With S Jaishankar, New Delhi has someone who knows Chinese diplomacy
External affairs minister S Jaishankar’s Chinese name Su Jiesheng (pronounced Jie Shang) could be broadly interpreted as “excellent student”.
If he is, it will surely help as he takes over the reins of the ministry from Sushma Swaraj at a time when New Delhi’s ties with the US and China are going through – as the Chinese could say – interesting times.
Here in Beijing, Jaishankar’s surprising appointment was greeted with a brief Chinese foreign ministry statement that seemed forced and often-repeated; the statement in Chinese was shared with Beijing-based Indian media close to midnight on Friday.
“We congratulate Mr. Su Jiesheng (S Jaishankar) on his appointment as Foreign Minister of India. Mr. Wang Yi, the State Councilor and Foreign Minister have sent him a message,” the statement said.
“Mr. Su Jiesheng served as the Foreign Secretary of India and Ambassador to China, making a positive contribution to the development of Sino-Indian relations. China is willing to work with India to implement the consensus of the leaders of the two countries, promoting Sino-Indian relations and practical cooperation in various fields to make new progress, so as to better benefit the peoples of the two countries,” the statement added.
The reaction from Chinese academics, on the other hand, was an uneasy mix of wariness and guarded optimism – his work in Washington was under sharp focus.
The fact is that Jaishankar knows China and its ways well; he was the longest serving Indian envoy here (2009-2013).
That could well be an advantage for New Delhi when he sits on the same negotiating table with Wang – as an equal — the next time they meet, and not just as a bureaucrat like before; he is not a politician without any domain knowledge.
“I think he himself thinks he understands China well. He was also ambassador to the US. He has very good relations with the US. Now, Sino-India relations at the top level are guided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping themselves. If anything is decided by President Xi and PM Modi, the minister is just the implementer,” said Liu Zongyi, general secretary of the Centre for China-South Asia Cooperation Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“Cannot say good or bad (the decision to appoint Jaishankar). It shows PM Modi’s trust in Jaishankar. If we have confidence in China-India relations in Modi’s second term, we should have confidence in the person handpicked by the PM,” said Li Li, south Asia expert at Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Relations.
It has been widely reported that it was his briefing to the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2010 regarding China’s refusal to issue a visa to the Northern Army Commander which led to the temporary suspension of Sino-India defence co-operation before the matter was resolved in April 2011.
Unlike his successors AK Kantha, Vijay Gokhale and Gautam Bambawale in Beijing, Jaishankar didn’t speak any Mandarin. But as an “excellent student”, Beijing knows that he did pick up the nuances of Chinese diplomacy pretty well.