Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 was an “ice breaking” trip and played a very important role in resuming and developing friendship between the two countries, a former Chinese diplomat has said. Zeng Xyyong, who worked as a councillor at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, wrote in an article that Gandhi’s meeting with Li Lianqing, China’s Ambassador to India in 1987, broke the ice in bilateral ties leading to his visit to Beijing, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years.
As a “new generational leader” Gandhi aspired to promote the rise of India by carrying out economic reforms but found that the environment hindered his objective, Zeng wrote in an article, providing a rare insight into Chinese assessment of what led Gandhi to visit China and his close door meetings with the top Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. The article, part of a book titled ‘stories of China and India’, was circulated to the media ahead of the Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) to be held here on October 18 in which Chinese President Xi Jinping was expected to get a second five-year term.
“Over all, Rajiv Gandhi visit to China was an ice breaking trip, very important in resuming and developing friendship between China and India,” he wrote in the article. The book is a compilation of nostalgic accounts of former Chinese diplomats who served in India. Besides India, only two other books, one on Pakistan and the other on Nepal containing write-ups by Chinese diplomats, were displayed at the CPC media centre.
“India had a tense relationship with Pakistan for many years, it got involved in civil war in Sri Lanka in 1987. No substantial results had occurred in border negotiations with China,” Zeng said outlining his assessment of Gandhi’s decision to restore ties with China. Zeng alleges that the longest standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies at Sumdorongchu in 1986 when the troops had an eyeball to eyeball stalemate, similar to one at to the recent Dokalam, was “orchestrated” by India to “intensify military confrontation while setting up a border state of Arunachal Pradesh”.
“Tensions thus escalated further souring bilateral ties”, he said. “This made Rajiv Gandhi feel uneasy. He was worried that if things continued like that, the opposition party would use against him in the next general election, threatening his continuation in office,” he said.
“Therefore, he began to consider adjusting his China policy” and sought a “private appointment” with the then Chinese Ambassador in Delhi Li Lianqing, Zeng said. His observation about Sumdorongchu valley, which is located east of tri-junction with Bhutan and not far from Dokalam, were interesting as for the official accounts of India it was sparked off by Chinese troops occupying an Indian patrol point, vacated during winter.
Indian army in a daring counter move placed the troops in dominating heights and set up posts closer to the Chinese positions. China launched a media blitzkrieg similar to the one during Dokalam where Indian troops intervened to stop Chinese from building a strategic road in area claimed by Bhutan, close to India’s Chicken Neck corridor connecting North East.
Status quo was restored in Sumdorongchu after about seven years of negotiations to stabilise the situation. The Dokalam standoff lasted 73 days. The Indian counter move at Sumdorongchu was widely regarded as strengthening New Delhi’s stature ahead of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in December 1988 during which both the sides agreed to negotiate a boundary settlement and would maintain peace and tranquillity at the boundary.
In his article, Zeng also provided details of Gandhi’s talks with the then Chinese Premier Li Peng and top leader Deng Xiaoping who succeeded Mao Zedong. Li told Gandhi that the border issue could be resolved with “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”.
He also said that China had taken note of the position by the successive Indian governments that “Tibet is part of China: India doesn’t interfere in China’s domestic affairs. “Tibetan separatists were not allowed to conduct anti-China activities in India. China highly appreciate India’s principled stand,” he said.
In his meeting with Gandhi, Deng said relationship between India and China had been “very good in the 1950s but turned sour for a long period after that”. In an apparent reference to the 1962 war, Deng told Gandhi that “now was moment to forget those unpleasant things and look to the future”.
“Rajiv Gandhi agreed saying he hoped bilateral relations would be fully restored,” Zeng said. Though Gandhi lost elections subsequently, successive Indian governments took more positive approach to improve ties with China, he said.
“The situation in the Sino-Indian border region was less tense. Sino-Indian relations were back on track”, he said.
Li who made a reciprocal trip to New Delhi in 1991 clarified during his talks with the then Indian Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao that “China would not get involved in any dispute between India and Pakistan hoping that the issues could be resolved in a reasonable manner through peaceful consultation”, Zeng wrote.