| Table manners
By far, the least successful aspect of last week’s Sino-Indian summit was the way the Indian hosts fed China’s president, Hu Jintao, and his delegation. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet on Tuesday, Hu and his team picked food with chopsticks in an exercise that could barely be described as eating. They couldn’t bear to ingest what passed for Chinese hot-and-sour soup, made the Indian way. Same for hakka noodles and chicken Manchurian. When dal makhni, fish and chips and gaajar dessert were mixed with this Chinese fare, it made a recipe for gastronomic disaster.
Hospitality was, until recently, one of Indian protocol’s strong points. But Hu was not alone among recent state guests who have been allowed to leave New Delhi with a bad taste in their mouth, literally speaking. George W. Bush was served broccoli and almond soup, which he hates, when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam hosted him in March. Comparisons may not be in good taste, but the fare at the state banquet for Bush was fit for kings compared to the culinary hotchpotch that was rustled up for the Chinese leader. To give an idea of the protocol’s shortcoming last week, the menu for Bush included whole fish tandoori, almond onion rice, mutton hakhani korma, ginger prawns, mutton kebabs, dal bukhara…
Last week’s culinary disaster was particularly unfortunate and thoughtless because the Chinese go to great lengths to entertain at state functions. Banquets in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, some of which this columnist had the privilege to be part of, are prepared with great care and served with ultimate attention to detail. For the Chinese, like some other oriental cultures, entertainment is a very important part of friendship and a reflection of the sensitivity to a relationship.
When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Beijing in 1954, Indian and Chinese officials spent as much time discussing arrangements for food as they did talking about substantive matters. This was partly because there were two banquets during the visit, one hosted by Zhou Enlai for the Indian prime minister, a second hosted by Nehru for 800 — yes, 800 — Chinese guests at a Beijing hotel. One of the sticking points was alcohol.
The Chinese preferred an evening with spirits, but the then Indian ambassador to China, Nedyam Raghavan, was only too aware of the sensitivities of Nehru about serving liquor at state functions to even raise the issue with the prime minister. According to V.V. Paranjpe, the legendary Chinese diplomat-interpreter to successive Indian prime ministers, he brought it up with Indira Gandhi, who readily agreed to persuade her father to change his mind. But there were more discussions because Nehru agreed to serve only aperitifs, such as sherry, and the preference of the guests was for Chinese wine. Paranjpe later recounted that the difficult negotiations did not end there. Zhou Enlai opted for Maotai and the compromise at the end was that Maotai would be served at the head table, but only Chinese wine and aperitifs would be available at other tables.
The other failure last week — perhaps more serious in the long run — has been the inability or the unwillingness of those who direct and moderate public discourse in India to accept that Hu’s visit was part of a process crucial to India’s future and not a one-off event like the visit of a US president that may or may not take place once in 22 years. The Chinese described Hu’s visit as a milestone. And a milestone it truly was. The visit of a US president to many countries, not just India, on the other hand, is a landing by parachute.
At a meeting to flesh out the substance of what the prime minister would discuss with Hu, a Mandarin-speaking Indian diplomat, one of the country’s finest, a veteran of many skirmishes with his equally competent counterparts in Beijing, summed up the Chinese attitude to India in the following words. In the Eighties, China did its best to ignore India. In the Nineties, the Chinese treated India as a nuisance, but in the new millennium, they have acknowledged India and now want to come to terms with what they see as the country’s potential.
Unlike US foreign policy, which is circumscribed by presidential election cycles, China deals with countries in historic phases or eras, placing their interlocutors into a much broader framework of policies. India was always important for China as a neighbouring country and as a major developing country. Now that importance has been multiplied as the Chinese see India as a rising global power and as one which wants to play a role in charting the course of international polity. Not so with Pakistan. Hence the need to quantify that relationship, almost like a conjugal foreplay. Beijing’s relations with Islamabad, Hu said in a nationally televised speech to Pakistanis last week, are “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean and sweeter than honey”.
Notwithstanding China’s friendship with Pakistan, the pace and depth of India’s engagement with China in the last two decades since Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 trip to Beijing, has brought many benefits that the government cannot claim credit for because of the very nature of such engagements. For instance, since India and China agreed in 2003 to designate special representatives to go beyond a bureaucratic framework and create a political arrangement to resolve the boundary issue, India has been emboldened to re-deploy a very large section of its army from the Chinese border to locations closer to Pakistan, saving defence expenditure immensely in terms of money, resources and personnel. When the two countries followed up on their 2003 agreement by signing on a set of guiding principles for settling their boundary disputes last year, the decision to re-deploy forces was cemented with a degree of permanence.
Which is why the foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, said at the end of Hu’s meetings in New Delhi that “the desired attempt through these conversations is to bring the relationship to a new level, to add that to the strategic partnership, and to see how we can take this relationship forward. In all these respects, we are very satisfied with what has been achieved today so far.” For a variety of reasons, it is necessary for the government in New Delhi to speak of Sino-Indian relations in riddles. As a consequence, sometimes the true significance of the Sino-Indian dialogue can be obscured.
There is a double standard in the attempt in India to formally list China as a security risk while allowing foreign direct investment into the country. Those who are behind this attempt should not overlook the reality that some of the most egregious breaches of national security in recent years were committed not by China, but by India’s so-called friends from the West.
For at least 15 years, India has assiduously pursued a neighbourhood policy, at the core of which is Indian investment in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, all of which have reason to worry that India is a threat to their sovereignty. But the argument has been that once India develops a stake in their economies and vice versa, the rationale for peace and friendship will be stronger. After the disaster of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka, Indian investment in privatized tea estates, the Indian Oil’s ventures and similar other ventures opened the path to a rapprochement. Sri Lanka saw the logic in allowing a greater Indian stake on the island.
Similarly, it was felt that if the water resources of Nepal and Bhutan could further the stakes for those countries in India’s energy grid and vice versa, it would lead to a greater balance in bilateral diplomacy. What is true of India on the one hand and Sri Lanka, Bhutan or Nepal on the other is equally true of India versus China. It will be a pity if the opportunities offered by the economic growth of India and China are not exploited by each other in shaping their bilateral economic diplomacy and, instead, jingoism of the American kind is allowed to take over under the guise of national security. In this instance, it is perhaps time for the prime minister to get his intelligence expert-turned-national security adviser to make a clean breast of his paranoia not just within the four walls of the 7, Race Course Road office, but before a larger group, which can credibly assuage his fears and offer alternatives.