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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Dr Singh is not Richard Gere

January 11, 2008

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The present is the best time in a long while for New Delhi to come to terms with China's phenomenal rise, a paradigm that bothers the entire world community. Two of India's ablest 'China hands' are crafting New Delhi's diplomacy towards Beijing [Images] -- Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Ambassador Nirupama Rao. The political leadership should not fail our diplomats.

But the discourses in the Indian media regarding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] visit to China have turned out to be disappointing. Whether they reflect the official policy, one dare not think. They have more to say about the Dalai Lama [Images] or China's infrastructure development activities in its relatively backward Tibet Autonomous Region than how India must come to terms with its northern neighbour, which is more than half a superpower already.

For any serious regional power, high level visits are occasions for constructive diplomacy. They are approached with adequate preparation. The urgency with which Dr Singh scheduled his China visit at the final lap of the UPA government's rule amidst the growing turbulence in Indian politics, gives one hope.

Dr Singh will have a sense of mission and a prospective plan for India-China relations through the coming decade or two.

Indeed, simply because Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi [Images] visited Beijing, it is not necessary that Dr Singh also should. Second, it is never a good idea to be bogged down in peripherals. Tibet or the Dalai Lama simply does not become the sum total of India-China relations. Dr Singh is not Richard Gere [Images].

Third, it will be a historic blunder if we insist on getting bogged down when the world community is striving to build verve and content into their ties with China.

In diplomacy, it is inadvisable to be a straggler, as you may end up crawling back on a pitiless greasy pole.

Asian security paradigm

Yet, our discourses over China show a huge shortfall in our understanding of the emergent Asian security paradigm. Our middle class consumerism of the globalisation era and the overall intellectual decline in the country alone cannot explain it away. There must be deeper reasons.

Look at the obsessive thought processes of our pundits regarding a quadripartite alliance involving the United States, Japan [Images] and Australia and India. They were of epic proportions, predicated on assumptions regarding Sino-Japanese antipathies, or the so-called 'containment' of China, or about a concert of Asian democracies led by Washington.

How relevant are these sub-themes? They already look vacuous. Given the great fluidity of Asian security, it was audacious to have rushed in 'where angels fear to tread.'

'Non-alignment' not a dirty word

Since 'non-alignment' has become a dirty word in our idiom -- especially after US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice began disparaging the concept -- one must be apologetic. But the inescapable reality is India needs to transmute the ideology of non-alignment. Our lack of intellectual creativity doesn't mean the ideology has become useless baggage.

India's haphazard transition in the tumultuous early 1990s under P V Narasimha Rao's leadership precluded profound thinking. Rao's panache for tactics in preference to long-term strategy is, of course, legion. Second, the sheer pressure of domestic politics took its toll on Rao's time and wisdom. Third, there was no pressure of public opinion to intellectualise foreign policy once almost all parties began eschewing 'internationalism' in favour of mofussil politics.

The net result is while to some it might have seemed Rao was crossing the Rubicon, New Delhi was in actuality marking time -- or best, cruising without traction. In the 'de-ideologised' world of the early 1990s, it became fashionable to say foreign policy must be pragmatic. But we overlooked that a foreign policy can be pragmatic only if it is based on rock-like principles.

That is to say, no matter what Rice might think of us, we should not overlook that the quintessence of non-alignment lies in distilling national interests in a difficult world. China realises this.

Russia [Images] challenges US geo-strategy

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which spearheaded Washington's crusade against the Soviet Union, featured a year ender on Russia. It said: 'This was the year Vladimir Putin [Images] implicitly compared the US to the Third Reich... And it was the year that -- despite the occasional diplomatic language to the contrary -- the last remnants of the vaunted strategic partnership between Russia and the West appeared headed for the dustbin of history... 2007 marked a new low in Russia's post-Soviet relations with the West... Cold War or not, Russia has certainly been attempting to lay the foundations for an alternative security architecture to compete with the West.'

To be sure, Russia's resurgence is disrupting US global strategies.

We need to factor that New Delhi's equations with Moscow [Images] will always remain a matter of concern to Washington. Second, we cannot miss out on the geopolitical reality that Washington's number 1 adversary is still Russia -- and not China.

China adapts to non-alignment

For a generation to come, Russia will remain the only power that possesses strategic deterrence against the US. That is why Washington is paying such close attention to US-China relations so as to calibrate the triangular equations involving the US, China and Russia.

China grasps the potentials of this tango. It no longer bonds with the US as in the Soviet period. But China is not being furtive. It is openly exploring the frontiers of non-alignment in the era of globalisation. What else is the Chinese concept of a 'harmonious world' about?

The People's Daily says, 'Confucius (551 BC to 479 BC) expounded the philosophical concept of harmony without uniformity, meaning the world is full of differences and contradictions, but the righteous man should balance them and achieve harmony.'

China-US cooperation on upswing

On the one hand, as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Russian media on the eve of his visit to Moscow in November, Sino-Russian relations are now 'both at their best in history and at a most important historical stage', and China looked ahead at the coming decade as 'an important historical period for both the evolution of the international situation and the development of China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership.'

At the same time, in 2007, as the People's Daily noted, China-US relations saw enhanced mutual understanding 'on the basis of reaching continuous consensus and the boosting of cooperation of both parties on vital global subjects.'

The commentary underscored that Beijing won 'positive appraisal' from Washington for bilateral cooperation on global issues like the North Korea problem, Sudan, war on terror, energy security, climate warming, etc.

Rice gave a New Year gift to Beijing with her statement at her year-end press conference in Washington on December 22 that the US opposed Taiwan's bid to join the United Nations. Apart from high-level political exchanges and surging trade relations, two rounds of China-US strategic economic dialogue were held last year.

China-US military cooperation took big leaps, with the visit by the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to China in late October; a prospective view on military exchanges; and the establishment -- first time ever for China with a foreign country -- of a direct military hotline between the ministry of national defence in Beijing and the Pentagon in Washington.

Washington pursues a China policy that aims at making the latter a stakeholder in the US's global strategies. But Beijing knows it needs two to tango.

China-Japan ties warming up

Similarly, the Indian strategic community and corporate media completely overlook the dramatic shift of templates in China-Japan relations. Chinese accounts say Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's four-day visit to China on New Year's Eve was a 'rip-roaring success.'

Despite the huge backlog of history and a plethora of contemporary issues that seriously complicate China-Japan relations, the trend is that China and Japan have sized up the volatile regional and international situation and decided that they must keep up with the times by searching for a 'win-win magnanimity' and tenaciously expand the converging point of their mutual interests.

The unfolding Asian drama shouldn't have caught our pundits by surprise. But, as Ronald Reagan would say, 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian ambassador


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