Befriend China, Don’t Propitiate

Sending A Wrong Signal

Sonia Gandhi’s Beijing visit is not good diplomacy

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, August 11, 2008

Vision, consistency and tenacity are critical to good diplomacy. Nothing can undermine foreign policy more than spur-of-the-moment initiatives or actions based on personal whims and fancies. Pragmatic foreign policy, as legendary French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Tellyrand-Périgord said, cannot display too much zeal. In that light, Sonia Gandhi’s sudden decision to go to the Beijing Olympics runs counter to the central precepts of sound diplomacy.

That this is her second visit to China in less than a year smacks not just of overzealousness but borders on indiscretion, coming as it does in the face of mounting Chinese assertiveness. Her previous visit last October, in the company of son Rahul Gandhi, was ill-timed because it followed several provocative Chinese actions, including Beijing publicly upping the ante on territorial disputes, compelling India to call off an IAS officers’ tour by denying a visa to an Arunachali officer, and repudiating a 2005 agreement that any border-related settlement should not disturb settled populations. Her latest visit, with members of her extended family, follows more Chinese provocations, including border incidents (like the demolition of makeshift Indian army bunkers at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction) and the post-midnight summoning of the Indian ambassador.

Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy. While no senior Chinese official has visited India since President Hu Jintao’s late 2006 stopover, a steady stream of Indian functionaries have continued to go to Beijing, even as Defence Minister A.K. Anthony put on public record recently India’s concern over rising Chinese cross-border incursions. This year alone, China has played host first to the prime minister, then to the external affairs minister and now to Sonia Gandhi, with Manmohan Singh set to return to Beijing in October for the ASEM summit. Sonia’s visit comes shortly after China slighted External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee by cancelling his scheduled meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao and deputing a junior functionary to receive earthquake-related relief from him.

That was not the only diplomatic snub by China recently. It publicly extended an Olympic opening-ceremony invitation to the most powerful person in India but not to the Indian president or prime minister, although under International Olympic Committee rules such invitations are the prerogative of each participating country’s national Olympic committee. The message was clear: Beijing does not care much for the duly elected Indian government but knows where actual power resides and what strings to pull in India. It also correctly calculated that unlike Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Stephen Harper, Donald Tusk and other leaders who are staying away from the Games, Sonia Gandhi will not fuss about the continuing repression in Tibet or China and attend, even though the Tibet issue is much closer to India’s interests than to the boycotters’.

Sonia’s fascination with China, as this writer learned long ago in a one-to-one meeting with her, dates back to her 1988 Beijing visit with late husband Rajiv Gandhi. The Chinese leadership rolled out all the pomp and pageantry, although that visit followed the 1987 Sumdorong Chu military showdown that brought war clouds out of a clear blue sky. Beijing’s perception of Sonia as someone it can work with was reinforced by her visit last October, when it accorded her a welcome fit for a head of state.

Her latest visit, at a time when China has stepped up pressure on India, will only help engender more Chinese pressure. By sowing confusion in India’s China policy, it not only sends out a message incongruous with Indian interest, but also unconsciously plays into Beijing’s game-plan to belittle the elected government as ineffectual and rudderless and reach out to her. Beijing is content that the Indian officialdom has fallen into the Chinese trap of talking about talks in a never-ending process. That leaves China free to pursue “congagement” with India, a blend of containment symbolized by aggressive flanking manoeuvres and engagement aided through the instrumentality of Sonia Gandhi.

In a year in which Chinese security forces cracked down harshly on Tibetans, the Olympics have focused global attention on China’s poor human-rights record. Yet, given India’s stake in stable, peaceful ties with China, New Delhi was right not to boycott the Games ceremony, deputing the sports minister to represent India. Befriend, not propitiate, ought to be the thrust of Indian policy. Sonia’s visit, however, throws a spanner in the carefully calibrated Indian approach.

Her visit cannot be defended as personal or apolitical, for her presence at the Games ceremony sends out a potent political message. To go with children and grandchildren and treat the trip as all fun and games will be out of step with her political status. After all, she heads India’s ruling party and her son is its general secretary. A jaunt fraught with foreign-policy implications is irreconcilable with such standing.

Sonia Gandhi’s life story is like a fairy tale come true: an au pair who marries Prince Charming and rises to become the most powerful figure in a distant foreign land she makes her home. Her ascension from humble origins is as much a tribute to her grit as to the openness of her adopted country. But while India celebrates diversity, China honours homogeneity. Sonia has to realize she is dealing with a state that has replaced Maoism with nationalism as the legitimating credo of the 59-year-old communist rule. And the element of homogeny is implanted in both its institutional structures and popular thought.

Ad hoc, personality-driven approach is no way to deal with such a state that calculatedly plays to its national pride and resolutely pursues long-term strategic interests. To upstage your own government through presence at China’s coming-out party is no mean matter. Once the party is over, it may not be long before China takes its gloves off. Given its growing bellicosity, can anyone discount the possibility that it may try to give India a bloody nose through a lightening but localized military expedition?

Jawaharlal Nehru had advised that the 1962 invasion become “a permanent piece of education”. Today, not only have the lessons of 1962 been forgotten, but also the flurry of Indian officials visiting Beijing for the party shows the manner India’s self-esteem is ebbing.

The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.

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