In a sign of the rising importance — and growing challenges — Beijing perceives in its relations with New Delhi, China has elevated the rank and role of its Ambassador to India to the level of a Vice-Minister.
The move means Zhang Yan, the current Chinese Ambassador to India, will now report directly to China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and will also have greater authority to take on-the-ground decisions, officials and analysts in Beijing said. Mr. Zhang was earlier reporting to another Vice-Minister, He Yafei, among others.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said the change in rank of Mr. Zhang, effective as of this month, was “a sign of increasing importance with which Beijing views its relationship with New Delhi.”
Mr. Zhang becomes one of only 10 Chinese ambassadors who are of vice-ministerial rank. It is understood that all future appointments to New Delhi will also be of officials who hold a vice-ministerial rank.
Mr. Zhang’s elevation comes just as Sino-Indian ties face a growing list of new challenges, including an increasing number of trade issues, from anti-dumping disputes to a widening imbalance, and recently renewed strains over the long-running boundary dispute, over which talks have made little progress.
Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi said the upgrading reflected the importance of the India assignment in the Chinese Foreign Office set-up. Calling it a “welcome” move, they felt the upgrading would facilitate quicker decisions on a number of issues.
The sources pointed out that one former Indian Ambassador to China, Nalin Suri, was also promoted to secretary level (equivalent to the Chinese Vice-Minister) mid-way through his term in Beijing.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry set-up has seven Vice-Ministers, each of whom handle a different region and report directly to the Foreign Minister. But a select number of ambassadors posted in countries Beijing views as strategically significant, such as the U.S. and Japan, are also of the vice-ministerial rank. China currently has 10 ambassadors who are vice ministers, including Mr. Zhang.
Analysts in China viewed the elevation in rank of China's envoy to India as a sign of greater attention Beijing has begun to place on relationships with its neighbours, and with India in particular.
“This is an indication of changes in China’s foreign policy,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. “I would argue that the status of the periphery, for Beijing, is now more important than before. Beijing increasingly views surrounding areas as high on its agenda, compared with its focus on developed countries in the past. And, what happens to China and India will decide China’s periphery environment.”
(This is a corrected version of the article which appeared in print on January 26, 2010. The article incorrectly stated that besides Nalin Suri, Nirupama Rao was also promoted to the level of secretary when she was posted in Beijing. In fact Ms. Rao, the current Foreign Secretary, received her promotion earlier, while serving in Sri Lanka.)