A tactless Indian foreign minister

The Undiplomatic Krishna
Brahma Chellaney

Krishna is continuing the tradition of Indians in high office messing up the country’s China policy.

Guest Column, India Today, December 6, 2010


At a time when there are a number of disturbing parallels between the situation leading up to the 1962 Chinese invasion of India and the conditions prevailing now, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna stands out for his diplomatic naïveté. Sidelining China’s aggressive resurrection of its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh and its continued occupation of one-fifth of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Krishna has made repeated pleas to Beijing to stop issuing visas on a separate sheet to residents of Indian Jammu and Kashmir. Predictably, Beijing has again rebuffed him by peremptorily declaring that its position remains unchanged. It ill behoves the minister to appear as a supplicant before the mythical “Middle Kingdom,” that too on a secondary issue. 


If New Delhi wants Beijing to give up its devious visa practice of portraying Jammu and Kashmir as distinct and independent from India, it must repay China in the same coin by issuing visas to Tibet residents on a separate sheet of paper. That includes all the Tibetans (who, in any event, have never accepted being part of China) and the Han who have settled across Tibet as it existed before the 1951 annexation. China has hived off about half of Tibet. With the annexation severing India’s civilizational relationship with Tibet and extinguishing its extra-territorial rights there, New Delhi has every right to treat Tibet as a distinct entity in its visa policy. Once such a visa policy has been implemented, you can bet that Beijing will approach New Delhi to work out a compromise.


Now consider Krishna’s bigger gaffe: At the recent Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral meeting in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the minister told his Chinese counterpart that Jammu and Kashmir is a “core issue” for India just as Tibet and Taiwan are core national interests for Beijing. And, in that context, he urged China to show sensitivity to Indian concerns over Jammu and Kashmir — an entreaty that fell on deaf ears. In fact, as if to underline Beijing’s dismissive approach towards Indian concerns, it was announced that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will combine his forthcoming India visit with a stop in Pakistan.


By placing Jammu and Kashmir on a par with Tibet, Krishna, in effect, was labelling his country an occupying power in Kashmir the way China is in Tibet. While China forcibly absorbed buffer Tibet, Jammu and Kashmir acceded on the same legal principles that governed the transition of other princely states from colonial rule to union with an independent India. Also, by drawing a parallel between Jammu and Kashmir and China’s claim to Taiwan, Krishna made a preposterous analogy between a state that is part of the Indian federation and an autonomous entity under a permanent threat of force from China.


Taiwan may be far from Indian shores but its political future matters to India. Just as Beijing lays claim to Arunachal, unmindful of the wishes of its 1.3 million people, China seeks to absorb Taiwan, irrespective of what the majority there want. In strategic terms, Taiwan can be to India what Pakistan is to China. Translated into policy that could entail close strategic collaboration between India and Taiwan, with the goal to aid each other’s security and build strategic equilibrium in Asia.


In fact, whether Taiwan — a vibrant democracy — continues to prosper under self-governance, or is beaten into submission by the world’s largest autocracy, will determine the future make-up of Asian security. Taiwan, sitting astride vital sea lanes, truly holds the key to whether China rises peacefully or becomes an arrogant power seeking unchallenged ascendancy in Asia. Yet through his ill-advised comparison, Krishna conceded that Taiwan is to China what the rump Jammu and Kashmir is to India.


Krishna actually is continuing an illustrious tradition since 1950 of Indians in high office messing up the country’s China policy. Even the 1962 “stab in the back” and the more-recent Chinese assertiveness have not helped discipline such waywardness.


The sphinx-like, weak-in-the-knees Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for example, built an unflattering linkage between peaceful Sikkim and troubled Tibet during a 2003 Beijing visit, remembered for his notorious kowtow on Tibet — recognizing it to “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” Now another elderly gentleman is demonstrating an uncanny knack of playing into China’s hands.


Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins).


(c) India Today, 2010.


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