian relations can certainly improve if China bases its policies on ‘Fernandes Doctrine’, i.e., as the bigger power China should discharge its responsibilities and accommodate India’s interests. New Delhi is conscious of Beijing’s sensitivity on certain issues. Fernandes stressed that the future thrust of India-China relations should be based on enhanced bilateral trade, economic relations and people-to-people interaction. He also advocated military cooperation between the two sides.

George Fernandes, the Defence Minister, who is pragmatic about the prospects of Sino-Indian relations, is only articulating the official viewpoint. In private, he still remains the same ‘old’ George, who continues to support the Tibetans, reveres the Dalai Lama and carries on the PSP’s perception of China as a strategic threat. George, as an individual, would still like to stand by his 1998 description of China as a potential enemy no.1.

One should not, therefore, read too much into his visit, and consider it another attempt by both countries to maintain political contacts at the highest level. His ‘change of heart’ on China reflects the contradictions within a political leader torn apart by his ideological convictions and political compulsions. It need not be taken too seriously.