A long view of India-China relations shows that they have gone through various phases. Certain years are the landmarks around which these phases are built – 1954, 1962, 1975, 1989, 1998 and 2003, for example.
The reasons the legacy of the late former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee matters for India-China ties are twofold. The first is that two of these landmarks came during his years in power. The second reason is that there has been no new foundational change since then attesting to the validity of the template that was set in place then.
Vajpayee’s visit to China in 1979 is of course well known, and so are his questions and debates in Parliament from the opposition benches. At the same time, there are five distinct and significant drivers of India-China relations that did take place in the Vajpayee years (1998-2004) that need independent scrutiny.
In general the Vajpayee years were marked by crisis and conflict. However, in the case of China, his era managed to steer toward establishing long-term stability in what have become the most consequential bilateral relations from a strategic point of view.
Perhaps of foremost significance were India’s 1998 nuclear tests. A subsequent letter to the US president rationalizing the tests mentioned a nuclear-armed neighborhood, and it was leaked to the media probably from inside the White House. However, India having declared its “no first use” policy in no uncertain terms help mend relations eventually. While the utility of referring to China is debatable, subsequent tests by Pakistan, not in the least with covert Chinese support, proved the reality of the China challenge, if not threat, that India faced then.
The other noticeable aspect was China’s neutral position in the aftermath of the Kargil War that was completely counter to the Pakistani calculation. It is noteworthy to recall that Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time, Sartaj Aziz. made a hurried visit to China right in the middle of the Kargil conflict. However, China neither intervened nor offered to mediate but continued to stress that de-escalation must be prioritized.
The fact that Indian forces did not cross the Line of Control during the conflict, asserting the legitimacy of the Indian response, may have been one of the reasons behind the Chinese restraint. The credit goes to Vajpayee for making such a decision in the middle of the war.
The Kargil Review Committee investigated what went wrong and how to avoid recurrence of such a conflict. One of the important outcomes was establishment of the position of national security adviser, which subsequently created a space for sub-political dialogue and consistent engagement between India and China.
Also, while some of the recommended doctrinal changes still remain on paper, creation of such structures as the Andaman and Nicobar Command have implications for India-China relations. Some other issues, such as development of border roads and weatherproofing existing ones, also began in the aftermath in 2004-05.
Another aspect that helped revive ties in the aftermath of the nuclear tests was India’s support to China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. It was a difficult process for China for various reasons and India looked at it from a developing-country perspective. it was also an opportunity for boosting trade, as bilateral trade in 2000 was worth US$2 billion but moved to $84.4 billion in 2017. While other known issues remain, it was a good initiative toward trust-building.
Vajpayee’s pragmatic realism, of declaring India and the US as “natural allies,” even without the necessity of an alliance partnership with the US and the strings that come attached, was not only a departure from conventional understanding of non-alignment but also a message to China of India’s reformulation of its strategic outlook toward an interest-based cooperation framework with others. China by then was on the cusp of becoming a rising power and would then be driven to take a more reconciliatory approach to India in what followed next.
Perhaps the most significant event was Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003, when the “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation” was signed. Without saying as much, this declaration is nearly of the nature of a peace treaty between the two. It set up the special-representatives (SR) dialogue on border issues as a process to work away from the limelight and with a long-term view. That such talks have been held 20 times already attests to the significance the two sides attach to it.
Dai Bingguo, Chinese state councilor and the first and longtime Chinese special representative for border talks, also has written that Vajpayee was optimistic that the SR-level talks could lead to some kind of fruition within five years. This also attests to the pragmatism of Vajpayee as prime minister. Whether or not he was able to sell this to his colleagues on the right would be another debate, though.
The Vajpayee template of how he dealt with Pakistan was born out of the simple yet strong conviction that you can choose your friends but not your neighbors. This pragmatism made it possible to pursue engagement with another neighbor with a troubled history. Engage while ensuring advance strategic capability was the narrative of the day, and that continues even to this day. The same template has been foundational in the case of India-China relations for the past 15 years.