The foreign ministry in Beijing, from where India tunes in to China’s changing bilateral mood, is a sprawling brown complex beside a mall with the capital’s biggest Starbucks and shops like Padaa selling western clothes named after global brands.
Twice a week, journalists and staff from embassies including India’s, amble with their notebooks past stiff young guards wearing green ties into a media hall where they plug headphones into chairs for English translations in a Chinese woman’s voice.
Until recently it was possible to spend forty-five minutes listening to discussions about China’s relations with the US, Iran, North Korea, Africa, Pakistan, and even Guinea and Venezuela more than India, if at all. India would be talked about mostly in the context of the border talks or the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama whom Beijing labels a ‘splittist’.
These days, one hears references to Yindu (India) more frequently inside the brown hall where a spokesman stands before a world map flanked by Chinese flags. More journalists, not just Indians, now raise hands to ask about India and China. On Thursday, they asked about the new bilateral climate change pact.
Earlier this week, when spokesman Ma Zhaoxu responded that the Kashmir issue ‘left over from history’ should be ‘properly handled’ through dialogue between Pakistan and India, a hand shot up.
The journalist asked whether Chinese investment in the disputed area would help proper settlement of the issue, but the answer didn’t change.
Ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao in Thailand, Beijing is again emphasising friendly bilateral relations, without softening its stance on the rough patches. So it’s possible to sit through a briefing that begins with glowing words about the ‘sound momentum of growth’ in bilateral relations, and trails off with China ‘firmly opposing’ the Dalai Lama’s visit to ‘so-called Arunachal Pradesh’.
The officials rarely make impromptu departures from standard statements. At an ASEAN briefing where a row of officials sat on stage to read Chinese speeches about regional trade, assistant foreign minister Hu Zhengyue confirmed HT’s question that the two PMs would meet in Thailand.
But the minister didn’t stop at that. He paused and chose to slowly elaborate, “PM Singh is now in his second term. There has been good progress in our bilateral relationship and we hope this momentum can sustain. This meeting is an important one.’’
It sounded like a message from Beijing and not just another prepared statement.