DURING her visit to Beijing, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh has just concluded the sixth round of the annual strategic dialogue with her Chinese opposite number, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin and also had a meeting with the host country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Even though the relationship between Asia’s two largest powers remains complex, complicated and not without tension, a few gains made during the latest talks deserve a welcome.

 In the first place, China feels reassured that irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing Indian elections, there would be “continuity” in India-China ties. Singh conveyed to the Chinese leadership that there was “broad consensus” across the political spectrum in this country on “engagement” with China, a situation that dates back to the path-breaking visit to Beijing of the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in December 1988. For his part, Liu declared that he was “confident that to promote China-India friendship is a shared interest of all Indian political parties.” Secondly, the two sides did not merely indulge in comforting rhetoric, but also did the ground work for “a series of high-level engagements set to take place” in the coming year.

 As it happens, 2015 has been marked as a “year of friendly exchanges” between the two neighbours. Officials on both sides are therefore promising a “packed calendar.” What is most important, however, is that President Xi Jinping does not want to wait that long. He has expressed a desire to visit India later this year. When it takes place, it would be the first Chinese presidential visit to this country in eight years.

 In Singh’s words, the dialogue in Beijing covered the “entire length and breadth” of the India-China relationship. High on the list of the subjects taken up was “cooperation” in Afghanistan, where both countries have shared interests. India has been warning the world about the grave danger of the Af-Pak region becoming a hotbed of terrorism after the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from the rugged, war-ravaged terrain by the end of 2014. China also has made no secret of its worry that the Uighur militants in its western province of Xinjiang will exploit the security vacuum. In August, China is hosting a “Heart of Asia” conference on Afghanistan.

 If the talks on Afghanistan were a source of satisfaction, the same cannot be said, alas, about the Chinese response to India’s concern over China’s huge investment in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor right up to Gwadar Port, close to the Strait of Hormuz.

In some ways, the most depressing news to emanate from the strategic dialogue was China’s firm and final refusal to let this country reopen its consulate-general in Lhasa that was established way back in the British days and was shut down during the 1962 War in the Himalayas, together with their respective consulates. Embassies in each other’s capitals were headed by a Charge d’ Affairs, and were raised to ambassadorial level only in 1976.

 Nearly a decade later, the Chinese showed interest in reviving the consulates the two countries had maintained earlier – in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai), by China, and in Lhasa and Shanghai by us. This was a golden opportunity to re-establish our  presence in the “Tibet Autonomous Region of China”, in which Indian stakes are too high to be overstated. The tragedy is that we declined it for reasons that were nothing short of ridiculous.

 During the recent uproar over the leakage of the Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 War, every participant in the discussion has lamented that the intelligence czar of that era, B. N. Mullik, instead of collecting intelligence on China, was busy playing an important role in the making of China policy. Sadly, this grievous malaise hasn’t yet disappeared from the Indian system. In the mid-1980s, as in Mullik’s time, the IB was able to dictate to the foreign policy establishment not to accept the proposal under discussion. Its argument, which the government at the highest level bought, was typical. An Indian consulate-general in Lhasa, it argued, would be dysfunctional because of the enormous Chinese control on whatever happens in Tibet. By contrast, a Chinese consulate-general in Calcutta could do huge damage, especially at a time when the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front was in power and the suppressed Naxalite movement was showing signs of being reborn. Nobody asked the spymasters what it was that the Chinese could not do in Calcutta without having a consulate of theirs there. So it was decided that only the consulates-general in Bombay and Shanghai should be reopened for the present, and others considered later.

As China’s power increased fast, together with its problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, it decided not to allow any foreign presence in Lhasa other than Nepal’s. All attempts by the United States to seek entry into the strategic region were regularly rebuffed. Nearly a decade ago, when the Chinese needed to have a consulate in Chennai, we had an opportunity to link it with the reopening of the Indian consulate in Lhasa. But this idea wasn’t even broached and we accepted an additional consulate in China only a short distance away from the one in Hong Kong. The official explanation was that this was done at the suggestion of the Dalai Lama.

Now that we have woken up to the importance of Lhasa, the Chinese are saying an emphatic NO and offering us a choice between Chengdu and Kunming.

Inder Malhotra

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