Krishna to meet Li Keqiang, anointed as successor of Wen Jiabao
Indian officials will get their first opportunity to engage with a key figure of the next generation of the Chinese leadership when External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna meets Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the anointed successor of Premier Wen Jiabao, at the iconic Great Hall of the People here on Wednesday.
The meeting is seen as being of particular significance as this will be Mr. Li's first ever interaction with Indian officials. Mr. Krishna will meet the Vice Premier, who is expected to take over from Mr. Wen following this year's leadership transition, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit which begins here on Wednesday.
The once-in-a-decade leadership transition is set to begin in earnest in July, when China's top leaders convene at the seaside resort of Beidaihe to finalise the selection of the next generation of leaders. Reflecting his rising stature, Mr. Li last month made a high-profile overseas tour, visiting Russia, Hungary, Belgium and the European Union headquarters in Brussels.
Mr. Li and Vice-President Xi Jinping, the anointed successor of General Secretary and President Hu Jintao, are the only two members of the current Politburo Standing Committee who will retain their positions in the powerful nine-member body, which effectively runs China, following the transition. Top Indian officials have held two meetings with Mr. Xi, who will assume the more powerful role as President, during visits by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and President Pratibha Patil to Beijing.
Over the past decade under the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration, and particularly since Mr. Wen's visit to India in 2005, Indian officials have seen the current Premier as exerting a calming influence on ties when they have been hit by strains. Indian officials have often noted of a good personal rapport between Mr. Wen and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one which, officials said, had helped build much-needed trust. For instance, two meetings between Dr. Singh and Mr. Wen in 2010, first in Hanoi on the sidelines of the Asean Summit and subsequently in New Delhi during the Chinese Premier's State visit, were seen as resolving tensions over the stapled visa dispute after Mr. Wen made a personal assurance to address Indian concerns on the matter.
Whether or not Mr. Li will be able to play a similar role as his predecessor remains to be seen. Mr. Li is seen as among the more liberal and open figures in the next generation of the leadership. Unlike most of China's current leaders who all trained as engineers, Mr. Li studied law at the elite Peking University. He is one of the few top Chinese leaders fluent in English, surprising observers during a visit to Hong Kong last year when he broke with protocol and addressed an event in English.
He was a student during the liberal 1980s, when the pro-democracy movement came to life at Peking University. Many of Mr. Li's classmates and friends would become student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Mr. Li, however, stayed away from the protests and joined the Communist Youth League, where he gained the trust of Hu Jintao, who had even pushed for him to be appointed his successor. Mr. Xi was surprisingly chosen ahead of Mr. Li at the previous party congress, seen as a consensus candidate who also had the backing of the influential former President Jiang Zemin.
How Mr. Xi and Mr. Li will govern, and how closely they will follow the template set by their predecessors in managing China's foreign policy, will be closely watched when the leadership transition concludes in March, when Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen will give up their official titles. “Stability will be the key word at least until the new leadership settles down and consolidates,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said on Tuesday, suggesting that the “more assertive China on the world stage” seen since 2008 might give way to a more cautious China.
While some analysts have suggested that the uncertainties of the political transition, brought into focus over the political scandal surrounding the purge of Politburo member Bo Xilai, might lead to more aggressive posturing, Huang Jing, a leading scholar on Chinese politics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the transition and any current political uncertainties “will not have a substantive impact on the overall strategic picture” with regard to India.
“The Communist Party of China will not alter the adopted approach and strategy towards India,” he said in an interview. “As a rising and an emerging power, China and India have shared interests on major strategic issues. Long term, China and India have no choice but to work with each other, despite all the conflicts. That is the foundation that Beijing, and also New Delhi, have both realised.”