India drops China as biggest threat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2003, 12:00am

The annual defence report even says the former foes' forces are mending fences

For the first time since 1998, the Indian Defence Ministry's annual report to Parliament has not identified China as the biggest threat to national security.

India also revealed that it has begun co-operation with the armed forces of China.

Analysts are attributing the dramatic change in the tone to Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes' successful visit to China in April. Mr Fernandes met Defence Minister General Cao Gangchuan and the two men agreed the countries should sort out their long-standing differences amicably.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Hu Jintao met for the first time on Saturday on the sidelines of the 300th anniversary celebrations of St Petersburg. 'We warmly welcome the Indian prime minister to make [an] important visit to China very soon,' Chinese State Councillor and former foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan told reporters after the meeting.

Ironically, it was Mr Fernandes who set India-China relations plummeting to a new low in 1998 when he branded China as India's No 1 enemy.

Last month, a contrite Mr Fernandes braved the Sars outbreak in a desperate bid to mend fences and pacify lingering Chinese anger at his inflammatory remark. Experts said that Mr Fernandes' visit injected 'positivity' into the troubled relationship.

The two countries fought a bitter border war in 1962 and have had an uneasy relationship of mutual distrust and rivalry ever since. Beijing has long been suspicious of India's motives. India gave shelter to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, following a 1959 revolt against Chinese rule, and a Tibetan government-in-exile is still headquartered at Dharamsala in India.

Bilateral ties have been improving since 2001 when former National People's Congress chairman Li Peng spent eight days in India.

India has many expectations from improved relations with China. Above all, it wants China to accept that Sikkim is a part of India.

India annexed the tiny Himalayan kingdom in 1975, but in Chinese maps it is still shown as a sovereign country and not as an Indian province.

Analysts say that if India can convince China to recognise Sikkim as an integral part of India, it could lead to the reopening of the ancient silk route between Sikkim and Lhasa in Tibet used by traders and travellers for centuries.

India would also like China to hand over Indian property seized in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution.

Emerging from Saturday's meeting with Mr Hu, Mr Vajpayee said that the 21st century would be an 'Asian century' if China and India, which account for one-third of humanity, entered into a long-term, stable relationship.

Although Mr Fernandes' Defence Ministry has softened its tone on China, its annual report notes 'every major Indian city is within the reach of Chinese missiles, including ballistic missiles which can be launched from submarines'.

It also observed: 'The asymmetry in terms of nuclear forces is pronouncedly in favour of China and is likely to be accentuated as China responds to counter the US missile defence programme.'