India on Wednesday probably took one of its most far-reaching decisions in
recent years when it chose to disregard Beijing's request not to attend the
Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in Oslo on
India joins only three other Asian countries - Japan, South Korea and Thailand
- in snubbing Beijing on the issue.
Indian officials confirmed that the decision had been taken at the level of
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Chinese authorities made diplomatic demarches on
four occasions over the past six weeks that India should heed Beijing's
sensitivities in the matter. India's National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar
Menon visited Beijing for consultations only recently and conceivably the
Chinese side would have raised the issue with him.
A day after Manmohan took the decision, the Indian Foreign Ministry announced
that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao would pay a state visit to India on December
Clearly, Delhi has carefully weighed the shadow that its Oslo decision will
cast on Wen's visit and decided that it could afford the negative impact. Menon
was on record after his talks in Beijing that Delhi had expectations that Wen's
visit would generate positive momentum in bilateral ties, but that seems to
have been vacuous diplomatese. It is all but certain that Wen's visit has been
derailed even before he arrives in Delhi. Menon works under Manmohan's direct
supervision and is widely regarded as his protege.
The peculiarity of the Indian position is that it has nothing to do with human
rights as such. Historically speaking, Delhi has a deplorable record in taking
a bold stance on human rights in other countries and has consistently abhorred
attempts by Western or Islamic countries to cast aspersions on its own domestic
record - be it in Kashmir or with regard to alleged discrimination against the
180-million strong Muslim community or the so-called "untouchables" in
caste-ridden Hindu society.
How, then, does one explain Manmohan's decision? First, it is a decision that
primarily falls within the realm of Sino-Indian relations. Put simply, Delhi
has lost its patience, finally, apropos of a series of moves by Beijing that
have been seen by the Indian establishment as calibrated, with the intent of
"needling" or belittling or humbugging India.
These moves have been in relation to the Kashmir issue, the disputed
Sino-Indian border and on the rising curve of China's strategic ties with
Pakistan. Delhi has been bristling that Beijing has shown a lack of sensitivity
toward India's core concerns and vital interests. Foreign Minister S M Krishna
made a demarche to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi last month that India
was as sensitive to the Kashmir problem as China could be vis-a-vis Taiwan or
There is a belief among the "China hands" within the Indian foreign policy
establishment that the advantage lies with Beijing in resorting to pinpricks
and subterfuges while keeping the facade of friendliness, and it is only by
putting the latter openly on the mat at some point that it can be made to
realize that diplomacy can be a two-way game. Whether Beijing picks up this
point in a spirit of chivalry and pragmatism will be the point to be keenly
watched in the coming weeks. Wen is also scheduled to visit Pakistan later this
The Indian officials have doubtless rubbed salt into the Chinese wound by
suggesting to the media off the record that ultimately Beijing's thinking would
be guided by the mercantile considerations of its self-interest with regard to
the rapidly expanding economic ties with India. Bilateral trade, which is
cruising toward US$60 billion annually, is heavily in China's favor and India
is emerging as China's number one market for project exports.
Thus, there is a fond hope among the China experts within the Indian
establishment that Beijing ultimately will overlook the impending ruckus over
Manmohan's Oslo decision so long as the gravy train of its lucrative business
ties with India is allowed to run - and even accelerate in some directions.
Indian officials have pointed out that Delhi might allow more freedom for
Chinese telecom companies to operate in the lucrative domestic market and that
would significantly assuage the ruffled feathers in the corridors of power in
Beijing. Wen is in charge of economic management.
In reality, though, there can be no two opinions that Delhi has shifted gear on
the Sino-Indian relationship by placing a new emphasis on the principle of
reciprocity. Arguably, this new thinking has been partly motivated by a
perceived need to cajole Beijing to cooperate with regard to Delhi's determined
bid to secure permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council in a
The Indian diplomats' version of Sinology has always been rooted in the faith
that Beijing blinks if it is looked hard in the eye. Manmohan's Oslo decision
will put this thesis to acid test.
Indeed, Manmohan is a cautious politician by temperament and wouldn't have
taken the Oslo decision without keeping in mind the larger strategic backdrop
of India's "partnership" with the United States. Ideologically, he almost
instinctively casts an eye on Washington while deciding on almost any topic in
international politics - be it climate change, the Group of 20 or terrorism and
relations with Pakistan.
Thus, it is all but certain that Manmohan has made some important conclusions
following the visit by President Barack Obama to India last month. He seems to
be convinced that Obama is almost as good for India as his predecessor George W
Bush was. (Manmohan once told Bush publicly that Indians "loved" him). Two,
Manmohan and his advisers have drawn the conclusion that the US is set on a
course of countering the challenge to its global supremacy posed by China's
rise and in this laudable enterprise Washington counts on Delhi's partnership.
From the Indian point of view, a firm US stance on the Asia-Pacific security
scenario creates much leverage for Delhi in working itself to a position of
advantage vis-a-vis Beijing. Three, the Indian establishment has been assured
of massive US help in building up India's military prowess.
The Indian establishment's expectation is that the infusion of cutting-edge
military technology from the US and the induction of sophisticated missile
defense technology will incrementally bridge the disequilibrium that currently
exists in the Sino-Indian military balance. In short, India will be enabled to
negotiate with China on its border dispute from a position of growing advantage
as time passes.
Manmohan's Oslo decision falls within a pattern of Indian policies in recent
weeks. India stubbornly refused to identify with the approach to the
Asia-Pacific region that Moscow pushed for at the last month's foreign
minister-level RIC (Russia-India-China) meet in Wuhan, China. There was much
hand-wringing in the drafting of the joint statement at Wuhan. Delhi made it
clear that it will not be party to any Russian-Chinese initiative that casts
the US in a poor light - leave alone project it in adversarial terms.
The Indian establishment is convinced that Moscow and Beijing are closely
coordinating on the Asia-Pacific region and its leitmotif is to keep US
influence under check. This has dampened even further Delhi's enthusiasm to
revive its atrophying strategic ties with Moscow.
Contrary to the Russian-Chinese thinking, India is moving in the direction of
welcoming, encouraging and supporting a robust US presence in the region as a
counterweight to China. Manmohan has undertaken visits to Japan and South Korea
in the recent period and is scheduled to visit Australia early next year.
In short, Manmohan is steering India with great deliberateness toward a US-led
alliance in Asia, while Indian diplomats continue to make proforma claims
regarding continued adherence to India's traditional aversion to becoming part
of any alliance system or blocs.
India's Oslo decision is a loud assertion that India is prepared to stand up
and be counted as a key participant in any US enterprise to checkmate China. No
doubt, the decision will impact on the geopolitics of the region. Ties with
Pakistan will assume a new significance for Beijing. Russia, too, will take
greater interest in building up the sinews of a long-term relationship with
Pakistan, which has been historically absent in deference to Indian
Conceivably, Manmohan weighed these factors and has come to the conclusion that
with the expanding strategic partnership with the US and the country's rapidly
growing economic might, the time has come to assert its aspiration as a rival
pole to China on the world stage.
His touching faith in the US's predominant influence may appear to be a risk
element but then, statesmanship is all about risk-taking and "audacity", as
Obama would say. The ensuing Asian drama promises to be an engrossing interplay
of power projection.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.