Recent Statements by Defence Minister George Fernandes

11 May, 1998    ·   87

Mira Sinha-Bhattacharjee assesses the damage wrought on India-China relations by a Defence Minister who shoots from the hip

On 3 May 1998, only days after the quiet departure of General Fu Quanyou and his delegation from India , Mr. George Fernandes, Minister of Defence, declared China to be India ’s potential "threat number one".



This was a categorical statement, not nuanced in any manner. He then proceeded to detail the exact nature of this threat and to explain how India was being encircled along its land and sea borders by Chinese military and naval activity in our neighbouring countries, and added that India has to be "prepared for any eventuality". In Mr. Fernandes’ book, such preparation calls for taking tough decisions that include "ruling in" the nuclear option.



In expressing these views Mr. Fernandes has done the unthinkable. As a minister of defence, he has chosen - in peace time - to publicly identify a national enemy, to detail how and why it is an enemy, and to pronounce that this must determine the nature of our defence preparedness. The minister may be commended for arguing that India needs to augment its overall defence capabilities, for that is the job of a defence minister. But perhaps never before in history has so blunt and inadequately informed a scenario of threat been painted by a responsible minister of any government. It is even more regrettable that his views do not include an opening for establishing a non-adversarial non-threatening relationship with China as a desired future goal. Consequently, Mr. Fernandes has not only downplayed the role of diplomacy in helping to clear what may be misunderstandings and so diffuse what may be perceived as security threats, he also seems to suggest that there is a necessary disjunction between defence considerations that flow from a strategic review and the foreign policy statements made by the Prime Minister. In doing so Mr. Fernandes has undercut the China policy which this country had adopted since at least 1988 and which enjoyed a broad national consensus. And he has done so without authorisation by the highest policy making body, the Cabinet. These may be his deeply held personal views. But as defence minister, Mr. Fernandes has the responsibility to act as a statesman and to expound only the policy of the government in power whose responsibility to act as a statesman and to expound only the policy of the government in power, whose responsibility it is to safeguard the national interest and national dignity.



Any serious analyst must now assess whether Mr. Fernandes’ statements have advanced or obstructed the national interest and even national security.



Unfortunately, this was not Mr. Fernandes’ first such statement. Days before the arrival of General Fu, when Pakistan testfired its IRBM, Ghauri, he declared that China was the mother of Ghauri and raised the threat of a Chinese encirclement of India . This must have altered the agenda and the climate of the talks that the General held with the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the three Service Chiefs etc. Discussions of the regional security environment had earlier been placed high on the agenda. The assumption being that India and China were seriously searching for a satisfactory resolution of differences, strategic, political and territorial, and for areas of co-operation advantageous to their respective national interests.



In short, both were agreed that an adversarial relationship would hamper their ability to deal with the myriad problems posed by the post-cold war international system and the imperative of economic and technological modernisation. At the same time, activities or policies of one, detrimental to the national security of the other, were to be frankly addressed. It was also expected that apart from promoting rapport, the talks would consolidate and advance the agreements relating to the LAC and to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas that had been concluded earlier. What constructive discussions could have taken place in the muddied diplomatic atmosphere following the Defence Minister's statement that China is an encircling threat, defies the imagination.



Two other events also served to deflect from, if not subvert, the expected diplomatic gains from the visit of this high ranking military delegation - the first by a Chief of General Staff of the PLA. One was the visit of a high ranking US delegation led by Bill Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN, and Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State. According to reports at the end of the talks, they recognised India’s need to decide its nuclear and missile policies given its ‘security environment’ and consequent defence needs – thus introducing China into the Indo-US equation, specially on regional security and nuclear issues.



The other development that also had extended ramifications and highlighted the differences between the two countries, was the tragic self-immolation by a Tibetan protestor during the General's visit. He was one of a small group that had been on hunger strike since 10 March to draw the world attention to the plight of Tibet . About the same time it was made known that Madeleine Albright would take up the Tibet issue with the Chinese leaders during her visit. President Jiang apparently merely responded by lecturing her on religious freedom in China . Beijing did, however, choose the moment to invite the Dalai Lama for fresh talks, provided he abandoned the demand for independence.



The knot of issues that were bought into focus with these developments once again threatens to complicate the India-China relationship. All these separate issues, Pakistan, Tibet, Myanmar, the nuclear option etc, are in danger of being subsumed under the rubric of an overarching Chinese threat to India, instead of being considered as specific issues to be managed individually. With these developments the talks on the border, the LAC and on peace and tranquillity seem to have disappeared from view. It would be a fatal mistake if once again the government permits the territorial issue and the bilateral relationship to be held hostage to the political and strategic relations that may exist between China , India ’s neighbours, and with the sole super power.