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Gone with the wind: The Curious Case of Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Amrit Pal Kaur / New Delhi

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi was on a diplomatic visit to South Asia from 21st March to 27th March 2022. His visit to the region is significant for many reasons, including but not limited to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. As the trip advanced, it became clearer that the State Counsellor was trying to drum up support for the Chinese position on the ongoing crisis and that China saw it as an opening to push forward its diplomatic agenda, which has been stalemated since the Galwan Valley days.


That State Counsellor Wang Yi would talk in warm tones to his Pakistani audience was expected, but he would subscribe to the resolution of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, which included remarks on India’s domestic policies and issues, right before coming to New Delhi, defies all reasons. His discussions with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar came to a nought, and his request for an audience with Prime Minister Modi was declined were some of the signs of how his impromptu escapade to New Delhi ended. His visit to New Delhi was being speculated, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry kept the details shrouded. However, the bigger question is why China felt the need to send the State Counsellor to India, given the relations between the two countries in recent history?

Part of the answer lies in India\’s position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. India has asked both sides to keep the diplomatic channels open and resist the violent path to resolve the issue. India\’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Tirumurti has abstained from voting on the resolutions in UNSC on the Ukraine crisis, coming from either side, keeping its diplomatic options open while walking on a tight rope. It can be speculated that China sees India\’s autonomous diplomacy as a favourable opening stance to its position, especially since the Chinese have been increasingly facing the music on account of their support to Russia. Gaining India\’s support would have been significant. However, India\’s position is far more nuanced than what is meeting the eye. To begin with, the Indo-Russia relationship is indeed based on strategic cooperation, which goes back many decades. Russia is India\’s largest armament partner, covering over 60% of its ammunition inventory.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives in Delhi on 24 March 2022 | ANI Photo

It is an essential consideration for India, especially considering the less than cordial environment on Indian borders. Indo-Soviet bonhomie of the cold war days is also frequently cited to be the high-water mark of the relationship, but the lesser-known fact is that Indira Gandhi did not agree to sign the Peace and Friendship Treaty for nearly two years, and it came into being against the backdrop of Pakistani aggression and refugee crisis in 1970-71. In order to hedge and balance its interest in the fast-evolving geo-strategic conditions in South Asia, non-aligned India signed the Treaty with the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, the treaty is not the only reason, and critical geostrategic concerns and calculations inform the Indian stance. Historically, as a major Eurasian country, Russia has always had a bearing on Indian foreign policy since the colonial era. Central Asia and Afghanistan were seen as the buffer between the Russian Empire and British India. In order to protect its Indian territory, British Raj always tried to keep Russian expansion towards the south in check. The Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th century were essentially fought with this purpose. Also, the north-western region has been a sensitive zone because in its history, most attacks on India happened from the northwest, where the famous ‘passes’ in the Himalayan ranges would allow the attacking armies to come through. As a powerful territorial empire in the north, Russia has held strategic significance for India. Its influence on Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan has been an essential consideration in the Indian foreign policy calculations as these countries are critical strategic partners. In order to maintain peaceful relations in the neighbourhood and keep harmony in the larger Asian context, Russia has its niche in Indian geo-strategy.

 Another reason for the cautious Indian stance on Russia is, of course, the Dragon and its South Asian partner. Since the Crimea war of 2014, as the western pressure on President Putin increased, Russia has been walking into the Chinese orbit. For India, Russian decision making influenced by any third country is a possibility rife with pitfalls. Indo-Chinese relations have been sub-par for some time, and getting its strategic partner close to China is undesirable. What India would seek from Russia is support for its position in case if Galwan Valley like situation repeats. Assertive and revisionist China has been a cause of concern for the Asian region. The South China Sea disputes, East China Sea dispute, the Galwan Valley, and the Doklam dispute have piqued the world. Given these circumstances, countries like India have their concerns concerning geo-political issues.

In this context, when President Biden calls Indian stance on Ukraine\’ Shaky\’ and the number of world leaders come to India in the guise of \’bilateral relations, it cuts a rather curious picture as to why these dignitaries, including State Councillor Wang Yi, are making their way to New Delhi. First, about State Councillor Wang Yi\’s visit, it can be derived that Indian reticence to criticize Russia outrightly on the Ukraine issue is seen as an essential toe-hold to persuade India to join China in supporting President Putin. Secondly, China is hosting this year\’s BRICS summit and whether India decides to join or does not join will leave a significant impression on the leadership of President Xi especially keeping in mind the impending once in a decade leadership change in China which President Xi, in all probability, seeks to reverse. It will also send a message to the world about China\’s rising power. Finally, in the context of the ripples created by the QUAD grouping in recent years, this BRICS summit will, in all prospects, seek to re-establish itself as a potent global force. For a country like India, which promotes multipolar world order and aims to look after its interests as a matter of its ideological orientation, being part of BRICS and QUAD reiterate its ideology, or \’The Indian Way\’. However, it is clear that the old cold war fault lines have been rekindled in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and asking countries to join one group or another is an old modus operandi of the bygone era. Therefore, the Indian position is, in many ways, informative about what a neutral country with friends on both sides would do.

Given these undercurrents, State Councillor Wang Yi\’s visit to India was anything but plain and simple. With his remarks in the OIC meeting on India and Kashmir and the OIC resolution on India, it is somewhat unclear what the State Counsellor expected from the Indian leadership. India\’s consistent position on reducing the armed forces on the Indo-China Border and status-quo ante in the sites of confrontation between the two armies has not been heeded even after 15 rounds of talks between Military officials of India and China. The Chinese insistence that India keep \’the long view\’ in mind and return to business as usual does not cut ice with the Indian establishment. And Indian insistence on China settling the border issue has not been sufficiently appreciated by the Chinese government. At the end of the day, the Russia-Ukraine crisis goes on, and the shifting sand dunes of international relations take a new turn, with different faces rising on the horizons of New Delhi, bearing messages of different sides. However, India will pick its own side, in the words of Minister Jaishankar is evident and clear.

(Author is a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and contributing fellow, Centre for Integrated and Holistic Studies, New Delhi. Views expressed are author’s own.)

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