Both India and China are attaching considerable strategic significance to the visit of President Pranab Mukherjee to the world’s most populous nation.
President Mukherjee’s visit to China was long overdue and Beijing too was keen on hosting him at the earliest, but the visit couldn’t take place earlier because of the dynamics of India’s foreign policy. Though delayed, the visit at the level of Head of the State and as a state guest is indicative of the positive relationship between the two countries.
President Pranab Mukherjee is visiting China six years after former President Pratibha Devisingh Patil took the trip in May 2010. However, Patil’s visit was more symbolic than substantive. Prior to Patil, the last President to visit China was KR Narayanan in 2000.
By all accounts, Beijing is expected to consider this visit strategically significant, unlike previous occasions, for a number of reasons. First, Mukherjee is an astute politician and an outstanding parliamentarian of longstanding experience. In recent times, he has been very active in promoting and fostering foreign policy goals and objectives of the country, complimenting and supplementing the sustained efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the South Block.
Also, he is no stranger to China. As two-time cabinet minister of external affairs and defence minister, he has visited China on several occasions and has firsthand experience in dealing with the many complex issues in the relationship between the two countries. He has also met and interacted with top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, during their visits to India. This strategic insight will enable him to better connect with the Chinese leaders, who are expected to reach out to him with similar candour.
The timing of the visit is very significant as well and both sides appear to be making a sincere effort to ensure the visit is a success.
It is the first of several key visits at the highest political level slated for the year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also likely to visit Hangzhou to participate in the G-20 summit to be held in September. G-20 summit will be followed by BRICS summit in Goa, in which President Xi Jinping will participate. It is, therefore, incumbent on the two countries to maintain and nourish proper atmospherics for the success of future high-level interactions.
The leaders of the two countries are taking utmost care not to allow minor irritants to snowball into major issues. In a clear message to Beijing, the annual report of ministry of defence this year deleted certain remarks. Last year, the annual report had remarked that “India remains conscious and watchful of China’s increasing military profile in our immediate and extended neighbourhood, as well as the development of strategic infrastructure by China in the border areas.”
The omission is a clear and positive signal to China. Regrettably, however, China didn’t reciprocate as it voted against a UN resolution to put Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar on a list of proscribed terrorists.
Nonetheless, to create positive atmospherics, China released the India-China joint production film Kung Fu Yoga in the country, besides the Chinese translation of selected works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
During his recent visit to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, Mukherjee very thoughtfully in an interview to a newspaper said that India and China are not competing in the Asia-Pacific. Considering the perceived strategic distrust between the two countries, his articulation was well timed ahead of his planned visit.
His nuanced views on contentious issues will help improve communication between the two countries and smoothen rough edges. He knows well that the relationship between the two countries is passing through a delicate phase and a churning is taking place. How the leaders of the two countries and the diplomatic corps handle this delicate relationship will be extremely critical. However, one thing is sure — the leaders of the two countries have the maturity and the wisdom to creatively handle the relationship, which they have done on numerous occasions in the recent past and continue to do so.
The leaders of China know well that India has a strategic autonomy in its foreign policy, including bilateral relations between the two countries, which cannot be dictated by a third country. President Pranab Mukherjee will reinforce this strategic trust in his own inimitable way.
(The writer is a Delhi-based China scholar and a former senior fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal)