The official photographs of the Politburo ruling China are marked with identical thinly pursed smiles. The leadership is rarely photographed on foreign land with the toothy grins that we see in the pictures of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao clapping and laughing in New Delhi like US President Barack Obama at a Mumbai school in November. The Premier is smiling in every frame.
There is a clear message in Beijing’s changing body language with India and it stands apart from the stiffly staged Chinese meetings with other nations. Chinese statesmen don’t camouflage their new assertiveness in handshakes with foreign leaders and rivals. It is also unusual for Chinese leaders to talk to the foreign media.
A year ago in Beijing, President Hu Jintao stood stiff and unsmiling next to Obama at a press conference minus questions at the end of Obama’s first China visit. Recently in Japan, Hu produced a grim smile for the cameras while weakly shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Wen has been dispatched to India to unleash Chinese charm diplomacy after a year Beijing spent fire-fighting with the US and neighbours. Chinese strategists indicate that China is belatedly waking up to the fact that it ignored ‘an important’ country that is less of an irritant than some others.
Wen’s visit to a school and insistence that his opening remarks on Thursday be aired live indicates the seriousness of Chinese intent to kick-start an effort to harmonise Indian public opinion toward Beijing. Compared to 2005, Wen is interacting with a wider section of Indian opinion makers from business to the arts.
The three-day visit is infused with friendship speeches and smiles but internally Beijing does not consider India an ally. For the Chinese, India’s a neighbour with whom it will be useful to get along better. The wall remains on mutual core concerns related to Pakistan. Ahead of Wen’s visit, a Chinese strategist frankly told this correspondent, ‘Pakistan is our only real ally’.