Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign relations innings began with a bang with the invitation to heads of the SAARC countries for his swearing-in. The resounding success of that initiative can be gauged from the fact that all but one head of state/ government turned up for the event, making it an international relations coup of sorts.
Through this deft move, PM Modi proved that he understands the external affairs department well enough. He is not all that new to other countries and their leaders. As chief minister and even earlier as a party leader, he had visited several countries, including China, Japan and the US. His home state became a destination for countless world leaders during his stewardship and he regularly rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty from more than a hundred countries during the Vibrant Gujarat summit and other events.
His cabinet colleague and minister for external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, too is no novice to the subject. As leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, she had had the opportunity to interact with a number of senior world leaders, including US President Barack Obama. Her recent visits to Singapore and Sri Lanka as the leader of the BJP showed her grip on foreign affairs. Leaders of those countries fondly remember their association with her even to this day.
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Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s participation in the swearing-in has raised big hopes in the diplomatic circles in both countries. India and Pakistan have had chequered relations from day one. Moreover, the BJP is seen as a hardline party when it comes to relations with Pakistan. Given that scenario, it is natural that a lot of discussion took place on whether Modi and Sharif would kickstart a new era in vexed bilateral ties.
This feverish enthusiasm is understandable. Many Indians have, for several decades, been obsessed with Pakistan. For them, the benchmark of success of our international relations is our relationship with Pakistan. They fail to appreciate that India is miles ahead of its failed western neighbour. They also fail to realise that Sharif is not the right man to deliver anything. As Ayaz Amir pointed out in his latest article in The News, while Manmohan Singh took 10 years to fail, Sharif may need just two years to collapse. Already the all-powerful Pakistan army and the mercenaries of the ISI are baying for his blood. As Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai pointed out, the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat by ISI cronies on the very day of Modi’s swearing-in was more a warning to Sharif than to India.
However, the Modi government should realise that the real foreign policy challenge comes not from Pakistan but from China. India and China have been uneasy neighbours for longer years than India and Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan, China is a big and successful country. On the eve of the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Indian government should revisit its China policy. The Indian leadership should understand one basic truth. It hardly matters in China’s context as to how many times our leaders have visited China or vice versa. The notion that diplomacy is all about proximity doesn’t hold any water in China’s context. Nehru to Nixon had good experience of it.
What plagues our foreign policy with regard to China is the utter lack of knowledge about the Himalayan neighbour in our country. With Pakistan, our obsession is security, whereas with China we are overawed by the talk of development there. Ordinary individuals and ministers alike look at China only through the prism of its development and fail to appreciate the complex civilisational traits of that country.
All neighbours are not alike. China is certainly not like any other neighbour. China is not just a country or a government; it is a civilisation. To understand China, our leader should better understand their civilisational behaviour. We should know Sun Tzu’s Art of War; we should study Confucius. China’s policy behaviour is largely shaped by its civilisational experience. Diplomacy, for them, is an art of deception.
In 1954, India and China proclaimed Panchsheel as the basis of our relations. Successive Indian leaders, including A.B. Vajpayee, never missed the opportunity to refer to Panchsheel and “peaceful coexistence” as enshrined in it in bilateral talks. No wonder, if the present leadership is also forced to continue the ritual by MEA mandarins. But we forget that the obituary of Panchsheel was written by Mao in 1962 itself when he told Zhou Enlai that India and China should practise not “peaceful coexistence” but “armed coexistence”.
Another important aspect of China to be borne in mind is that, as in Pakistan, the military plays an important role in China too. The Central Military Commission, the all-powerful body that controls the Chinese military, reports to the Communist Party of China more than to the government of China. While we deal with the government leadership on various bilateral issues we can’t overlook the fact that the view of the military on various cross-border issues is also significant.
The Indian government enjoys one advantage in India-China relations, that of the ignorance of the masses in India about the complexities involved in it. In the case of Pakistan, the people of India are very aware of the sensitivities, forcing government’s options to a limited few. However, in the case of China, no such constraint in the form of popular backlash is going to happen. The very fact that, while there were animated debates over whether Nawaz Sharif should have been invited to the swearing-in ceremony, there is no such commotion with regard to the phone call or proposed visit of the premier of China within the next few months proves this point.
But the government must understand that this popular approval, born of a lack of knowledge, can be dangerous if it decides to take things easy with China.
Madhav is a member of the Central Executive, RSS, and the author of ‘Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War’