When S. Jaishankar steps down as India’s Ambassador to China on Saturday after a four-and- a-half year term, he will end his eventful tenure as the longest serving Indian envoy to the Middle Kingdom.
Mr. Jaishankar will be succeeded by Ashok Kantha, currently Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and a Mandarin-speaking career diplomat.
Mr. Jaishankar, who will now serve as India’s Ambassador in Washington, oversaw a term that was marked by a dual track approach to ties with China: on the one hand, this involved aggressively pushing business links – not only to further Indian interest but also aimed at building new kinds of “leverage” with Beijing – and also, at the same time, conveying a tougher message on “core interests.”
At an event here last week to mark his departure, hosted by executives of leading China-based Indian companies, Mr. Jaishankar spoke of how one of his objectives was to bring business issues into the centrepiece of India’s engagement with China.
Yet that endeavour remains more of a beginning rather than a fulfilled objective, with the deficit continuing to widen this year, and no tangible progress on the market access front. One area of some forward movement was boosting mutual investments, with notable deals, including a $ 400 million agreement signed by energy company TBEA for a plant in Gujarat. Trade issues have, however, been moved to the top of India's agenda – on a par with the boundary issue and concerns over transborder rivers.
New Delhi has sought to take a tougher line with Beijing with regard to “core concerns” such as the border. That approach seemed to work on two issues of discord that strained ties over the past four years: China’s issuing of stapled visas to Indian citizens residing in Jammu and Kashmir, and the stand-off in Depsang sparked by Chinese troops putting up a tent in disputed territory.
In Depsang, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) withdrew after India made clear that the May visit by newly appointed Premier Li Keqiang – his first overseas visit – was put in doubt by the standoff. China has, for its part, appeared more willing to keep relations with India stable, amid heightened disputes with Japan.
One Chinese official said Mr. Jaishankar had garnered a reputation for “straight talking”, particularly during often tense exchanges over issues over China’s visa policy or the boundary. During talks with visiting Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Defence Minister and PLA General Chang Wanquan broke from the script by singling out his role in helping defuse the Depsang stand-off, saying he spoke “like a soldier more than a diplomat,” according to one official who was in the room.
“These years we faced some troubles, but I think the Ambassador played a constructive role in helping address them and building the relationship,” said Ma Jiali, a senior South Asia scholar with the China Reform Forum, affiliated with the Communist Party’s Central Party School.
Beyond the challenge of finding the most effective ways to convey New Delhi’s stance, “the main challenge, then as now, is to reflect the domestic developments faithfully to headquarters to enable better understanding,” said former Ambassador C.V. Ranganathan, who, before Mr. Jaishankar, was India’s longest serving envoy in Beijing – from 1987 to 1991.
Mr. Ranganathan arrived in Beijing in the midst of a border stand-off of a far more serious nature than Depsang – a troop build-up in 1987 that led many countries to think a second war was imminent.
Mr. Ranganathan said his talks with Chinese officials at the time, most significantly with the then Vice Minister Liu Shuqing, gave him the impression that war was not the likely outcome. “Chinese officials stressed they were keen for Rajiv Gandhi to visit,” he said, with Liu travelling to New Delhi in 1987 and putting forward an oral invitation.
Twenty-five years on following Rajiv Gandhi's 1988 visit, which marked a thaw in ties, Mr. Ranganathan said relations had assumed “a multidimensional character.” “The particular template, following Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit, to improve relations in all fields while trying to solve the boundary question, has taken off in a big way,” he said.
“The challenge now,” he continued, “is that the many laudable declarations at a high level have to be translated into action.”
“Then, the China-Pakistan relationship needed to be studied very closely. Today, the development of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation is also very important,” he said adding, “We require a cooperative framework on regional security, which should be a high priority. Overall, I would say ties are on the right track.”