China goes 10 months without envoy in India ahead of key meetings

The post in India, which is among the most coveted posts for Chinese diplomats, hasn’t gone empty for such a long period in recent memory

August 09, 2023 11:17 pm | Updated August 10, 2023 03:51 pm IST

Sun Weidong stepped down as Ambassador to India in October 2022. File

Sun Weidong stepped down as Ambassador to India in October 2022. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

China has made no indications of appointing an Ambassador to India even after a record 10-month gap without an envoy in New Delhi, a delay described by observers as “unusual” ahead of key possible meetings between the leaders of the two countries and the upcoming G-20 Summit in India.

Chinese envoy Sun Weidong took up a post in Beijing as Vice Foreign Minister in October 2022. Since then, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made a slew of new ambassadorial appointments, but no appointment has been made for India.

The post in India – which is among the top ten coveted posts for Chinese diplomats as the Ambassador acquires a rank of Vice Foreign Minister, as is the case for envoys to the United States, United Kingdom and Japan – hasn’t gone empty for such a long period in recent memory.

In contrast, Beijing has usually rushed to keep the post filled, as was the case ahead of Mr. Xi’s first visit to India in September 2014, when both sides cleared the paperwork in record time to ensure then envoy Le Yucheng took up his post ahead of the visit, after his predecessor Wei Wei was recalled unexpectedly, less than two years into his posting.

Despite the upcoming G-20 Summit, there has been no such urgency on this occasion and Beijing is yet to suggest any names for the post to Indian officials, even as relations enter a key period with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Xi set for possible meetings in coming weeks.

Also read | Modi and Xi reached consensus at Bali, claims China as NSA Doval delivers tough message on LAC

Both leaders are expected to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on August 22-24, and Mr. Xi is widely expected to travel to New Delhi for the G-20 Summit on September 9-10. Neither side has ruled out a bilateral meeting.

Both leaders haven’t had structured bilateral talks since November 2019, when they met on the sidelines of a BRICS Summit in Brazil, a month after Mr. Xi’s visit to Chennai for the “informal” summit in Mamallapuram. They did, however, discuss the need to stabilise ties when Mr. Modi approached Mr. Xi at a dinner at the G-20 Summit in Bali in November 2022.

Ties have been strained since tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) following China’s multiple transgressions starting in April 2020. India has stressed that there cannot be normalcy in relations until disengagement is completed in two remaining friction points. Both sides have disengaged in five friction points, creating buffer zones in some of them.

While India has described ties as “abnormal” with the as yet unresolved border situation, Chinese officials in recent statements have portrayed relations as gradually returning to the normal track and have called India to keep the border in an “appropriate” position.

The unusual delay in appointing an Ambassador, however, hasn’t been explained. Some observers have seen the delay as messaging to India and referring to its contention of ties being “abnormal”.

Beijing could also be weighing its options in finding the right appointment, given the added significance of essentially appointing a new Vice Foreign Minister rank official. Among Beijing’s “India hands” who could be considered candidates is Huang Xilian, current envoy to the Philippines, who has been in the post since December 2019 and is nearing the end of his term in Manila. Another senior diplomat familiar with India is the current envoy in Australia Xiao Qian, who, however, took up his current posting only in January 2022. Experience in India isn’t, however, a requisite, and Mr. Xi has, for other key appointments, prioritised officials he has familiarity with. Assistant Foreign Minister Hua Chunying who heads the Information Department and is a former spokesperson is among those expected to be shortly up for key ambassadorial postings.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing has recently been cast in turmoil after the sudden removal of Foreign Minister Qin Gang only seven months after he was promoted to the post by Mr. Xi.

The removal, which still hasn’t been explained, came as a shock to even members of China’s diplomatic corps, many of whom remain in the dark about why Mr. Qin was removed. No explanation has even been offered internally.

Former Foreign Minister Wang Yi was brought back to take up the additional charge of the Ministry and to bring stability amid the turmoil. Mr. Wang, a Politburo member, also heads the office of the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and last month held talks with both National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Johannesburg and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Jakarta.

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