There’s a lot happening in the world right now. A good deal of it is related to India one way or another.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky sacked his military chief. Russia, China, and South Africa just concluded joint naval exercises off the Cape of Good Hope.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Delhi on a state visit. The Italian Prime Minister arrives in Delhi this week.
There was a productive meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers in Bengaluru. And Russian forces are all set to capture the strategically important town of Bakhmut in the Donbass.
But the big news is that Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister, will be in Delhi this week for the G20 Foreign Ministers’ conference.
This will be the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister since Wang Yi made a quiet visit to Delhi in March 2022, and the first real visit since 2019, when Sino-India relations began to sour.
Qin is expected to have a bilateral with his Indian counterpart, Dr S Jaishankar, and since Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister too is in town, quiet confabulations of a broader nature will also certainly happen.
In its own way, this G20 meeting offers an opportunity for the temporary reconstitution of the annual Russia-India-China meetings format which have understandably stayed off India’s agenda for all practical purposes since the Galwan clash of mid-2020.
The Russians are keen that this R-I-C format be resurrected. They, however, know better than to push India beyond a point on the matter. Because, perhaps more than any other nation, they are fully seized of the novel tenacity with which India has pushed back against China’s strategic moves around the Tibetan plateau.
Yet, it remains unknown if the occasion will be availed for this purpose, and even if it is, then to what extent. Nonetheless, it will be Qin Gang’s first real exposure, first hand, to a new approach adopted by India towards China since 2014, and in a sense, his first real test.
Very little is known about the new Chinese foreign minister. A taut biography on the Chinese foreign ministry website says that Qin is a 56-year-old career diplomat who joined the service in 1988, and quietly rose through the ranks.
He is married, with one son, but no personal details or family background are available in the public domain.
Qin has held multiple mission postings in Europe, and caught the world’s eye when he was appointed spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry twice — first from 2005 to 2010, and then again from 2011 to 2014.
His sharp retorts and condescending chiding of western journalists made him a favourite domestically and tied in, perfectly with the image makeover China adopted in that decade — from a quiet, lumbering factory of the world to an unabashedly aggressive global power which actively sought to unshackle its fortunes from traditional western dominance, make its own rules, and establish its own spheres of interest at America’s cost.
To that extent, spokesman Qin represented the new ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomat – a lazy western cliché used to vaguely define the ominous new direction China chose to take under President Xi Jinping.
In July 2021, Qin was appointed as Ambassador to America.
Since the world was then in the clutch of the Wuhan virus pandemic, his brief was largely restricted to parroting his country’s innocence in triggering the crisis, and thus without any real test or blemish for the most part, until he was appointed Foreign Minister in end-December 2022.
Now, Qin may try to use the traditional Chinese advantage of operating from behind multiple, mystifying veils, carefully constructed to mask hierarchies and decision-making processes.
For example, Qin’s predecessor, Wang Yi, remains China’s top diplomat on paper, after being elevated to the Chinese Communist party’s (CCP) Politburo as head of its ‘Office of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Commission’.
By that, and again on paper, minister Qin Gang reports to politburo member Wang Yi, who in turn reports to the President, Xi Jinping. It is obfuscations like these which the Chinese often employ, to push or derail negotiations to their advantage.
Such a complex structuring may continue to offer China some latitude in dealing with the West, but it is not going to cut any ice in New Delhi.
Simply because, no matter who ostensibly reports to whom in Beijing, the standoff on the Sino-Indian border, and the clubbing of Pakistan and China as one existential threat, is not going to change — unless China revises its stance dramatically.
On the contrary, the world — especially India — is changing too much for that architecture to hold firm for much longer.
Further, Qin’s interlocutor and host in Delhi, Dr S Jaishankar, is an old China hand who had the opportunity to study his guest from up close for many years, in Beijing, when Qin was running press conferences.
It is also a new breed of diplomats at the helm in our foreign office today; the days of the Shivshankar Menons, Nirupama Raos, and Sujata Singhs are mercifully passe.
Still, having said that, Qin Gang is in Delhi for a meeting of the G20 foreign ministers, so it would be unreasonable to expect any material outcome from his bilateral with Dr Jaishankar; at least in public, the focus would be on global trade and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
In private, though, it is an opportunity for one diplomat-turned-politician to gauge another.
What will be interesting, is if the two foreign ministers decide to meet again soon — either bilaterally, or under a Russia-India-China trilateral format.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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