Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Wall Breaking’ China Visit

The two sides agreed to set up a joint border commission. The border issue was separated from other bilateral issues; the relationship would no longer be hostage to the territorial dispute

Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Wall Breaking’ China Visit

Praveen Davar

As the nation pays homage to Rajiv Gandhi, India's sixth, and youngest, Prime Minister on his76th birth anniversary, it is befitting to recall his historic visit to China over three decades ago.

Though the Rajiv era was cut short by his tragic assassination in May 1991, his achievements as Prime Minister for five years have been outstanding. This is especially so in the field of foreign affairs and defence which, while ensuring peace with the neighbours, enhanced the image andprestige of India abroad as a strong, secular and self-reliant nation.

Unfortunately, the ill-advised and thoughtless policies of the present government have shattered in a few months what took Rajiv Gandhi and his successors decades to build relations with foreign countries, especially in the neighbourhood.

According to experts in diplomacy, foreign policy does often begin with neighbours, but it should not end there. A country with any kind of a role on the world scene should view and build its neighbourhood relations in the framework of its overall objectives. C.Subramanian, a former minister in the cabinet of four Prime Ministers, in a tribute stated that 'on the foreign policy front, Rajiv's performance was most creditable...He was perfectly at ease in his dealings with international leaders and struck an instant rapport with many of them; his natural calm complementing his elan.'

Rajiv Gandhi concentrated his energies on five areas of foreign policy: Nonaligned Movement (NAM), African struggle and Apartheid, relations with big powers, NuclearDisarmament and relations with neighbours, especially Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka. But it was his visit to China that stole the show and became a 'path breaking' event, or as some smart scribe came out with a catchy phrase 'wall breaking', obviously a pun on the Great Wall of China.

The details of Rajiv Gandhi's visit were carefully crafted by his aides, both in the PMO and MEA. A thorough reappraisal on Sino -Indian relations was carried out one year earlier. Both sides had rigid positions on the border dispute, but the young Prime Minister took the initiative of settling the issue in an unconventional manner, something quite similar to the manner in which (Soviet) Russia had settled the border dispute with China a few months earlier when Gorbachev took over as the President of the then USSR.

The five-day visit of Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988 was one of the biggest events in the history of Asian relations in a quarter of a century. The expectations were not high till the second day of the visit. But the moment Rajiv Gandhi met the Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping who clasped the young Prime Minister's hands for 'what seemed like eternity', it was crystal clear to the whole world watching the event on TV screens that it was the beginning of a new era symbolising the new spirit in India-China relations.

The moment has been recorded well by Bhabani Sen Gupta in his biography of Rajiv Gandhi: "When they converged on one another, Deng clasped the Prime Minister's proffered hands for three minutes. Addressing Rajiv Gandhi as 'my young friend’, Deng fired the first salvos of a new uncharted friendship. 'Let us forget the past', he said, still clasping the visitor's hands, and went on to say, 'You are young. You are the future. We are receding into history. There is a new generation of leaders now and global desire to live in peace and end conflict and tension. It lies in your hands to shape the destiny of the new world order. Use it wisely.' Deng added, ' We have both made mistakes and we can learn from each other. Why can't we share our experiences, our successes and failures? There is much we can achieve together. We can achieve nothing by being antagonists.'

Deng indicated a direction for a new Sino-Indian beginning; not a route which he left to the younger generationthat had come to power. As Indians mulled over the meaning of what Deng told Rajiv Gandhi in their meeting, they were increasingly impressed by the 84-year old statesman's emphasis on the peaceful, constructive, cooperative role he urged the younger generations of world leaders to pursue in sharp contrast to the polarised, aggressively divisive world the older generations had created."


Rajiv Gandhi was the first PM to visit China after a gap of 34 years. In 1954 his illustrious grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had visited China when nearly a million people came out in the streets to have a glimpse of the 'most admired leader of the world.'

Hence Rajiv Gandhi reminded his hosts, while delivering a lecture at Quinghua University on December 21, 1988: "Placed in the context of the epochal changes brought about in the world by the independence of India and the liberation of China, among the most important events of the mid twentieth century, the friendship which Jawaharlal Nehru sought with China was a friendship that could fundamentally affect the destiny of humankind.

'After reminding the Chinese intelligentsia ofthe impact of Buddhism on the early exchanges between the two civilizations, Rajiv Gandhi went on to stress: "Now as the spirit of the mid-fifties has been rekindled, the time has cometo end our estrangement and make a new beginning.We must find an acceptable solution to the boundary question...this can be achieved in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and mutual confidence."

The visit of Rajiv Gandhi broke down 'the great wall 'between India and China. The two sides agreed to set up a joint border commission headed by the officials of their foreign ministries. The border issue was separated from other bilateral issues; the relationship would no longer be hostage to the territorial dispute. Both the countries also agreed to 'continue, extend and deepen 'their dialogue and exchange information and personnel in various fields and improve relations.

The impact of the historic visit which received an extremely wide global media attention, was aptly summarised later by a senior professor of Beijing University, Jin Dinghan, who had told Rajiv in Beijing: 'In 1954, I had met your grandfather, in 1983 I met your mother. Now I am very happy to meet you.'

Soon after the tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the ageing professor wrote in his touching tribute: "The Chinese people were deeply shocked when they learnt the news that he had met with such a gruesome death. He was too young to die.He could have done much more work for India and for the people of the whole world. He made a brilliant contribution to the friendship between the Chinesepeople and the Indian people during his lifetime. In memory of him let us go forward hand in hand to promote the friendship between our two great peoples."

The successors of the country's youngest Prime Minister did go forward rapidly and laboriously built upon the strong foundations laid by Rajiv Gandhi to rebuild India -China relations. But that was till 2014. In the last six years, especially after PM Narendra Modi got a renewed mandate in 2019, India's relations with China, indeed with most of the neighbours, have deteriorated as never before. The country is paying a very heavy price for Mr Modi's shortsighted policies, both internal and external.

(The writer, an ex-Army officer, is former Secretary AICC and a political analyst)

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