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Sending a wrong signal

Sending a wrong signal

Author: Brahma Chellaney
Publication: The Times of India
Date: August 11, 2008
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Editorial/Sending_A_Wrong_Signal/articleshow/3349289.cms

Vision, consistency and tenacity are critical to good diplomacy. Pragmatic foreign policy, as legendary French diplomat Talleyrand said, has to shut out personal whims and fancies as well as 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 would be 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 visit last October, in the company of son Rahul Gandhi, was ill-timed because it followed several provocative Chinese actions against India. Her latest visit, with members of her extended family, follows more Chinese provocations, including border incidents 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 stream of Indians have continued to go to Beijing, despite 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 soon after China slighted external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee by cancelling his meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao and deputing a junior functionary to receive earthquake-related relief from him.

That was not the only diplomatic snub recently. China publicly extended an Olympic-ceremony invitation to the most powerful person in India but not to the Indian president or PM, although under the 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 ceremony, 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 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 trap of talking about talks in a never-ending process. That leaves China free to pursue "congagement", a blend of containment symbolised by aggressive flanking manoeuvres and engagement aided through the instrumentality of Sonia Gandhi.

Given its stake in stable, peaceful ties with China, New Delhi was right not to shun the Games ceremony, deputing the sports minister to represent India. Befriend, not propitiate, ought to guide 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's 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 realise she is dealing with a state that has replaced Maoism with nationalism as the legitimating credo of the 59-year-old communist rule. And homogeny is implanted in both 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 localised 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.

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