Between Wuhan and Chennai

15 Oct 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THE Chinese are inscrutable in the nuanced practice of diplomacy, and utterly ferocious when their core interests are challenged, a potent blend of Marx and Confucius. The Dalai Lama, Taiwan, the Spratly Islands are non-negotiable and evidently Ladakh too. They plan decades in advance and are mostly brilliant in anticipating the rival’s responses.

The Chinese plan for the worst that could come their way in pursuit of critical objectives. Mao Zedong famously said that China would lose a huge chunk of its population if nuked by either of the two superpowers it was playing off against each other, but the survivors would go to the mountains and have many more babies. He was being naïve, of course, as nuclear scientists would warn today, but that’s what he and his country believed then, and perhaps still do.

The Chinese can send a message in a subtle way, but can be absolutely rude if needed. That’s what they did with Nehru who they had begun to see as a collaborator with their imperialist bête noires, precisely choosing to strike at a time when the world was riveted to the Cuban missile crisis. There was no time for the Soviets or the Americans to respond to the short but bloody incursion.

In a subtler reproach, Mao invited Nikita Khrushchev to Beijing after being insulted in Moscow. His Soviet hosts had apparently made him wait inordinately for an audience with their leader. Khrushchev now desperately needed to meet Mao over fears of China courting the Americans, so he came calling. But he couldn’t swim or was bad at it, and Mao was the Great Helmsman, remember, who had crossed the Yangtze River in a legendary show of physical strength, and, as some fans believe, of spiritual prowess too. Mao invited the visitor to meet him in his swimming pool. In the book On China, Henry Kissinger describes with a chuckle the story of Khrushchev wearing protective armbands to stay afloat while struggling to keep pace with Mao at the deep end of the pool.

It is not quite clear why Chennai was chosen as a venue for the informal summit between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.

During a trip to Beijing with then Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao in 1993, I asked the local minders on the way from the airport if the buntings with Chinese inscriptions and colourful flags were set up to welcome the Indian leader? They replied with an emphatic no. The placards on display were to cheer the country’s bid to stage the 2000 Olympics. The event went to Sydney albeit under disputed circumstances. When their turn finally came in 2008, the Chinese built the fabulous Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium with iron ore bought from Bellary in India in a deal that erupted into corruption charges against Indian politicians, chiefly of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On that particular visit, Rao and his counterpart Li Peng signed a landmark agreement for maintaining “peace and tranquillity” on their Himalayan borders, a suspiciously Chinese turn of phrase. Li was a celebrated premier at home but reviled abroad for his tough actions in the Tiananmen Square deaths of protesting civilians.

Mani Dixit was foreign secretary travelling with Rao. After his late night media durbar in Beijing, he told me what at first seemed like a funny story. Along with the peace agreement the two had signed, the Chinese had requisitioned 24 Indian buffaloes. It turned out to be a critical input into their Olympic planning. With little or no dairy culture, the Chinese were preparing 15 years before the event to offer milk, yoghurt and butter to international sportspersons and foreign spectators. The buffaloes were part of their early experiment and planning.

It is not quite clear why Chennai was chosen as a venue for the informal summit between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi on Saturday. Varanasi and Udaipur were ruled out for some inexplicable reason and the air in Delhi was too polluted.

True, Chennai was part of an old India-China trade connection. But the Chinese fishing nets and the martial art of Kerala — kalaripayattu, replete with features of ‘crouching tiger, hidden dragon’ callisthenics — offer equal if not greater evidence of an old connection. However, Kerala is ruled by Marxists, anathema to Modi. Yet, the mandatory serving of warm water with meals is a uniquely Kerala tradition that is shared by the Chinese but not elsewhere in India, barring perhaps the north-east.

The fact that Modi was filmed picking up rubbish from the beach at the temple town of Mahabalipuram spoke also of the lack of preparation in detail that usually goes with high-level visits. Be that as it may, the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ assumed the avatar of ‘Chennai Connect’. Wuhan was where Mao performed the famous swimming feat, and it was where Xi won his communist epaulets as a formidable leader.

Another thought. Chennai faces the waterways that trouble India with an increased traffic of Chinese warships. But it also hugs the waters where Nixon sent the Seventh Fleet to threaten India in 1971. Why is one memory tardier than the other?

It is difficult to hazard a guess about the discussions. There was no joint statement, only individual summaries of the event from both. The best practice by astute journalists under the circumstances is to compare the notes — be they official or ascribed to unnamed sources — between as many sides as there are in a conversation. References to improved trade, and their emerging power status in Asia were common. Abiding with UN principles and international rule of law could be interpreted both ways — reference to Kashmir as well as the South China Sea.

India said Xi briefed Modi about Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing but denied Kashmir was raised or discussed. Imran was mentioned and not Kashmir? We will need to read tea leaves, an early Chinese export to India, to figure that out. Or perhaps wait, in Confucian contemplation for the truth to fall from heaven.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2019