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New Delhi would do well to look at China's gift horse in the mouth

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is seen on a screen as he speaks to reporters during an online press conference, in Beijing, China, on Mar 7, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Neutral commentators are calling it the Quad Effect, the simpatico have termed it a coming to fruition of India's tough stand vis-à-vis its powerful northern neighbour, and the dwindling breed of Left-leaning internationalists are hopeful that Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi's accommodative stand and conciliatory comments on relations with India on Sunday (Mar 7) would herald a new, fraternal phase for Sino-Indian ties.

A few clarifications are therefore in order, for those justifiably confused by these widely differing perceptions that have made their way into public discourse.

Yes, Mr Wang was speaking just a few days before India's meeting with leaders of the Quad grouping set for Mar 12 (Friday), but that is neither here nor there.

For it was a pre-scheduled annual Press conference on relations with India which Mr Wang addressed.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Quad hasn't been quite useful in keeping the pressure on China, but to jump to the conclusion that he was spooked by the impending Quad meet - which is in any case an infantile way of looking at Beijing's nuanced, long-term, strategic policy - is factually incorrect.

Secondly, while New Delhi's comparatively robust stand on the border issue which has included imposing economic costs on China for its transgressions is a welcome departure from India's past pusillanimity; the over-enthusiasm of chest-thumping commentators has value only in terms of keeping public morale up and ought not to be mistaken for a serious assessment of Beijing's responses.

As for the viscerally anti-American intelligentsia which thinks democratic India and communist China are a viable global pairing going ahead, well, best of luck to them.

So, what explains Mr Wang's outreach?

Especially, as he made it a point to underline that the Ladakh boundary dispute is "not the whole story of the China-India relationship" as he urged both countries to stop undercutting each other, shed mutual suspicion, and create enabling conditions by expanding bilateral cooperation to resolve their differences including on the border issue.

For starters, there is adherence to form which in the Chinese strategic and cultural scheme of things is quite important.

Additionally, China's self-projection as a major world power which is amenable to reason, seeks mutual prosperity with neighbours, and is committed to promoting solidarity among developing countries helps it in its positioning vis-à-vis both the West and the developing world.

It also provides Beijing's foreign policy formulation a formal framework; statements such as those made on Sunday are, in that sense, meant for the record.

If, in the bargain, a détente with an interlocuter comes about, Beijing won't complain.

To read anything more into Mr Wang's utterances, evocative as they were in referencing India and China as "two ancient civilisations… two major emerging economies each with over a billion people… that have similar national realities, broad common interests, and tremendous potential for cooperation", would be unwise.

There was no mistaking the hint of steel which shone through in his reply to a question on the Ladakh stand-off: "The right and wrongs of what happened at the border area last year are clear, so are the stakes involved."

New Delhi would do well to look this particular gift horse in the mouth.