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India: Sending A Wrong Signal

August 11, 2008

Brahma Chellaney
Times of India
August 10, 2008

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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