While the Prime Minister fanned the warmth and strength of India’s relationship with Russia, he also conveyed the message that ties with China can continue to grow if impediments are dealt with speedily

Wittingly or unwittingly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave two different meanings to handshakes when he visited Moscow and Beijing last week. At the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Dr. Singh said on October 21: “Every handshake reveals the warmth of the ties between our two people. Together, they create an unmatched platform for the future.” Two days later, in Beijing, the Prime Minister said after talks with Premier Li Keqiang: “We account for 2.5 billion people. When India and China shake hands, the world takes notice.”

The first handshake referred to the comfort of a strategic relationship that had defined India’s diplomacy over the years; the second placed India and China in the domain of “re-emerged” nations, whose import the world is still contending with.

At a time when considerable time and energy are being expended in pushing China and India to take the stage as rivals, the repeated contacts between the two countries take some of the sting out of this narrative. With the United States keen on curbing Chinese influence, India is seen as the obvious counter-weight to China, a prospect Delhi has rejected time and again in public. In nuanced references, Dr. Singh made it plain last week that the India-Russia handshake was time-tested; the one with China was new and continued to attract global attention given the economic strength of the two Asian nations.

The Prime Minister’s two terms at the helm will be known for a strategic embrace of the U.S. and its policies, but his praise for Russia and what it had done for India was generous and full-throated. “India has benefited enormously from Russian support in every aspect of India’s national development efforts — be it the development of heavy industry, the power sector, our space programme or... our defence needs... Russia has stood by India at moments of great international challenge, when our own resources were limited and our friends were few... it is this last fact that Indians will never forget,” Dr. Singh said.

Special and privileged

Referring to the relationship with Russia as special and privileged, the Prime Minister was generous in his praise for Moscow. “Russia offered us partnership in nuclear energy when the world still shunned nuclear commerce with us. I take particular joy in informing this august audience that the first unit of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, built with Russian assistance, went critical in July this year and that the second one should be commissioned early next year. The Indian oil company ONGC’s largest overseas presence is in Russia,” he stressed.

Beyond the comfort zone of Russia, the Prime Minister, who flew to Beijing from Moscow, reflected a new confidence when it came to raising difficult issues in public with China. Given that this was his third meeting in 2013 with the top Chinese leadership, his comments should silence some of his harsh, hawkish critics at home.

After listing a host of common concerns and the need for a joint approach, Dr. Singh possibly became the first Indian leader to put his concerns to the Chinese publicly on Chinese soil. Usually, these concerns are placed off-the-record to accompanying Indian mediapersons.

“Naturally, there are also concerns on both sides — whether it is incidents in the border region, trans-border rivers or trade imbalances. Our recent experiences have shown that these issues can become impediments to the full exploitation of the opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation between India and China...,” he said at the Chinese Communist Party’s central party school.

So, recent tensions on the India-China boundary, concerns about Chinese activity on the Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra river system, as well as issues of trade imbalance figured in these full-spectrum remarks.

Beyond bilateralism

Going beyond the pure bilateral domain, Dr. Singh spoke about the need to put in place a rule-based security architecture which, he hoped, would promote security and stability in the larger Asia-Pacific region.

“Above all, India and China need a stable, secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific region. The centre of gravity of global opportunities and challenges is shifting to this region. In the coming decades, China and India, together with the United States, Japan, Korea and the ASEAN community, will be among the largest economies in the world.”

In an obvious reference to China’s many unresolved maritime disputes with its neighbours, Dr. Singh said: “While this region embodies unparalleled dynamism and hope, it is also one with unsettled questions and unresolved disputes. It will be in our mutual interest to work for a cooperative, inclusive and rule-based security architecture that enhances our collective security and regional and global stability.”

A job politely but directly done. There was no anger here, just an expression of concern. Given India’s and China’s high stakes in peace and stability, raising concerns before a key audience in China is surely something that Indians concerned about China should appreciate.

Setting out a larger strategic direction for bilateral relations, Dr. Singh said: “More than ever before, the world needs both countries to prosper together. We were not destined to be rivals, and we should show determination to become partners. Our future should be defined by cooperation and not by confrontation. It will not be easy, but we must spare no effort.”

After visits to the U.S., Russia and China, the Prime Minister’s high noon of foreign policy is, clearly, coming to a close. The intent of his remarks in Russia and China could well indicate his desire to spell out his legacy, and a direction for the future. While he fanned the warmth and strength of India’s relationship with Russia, Dr. Singh also conveyed a solid message that our ties with China can continue to grow if impediments are dealt with speedily. A clearer message to China and its leadership could not have been conveyed.

As India hurtles to a fractious and noisy election, Dr. Singh’s China visit has passed without cries of a “sell-out” from the principal opposition, whose interest in global politics and bilateral relations appears to be both selective and limited. At a time when Russian and Indian leaders meet annually in Moscow or New Delhi, and there are repeated bilateral interactions with the Chinese, there is need to move beyond immediate outcomes in the form of agreements in assessing the quality of bilateral relationships.

Not a dampener

Although hopes of a possible deal on Kudankulam getting two additional Russian nuclear reactors were raised before Dr. Singh left for Moscow, in the end these did not materialise. Given the complex and tortuous nature of concerns surrounding any new deal, the lack of agreement hardly comes as a surprise. In a situation where both Russia and India remain engaged in dialogue, the inability to reach an agreement should not come as a dampener.

The media, perhaps, need to shed its obsession with the “immediate” in India’s dealings with key nations and instead look at the long-term trajectory of relations with these countries. Engagement, it seems, is going to be a continuous process. Days after Dr. Singh concluded his visit to Russia and China, there will be a dialogue of Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers on the sidelines of the Asem (Asia-Europe Meeting) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on November 10-11, another sign of consistent engagement.

That is the nature of modern-day diplomacy. It’s never-ending.

To my mind, the tone and tenor of Dr. Singh’s comments in Moscow and China should act as a guiding principle for his successor.

(Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist, who has worked with The Hindu, Hindustan Times and BBC. He can be reached at abaruah@gmail.com)

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