India’s Nuclear Tests Jolt Its Relations With China


In the late 1960s, when China resisted international pressure to halt its neophyte nuclear weapons testing program, the regime here liked to quote a proverb from the ancient Zhou dynasty about inequities between powerful magistrates and the peasants they ruled.

“The officials can burn down houses,” the saying goes, “but the commoners are not even allowed to light their lamps.”

What the Chinese were talking about, of course, was that most of the pressure on China--which staged its first test in 1964--came from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, then the four established nuclear powers. China objected to the nuclear double standard practiced by the magisterial powers.


Three decades later, Indian diplomats, fearing a major setback in India-China relations because of India’s recent nuclear weapons tests in the Rajasthan desert, quoted the same proverb back at the Chinese, who have been among their loudest critics.

“There has been a change of tone on the part of the Chinese,” complained a diplomatic source familiar with the Indian position. They “have adopted a vocabulary, maybe not as a superpower but certainly as a world power. They are playing the part of one of the big boys--a role that they avoided in the past.”

The difference, commented Jonathan Pollack, a Rand Corp. Asia specialist, is that China, as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has come to view itself as a “stakeholder” in the nuclear weapons race.

“For their own interests,” said Pollack, who met recently here with Chinese national security officials and scholars, “they want it to be a small club.”

After the Indian tests and the Pakistani riposte, most international attention has been focused on the two South Asian neighbors, opponents in three wars since the end of World War II. The India-Pakistan border remains one of the world’s scariest flash points.

But longer term, the more important and dangerous dynamic could be between China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, representing more than 40% of the people on Earth.


These two countries fought a brief border war in 1962. Territorial disputes continue to this day, most notably in volatile Kashmir, part or all of which is claimed by India, Pakistan and China.

How much the delicate India-China relationship has been damaged by recent events is still uncertain. Even before the tests, the relationship was under strain as a result of provocative comments from George Fernandes, India’s iconoclastic defense minister.

Fernandes, 68, a leader of the Indian Socialist Party who serves in the coalition government headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, accused China of building surveillance posts on Myanmar’s Coco Islands off India’s southeastern coast and of expanding military airfields in Tibet within range of India. In one speech, he characterized China as India’s “potential threat No. 1.”

These comments continue to produce strong reaction in the state-owned Chinese press, which universally attacked Fernandes for creating a “China threat theory.” Of particular significance was the response from the military.

Earlier this month, the Liberation Army Daily, flagship newspaper for the military, described the Indian defense minister as “reckless” and warned of dire consequences if he continued to bash China.

“If this arrogant bluster and military expansionism [are] not effectively checked,” the army paper editorialized, “the consequences will not even bear thinking about.”


The Chinese complaints about Fernandes have been echoed with more than equal enthusiasm by the Indian opposition.

In Parliament, K. Natwar Singh, a former foreign minister and member of the opposition Congress Party, rose to characterize Fernandes as a “human El Nino” who “has thrown into the dustbin 10 years of hard work on improving India-China relations.”

The Chinese television and press have been quick to mine India’s rich democracy for opposition figures who share China’s point of view on New Delhi’s nuclear testing.

In its international reports, China Central Television regularly features interviews with Indian opposition figures.

Chinese officials have even managed to drag the contentious Tibet issue into the debate after a statement by the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist faith who operates a government in exile in India, that New Delhi had the right to conduct the nuclear tests.

“The Dalai Lama can disguise himself no longer,” a report in the official Beijing Review said. “Supported by the Indian government for so many years, he can now do nothing but speak up for it.”


Over the years, India-China relations have had extreme highs and lows.

Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were initially close allies.

On several occasions, India served as an intermediary between China and the United States during the Korean War.

The relationship hit its nadir in the early 1960s after China broke with the Soviet Union in 1960, followed by the 1962 border war and then China’s first nuclear test two years later.

In recent years, the relationship appeared to be making a steady comeback, especially after a successful 1988 visit to Beijing by India’s then-prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Clearly, India’s nuclear testing has been a setback, but many believe that it will not be a permanent one.

“The relationship suffered a bit of a jolt as a result of the testing,” a diplomatic source said, “but it is still not off the rails.”


The most dangerous scenario--that the Indian and Pakistani blasts would incite China to recommence its own testing program--appears to have been averted.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse news agency June 3, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, while blaming India for starting the mess, declared that his country “has no intention of resuming nuclear tests.”

Most irksome to the Indians is that China appears to have greatly enhanced its international image as a result of the Indian and Pakistani tests.

Indian officials say a major factor behind their decision to test was reports--primarily from U.S. intelligence agencies--that China had been aiding Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Instead of sharing blame for the nuclear escalation in South Asia, however, China is being embraced as a peacemaker.

After the Indian tests, Jiang and President Clinton spoke for the first time on a telephone hotline they had established for emergencies.


Despite many other problems in the U.S.-China relationship, ranging from differences over human rights to the recent congressional flap over technology transfer issues, the main subject for discussion at Clinton’s summit this month with Jiang is likely to be the question of nuclear proliferation in South Asia, confirmed James R. Sasser, U.S. ambassador to China.

“The Chinese came out of this thing smelling pretty good,” Pollack said. “The tests gave them something to talk about with Clinton. . . . This was India’s gift to U.S.-China relations.”