Messages from the Middle Kingdom

Messages from the Middle Kingdom
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First Published: Thu, Sep 04 2008. 12 49 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Sep 04 2008. 12 49 AM IST
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that when push comes to shove, China will not be the one standing up and objecting to a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) when the all-important NSG meeting on India is held in Vienna on 4-5 September.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, announcing Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Kolkata and Delhi from 7-9 September, stressed that both countries had agreed “they were cooperative partners of mutual benefit, rather than rivals.”
Only the day before, however, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, had run an article by a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, saying that if the Indo-US nuclear accord went through, it would be a “major blow” to non-proliferation efforts worldwide. Question is, why are the Chinese speaking with a forked tongue? Or it is a deliberate effort to unsettle India? Certainly, Comrade Yang would not be coming to India if Beijing was going to scuttle India’s nuclear ambitions at the NSG just before.
The thing about the Chinese, the head of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s China department, Sreekant Kondapalli, says, is that they are never going to openly oppose India’s ambitions. Instead, like-minded nations will be persuaded to speak up. For example, China was widely believed to be behind Pakistan’s objections to the Indo-US nuclear deal when it was being debated at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Except that the US persuaded Islamabad to stand down.
Now, at the NSG, says Kondapalli, it will be in Beijing’s interest if countries like Switzerland, Ireland, Austria and New Zealand prolong India’s agony and object to the special nuclear exemptions being granted to India. After all, if the Bush administration’s stated aim is to get India into the nuclear fold so as to contain a rising China, then Beijing would certainly not want an increasingly powerful India.
However, if the US employs sufficient muscle and browbeats the Europeans as well as its treaty ally, New Zealand, towards a compromise—as it has done these past few weeks—and the NSG waiver comes through, then China would certainly not like to be seen as the gang-leader of a tiny, bleeding heart group of nations which has lost the fight. Not when US-Chinese trade, according to 2007 figures from the US Foreign Trade Division of its Census Bureau, tops $321 billion (of which $256 billion is in China’s favour). Certainly, economic clout can cut both ways.
More than likely, China will swallow its spite and not come in the way of an NSG consensus in Vienna. So when foreign minister Yang Jiechi comes to India and meets external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi—although a meeting with her hasn’t been confirmed yet—he will be able to do so with a ready smile and a light heart.
China’s complex political relationship with India has been most evident over the last few years, both on the nuclear issue as well as when India began to lobby, along with Germany, Japan and Brazil in 2004-05, for the expansion of permanent seats (but without veto power) in the Security Council. As the so-called G-4’s effort began to gain ground, the Chinese sent around a hundred envoys around the world (especially to Africa), to lobby against this effort.
The G-4 plan at the time was supported by Britain and France and strongly opposed by the Chinese while the US sat on the fence. Beijing put out informally that its anti-expansion lobbying was aimed at Japan, not India, but New Delhi wasn’t really impressed.
After the G-4 effort failed to take off and India began to focus on the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005, the Chinese never let India know what it was really thinking. Manmohan Singh, on his return from Beijing in January, put his finger on the lack of a concrete assurance from China, when he spoke to journalists on his return journey:
“I cannot say I have got a firm, definite answer (on the nuclear issue) but my own feeling is that the relationship of trust and confidence is now establishing, and we are succeeding in that. When the issue comes before relevant agencies, I do not think China will be an obstacle. I can’t say I have an assurance today,” the PM said.
A few months later, when foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon travelled to Beijing to seek support on the nuclear deal, he didn’t get any. China only “noted” his request, a Ministry of External Affairs official said. Undaunted, New Delhi pushed ahead, aware that the Indo-US nuclear deal would only balance the asymmetrical relationship with China. Moreover, it put out that it wanted to work together with China. Petroleum minister Murli Deora’s remarks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, last week that India wanted to work jointly with China, especially in third countries, was part of this strategy.
More Chinese encounters are expected in the days ahead, led by the Prime Minister’s participation in the East Asia summit in Beijing in October. If all goes well, the Indo-US nuclear deal will, by then, be out of the way and India will be able to speak from a greater position of strength.
The Middle Kingdom has always held a long-term view of its own place in the world as well as in history. Coming to terms with “Western Heaven,” as India is known in Mandarin, must be part of this plan.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
To read all of Jyoti Malhotra’s earlier columns, go to
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First Published: Thu, Sep 04 2008. 12 49 AM IST