Three missions characterised China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to New Delhi. As was stated in the official announcement, Wang came to India to get a first-hand familiarity with the newly elected government, rope in high-level Indian leaders to the June 28 event at Beijing to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the initiation of the Five Principles for Peaceful Co-existence (Panchsheel Principles) and as the “special envoy” of President Xi Jinping to convey a message to the new Indian prime minister. To a large extent, these missions were fulfilled and the trip can be stated as successful from the Chinese point of view.
Firstly, China was not sure how the new government would respond, given the last BJP-led dispensation’s nuclear tests of 1998 and its then defence minister calling China a “potential enemy number one”. Besides, China has its own problems to consider in the background of potential conflict situation with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea islands. In the multilateral institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum, Shangri-La dialogues and the East Asian Summit meetings, a number of countries were critical of China’s recent actions of setting up an Air Defence Identification Zone or building military infrastructure in the region. Given the fact that the East Asian Summit meeting in Myanmar is a few months away, any negative response from the new Indian leadership could further complicate China’s position in the region. A “neutral” – if not a pro-China – posture by India in the upcoming multilateral meetings is beneficial to the Chinese interests. In courting India ardently, China’s leaders must have been reminded of the old adage “the early bird catches the worm”!
Secondly, China’s leadership realised that the new government in Delhi – unlike all the governments before since 1984 – is not dependent on the coalition partners and can decisively push through successfully legislation in the parliament related to territorial disputes or economic reforms. Both of these issues are of critical importance to China – one is related to security and stability of its peripheral areas and, hence poses challenges, while the other is an opportunity for investment and expanding the scale of its manufacturing prowess. In other words, China’s leadership views that Modi can deliver and, most significantly, the new political dispensation could easily last for another term. Mending fences with the new and stable leadership could provide for rich dividends to China both at the economic level as well as at the international level given India’s track-record of independent foreign policy. China can also piggyback on the Indian diplomatic skills and soft power in the multilateral institutions given the depletion in China’s image due its recent assertiveness in East and Southeast Asia.
Thirdly, the April visit of United States President Obama to Asia – postponed since October last due to budgetary cuts – is seen by the Chinese leadership as strengthening further the US “rebalance” in the Asia-Pacific region. While China has a mutually beneficial relationship with the US, it is concerned over any containment or hedging strategies of the US. China wants the US to hand over the Asian region to Beijing. China is countering the US “rebalance” through the continental and maritime Silk Roads, but for the success of these China also needs Indian cooperation. In this context, the Panchsheel principles could lure India back into a “united front” with Beijing.
Six decades of Panchsheel
Both India and China have officially lauded Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. Wang’s interaction with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj and other officials was termed as “productive, substantive and fruitful” by the Indian foreign ministry spokesman. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman stated that in the wake of Wang’s visit, bilateral relations have entered into a “new age of gearing up” and that these are conducive in ushering “peace, stability and development of the region and beyond”. India has also decided to send the vice-president to attend the June 28 celebrations in Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel principles.
Special Envoy: What’s the message?
Significantly, Wang was sent to Delhi as “special envoy” of the Chinese president – a new intervention in the bilateral relations in the recent period. China had sent such special envoys before to the inaugural functions of new leaders in Africa and South America. China also has a Special Envoy for the Middle East and Africa for more than a decade, but Wang’s appointment as an envoy directly under the President (and not under the Premier’s State Council under which the foreign ministry functions) caught everyone by surprise. For the most significant issues in the foreign and security policies are discussed by one of the seven Central Leadership Small Leading Groups under Xi Jinping. Earlier this year, China’s president XI also became the Chairman of the National Security Commission, in addition to wearing other powerful hats like the General Secretary of the Communist Party.
As the special envoy, Wang delivered the message from Xi to Modi which praised the latter’s leadership qualities and, more significantly, on economic development in India. The new leadership’s focus on economic rejuvenation provides innumerable opportunities for China’s capital, labour, management and exploration of a huge market that could sustain economic growth rates in China. Predictably, Wang called Modi an “old friend” of China so as to further cement bilateral relations through high-level communications. More interestingly, Wang also re-iterated Premier Li Keqiang’s phrase that India and China are “natural partners” given the geographical proximity and developing nations’ status of these Asian giants. This move seems to be aimed at creating a parallel construction to the “natural allies” equation between then world’s largest democracies such as the US and India.
(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed in this article, written exclusively for India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, are solely those of the author)
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