How India-China Crisis Reveals Limits Of ‘Personalised Diplomacy’

Is India’s China policy our biggest ‘foreign policy disappointment’? The jury is still out on that.

6 min read
Hindi Female

There are two images that have dogged PM Modi’s diplomatic engagements over the past six years. The first of course is his ‘persona non grata’ status in the US and parts of Europe, an image affixed on him due to the incidents of 2002. And the second image is one projected by him – that of a tough ‘Maximum Leader’.

To a great extent, Modi’s choice of the first name for President Obama while addressing him, and the visible discomfort he put global leaders like former French President François Hollande in – with his bear hugs and vigorous handshakes – were driven to announce Modi’s 'arrival' on the global platform after having been ‘shunned’ for nearly a decade.

The same was the case with public engagements with the Indian diaspora – be it the Madison Square Garden event in 2014, the Wembley Stadium in 2015, or the Houston, Texas show in 2019.

The grandiosity of the persona was always of greater import than the diplomatic balance sheet.

Is India’s China Policy Its ‘Biggest Foreign Policy Disappointment’?

During the same period that he was ‘ostracised’ by western democracies, Modi was welcomed by Beijing – and he visited China on four occasions. He became an admirer of the Chinese developmental model (even its political model and dissent management, critics say), and this enthusiasm crept into Modi's approach to President Xi Jinping before their first summit in September 2014. Over the past six years, the two leaders met at least 18 times – and Modi has visited China on five occasions. But then, visits can be choreographed; the same can’t be said of agreements.

These visits to China are undoubtedly the most by any Indian PM till date.

The jury is still out on what these achieved, because we are entrapped in a developing situation, but an appraisal will eventually be made as to whether or not the government’s China policy has been its biggest foreign policy disappointment.

It must be noted that even if India emerges completely unscathed, if not ascendant, it would be due to our defence forces’ capacities, and not diplomacy, that failed to read Beijing's intent.


Few Leaders Have Made the ‘Personal’ Their Signature The Way Modi Has

François de Callière, the 17th Century French diplomat and special envoy of Louis XIV, warned that the “passions of princes and their ministers govern frequently their interests”. His subsequent advice, that these 'interests' are best left to 'intermediaries', the taciturn or dour diplomats in the contemporary context, is a theme that has defined diplomacy throughout its evolution.

True, every leader has her or his own vision and desire to effect 'change' in the direction of a certain relationship – bilateral or multilateral – and diplomats are trained to read these.

But leaders must also have the ability to disengage from the personal bonding as effortlessly as they can embark on that path.

Notice, for instance, the decision of the then United States President Barack Obama, to engage with Xi Jinping in March that year sans notes in a California estate in June 2013, but soon returning to the scripted path. History is strewn with examples of similar summits, some which were exemplary successes and others abject failures.

But few leaders have made the ‘informal’ or the ‘personal’ their signature the way Modi has from his first day in office. 

PM Modi’s ascendance to office in 2014 aroused excitement as well as scepticism. But, few expected the kind of exuberance he brought into each of his personal exchanges with leaders on the global platform.

The Modi hugs and handshakes are passé by now, but what mattered was the extent of his personal investment which was at times at odds with his no-nonsense aggressive posture that he presented while he was still Gujarat chief minister, and whenever he commented on diplomatic or security issues.


Australian PM Scott Morrison’s ‘Samosa’ Diplomacy

At the beginning of June 2020, the triangular-samosa secured more attention at the India-Australia Virtual Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, than the increasingly uneasy diplomatic triangle between the two nations and China. The 'optics' of this exchange was so enveloping that seven agreements signed between the two countries and the joint statements secured little attention.

Morrison's visit was forced – by the COVID-19 pandemic – into a "pale shadow of what was planned just a few months ago", but he perked it up a few days prior by dishing out a plate of homemade "ScoMosas with mango chutney", even posting his photo with a plateful of, what he claimed was, "all made from scratch".

Media reports after the virtual interaction between the two leaders also emphasised that the Australian premier promised to ‘learn cooking the Gujarati khichdi’ before their next meeting. The Indian prime minister was pleased and remarked that while Morrison's samosas had become "a topic of discussion" in India, Gujaratis would be happy to learn about Morrison's interest in the khichdi as well.

Clearly, Morrison was indulging Modi knowing his fondness for personalised diplomacy with the hope that this would give a push to Canberra’s keenness for being included in the trilateral Exercise Malabar – now that New Delhi would possibly be less circumspect about aggravating Beijing’s concern.

In Diplomacy, Care Must Be Taken To Maintain Balance

Given the humorous saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, Morrison possibly thought that the samosa, albeit available only virtually, would pander to Modi's fetish for personalised diplomacy and 'summitry'. The presence of this Indian snack on the table, Morrison had perhaps hoped, would ensure that Modi factored in Canberra's nettlesome relationship with Beijing, when considering deepening ties with Australia.

Morrison is not the first leader to introduce a personal element in the staid world of diplomacy. But care has to be taken that balance – an essential tenet during diplomatic negotiations – is maintained, and flair should not become the dominant feature of a leader.

Coming back to the ongoing India-China border crisis, there is no denying that the situation in the eastern Ladakh region, especially on both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is a pointer to the limits of personalised diplomacy.

Undeniably, the desire to log flying miles and visit nations has often been driven by notching points on the 'numerical scorecard' while listing diplomatic priorities. There was a visible passion to be the 'first', especially when it came to visiting nations, not prioritised previously.


Nations Like China & Leaders Like Xi Know Better How Mandates Are Secured

On most occasions, foreign policy has often been formulated or pursued with an eye on strapping the domestic electoral constituency.

Party documents have a preponderance of references as to how the prime minister has ‘enhanced the power of the Indian passport’ and ‘secured more respect for Indians’ when travelling or living abroad. Although these are subjective yardsticks; they have played on gullible minds, courtesy the behemoth that the publicity machinery is and a pliant (large sections of) media.

Conversely, the mandate that Modi has secured in successive elections has weighed on the minds of several nations, and they have played ball to the Indian premier's liking.

But, when it comes to nations like China and leaders like Xi, they know better how mandates are secured.

As a result, they are driven by other considerations while responding to India and its concerns.

There is no denying that good personal relationship go a long way in resolving knotty problems. But it is unwise to expect very complicated problems that carry the baggage of history – and especially when perspectives differ – to get sorted out on a one-on-one basis over a swing on the riverbank. There can never be an alternative to experts negotiating after having poured over the fine print and after taking stock of all options available. This needs to be remembered now more than ever before.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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