There’s an unmistakable air of caution in the Indian camp ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs first meeting with new Chinese President Xi Jinping,perhaps prompted by the uncertainty that often grips Chinese behavior. This is accentuated by the fact that Xi is riding the back of a strong nationalist sentiment,which is making conduct of every countrys China policy a major challenge.
Yet,for India,its important to segregate the specific from the overall mood. Chinas national attention is focused to the East and on how it stands up to the US. In many ways,this is a phase of aspirational foreign policy for China one which is willing to upset settled equations,terms and attitudes.
Two appointments signify this. One is the elevation of former foreign minister Yang Jiechi to the position of state councillor. While most in India remember him for pulling back from certain common interpretations of the 2005 India-China boundary principles agreement,the fact is he is Chinas long regarded US expert and is a sign of what is on Beijings priority list.
Yangs successor in the foreign office,Wang Yi,is a Japan specialist,again emphasising the eastern focus. This is not to say India is not important but its not in the same category,which is where Indias best strategic opportunity with China lies one that New Delhi needs to grab with both hands.
Now is the time to shun reticence and move beyond the managing China approach as India finds itself in a different situation compared to some of Chinas other neighbours. Lets not forget much of China was built due to Japanese investment and prowess.
At this point,Beijing is willing to do all it can to accommodate New Delhi,be least provocative and,in a way,manage India. The sudden eagerness to scale up military CBMs with India,and the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang including India in his first two phone calls after taking charge are just a few instances of this changing trend.
This is the time for India to shift gears,set the agenda and not be tentative. But can Singh swim against the tide to further a strategic goal in an election year? The Chinese would assess he cant. And thats the impression which needs to change when Singh walks up to Xi on Holi night.
Pranab is a deputy editor based in Delhi