Indian Decade

India’s China Sandwich

A key Chinese official meets Manmohan Singh and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Was there some subtle pressure?

With most of the media’s attention on all the hurly-burly surrounding Barack Obama’s recent trip, one important foreign guest’s visit here a week earlier went largely unnoticed. Zhou Yongkang, a senior Chinese leader and member of the country’s most powerful political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, was in India from November 1 to 4.

The importance of Zhou’s visit was underscored by the fact that he was met by the three most influential people in India today—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and her son and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Oddly, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs kept quiet about Zhou’s visit and chose not to issue any press releases highlighting the event.

Zhou’s India trip was clearly intended to help lay the groundwork for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit here in the middle of next month, and Wen will be arriving in New Delhi from Islamabad. It’s an interesting bit of diplomatic symbolism that’s no doubt intended by the Chinese side to make clear to ally Pakistan that it isn’t being snubbed.

But what’s really interesting is the timing of both Zhou’s and Wen’s visits, which sandwich Obama’s stay here. Zhou was clearly in India to show the Indian leadership that China is a more reliable neighbour than the far-off United States, and that New Delhi should act accordingly.

The Indians are familiar with this style of Chinese-style diplomacy, and are more than capable of distinguishing between a ‘suggestion’ and a ‘threat.’

And for those who doubt China was trying to exert some subtle pressure on India, it was also interesting to note that while Zhou was visiting India, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who’s expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president, has also this year visited another neighbour India has prickly relations with—Bangladesh.