The surprise element was almost completely lacking. The expectation in Delhi for a while has been that sooner or later Beijing would hit out. Verbal affronts from India were becoming a daily occurrence and a nuisance for Being. Not a single day has passed for the past several months when either influential sections of the Indian strategic community or the English-language media, tied by the umbilical cord of financial patronage to the Indian establishment, failed to indulge in some vituperative attack on Chinese policies and conduct towards India.
Yet, when it finally came on Wednesday, the timing of the cumulative Chinese reaction was most curious. Beijing chose a very special day on its diplomatic calendar to make its point. The prime ministers of Russia and Pakistan, Vladimir Putin and Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the United States Assistant Kurt Campbell, were on official visits to Beijing. Indeed, Campbell had come on an important mission to prepare for the visit by US President Barack Obama to China next month.
Beijing made a big point that its current ruckus with Delhi was less bilateral and more geopolitical. Indeed, Wednesday's People's commentary on India resorted to a colloquium that hasn't been heard in the dialogue across the Himalayas for very many years.
On the previous day, in two statements the Chinese Foreign Ministry provided the "curtain raiser" for the People's Daily . The first statement focused attention on the recent Indian media campaign against China and asked to be "conducive toward promoting mutual understanding", rather than publishing false reports on border tensions.
The second statement was substantive and it conveyed that Beijing was "seriously dissatisfied" by of prime minister 10 days ago to the state of Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as its territory). The Chinese spokesman said, "China and India have not reached any formal agreement issue. We demand that the Indian side pay attention to the serious and just concerns of the Chinese side and not to provoke incidents in the disputed region, in order to facilitate the healthy development of China-India relations."
The Indian reaction came within hours and was at the highest level of the foreign-policy establishment. Minister S M Krishna brushed off the statement, saying, "Well, regardless of what others say, it is the government of India's stated position that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. We rest at that." He added that Delhi was "disappointed and concerned" over China's objection.
The diplomatic backdrop was evidently getting electrified when the People's Daily struck. It literally tore into Indian policies. Leaving aside specifics, it dealt with what assessed to be the core issue - India's obsession with superpower status born out of its rooted complexes of having "constantly been under foreign rule ... throughout history" and its "recklessness and arrogance" towards its neighbors. "The dream of superpower is mingled with the thought of hegemony, which places the South Asian giant in an awkward situation and results in its repeated failure," the commentary pointed out.
The striking thing about the Chinese commentary was that it echoed a widespread criticism that is quite often voiced by India's neighbors. The commentary sought to establish a commonality of concerns between China and India's neighbors over the rising tide of Indian nationalism in the past decade or so with its disagreeable manifestations for regional cooperation. "To everyone's disappointment, India pursues a foreign policy of 'befriend the far and attack the near' ... India, which vows to be a superpower, needs to have its eyes on relations with neighbors and abandon its recklessness and arrogance as the world is undergoing earthshaking changes," the commentary claimed.
Beijing surely factored in that almost without exception, India's neighbors voice similar concerns and are currently seeking friendly and close ties with China to balance India's perceived overbearing attitude towards them. In effect, the Chinese commentary tapped into the near-total isolation that India faces today in the South Asian region.
Interestingly, the People's Daily followed up by running a sequel on Thursday, this time harshly telling Delhi a couple of things. One, it underlined that Delhi was seriously mistaken if it estimated that China could be hustled into a border settlement with India through pressure tactics. It affirmed categorically that the border dispute could be settled or a substantial step forward approaching a final solution could be taken "only on the condition that both of them [China and India] are ready to shake off the traditional and deep-seated misunderstandings".
Two, the commentary alleged that Delhi was getting "disoriented when making decisions" because it harbored a notion that the US was viewing India as a counterweight to China. Delhi was also becoming susceptible to the US stratagem to "woo India away from Russia and China and, in the meantime, feeding India's ambition to match China force by force by its ever burgeoning arms sales to India".
Most important, the commentary concluded that although China and India "will never pose a mortal foe to each other", if the Indian establishment and a "handful of irresponsible media institutions" didn't restrain themselves, "an accidental slip or go-off at the border would erode into a war", which neither side wanted. It is very obvious that Beijing sees the Indian establishment's hand behind the vituperative media campaign against China in recent months.
How the tensions pan out is another matter. In immediate terms, a flashpoint arises as the Indian government has approved a visit by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in November to Arunachal Pradesh. No doubt, if the visit goes ahead, the Sino-Indian relationship will nosedive into a corridor of deep chill from which it may take a long time for the two countries to emerge.
The curious thing is this will be taking place at a time when the geopolitics of the region and world development as a whole will be passing through a transformative period of far-reaching significance. Given the fact that China's global power is an established reality, India may be painting itself into a corner by opting out of a mutual understanding with Beijing precisely at this juncture when the agenda of global issues and regional security is heavily laden.
On the contrary, if Delhi pays heed to Chinese sensitivities about the Dalai Lama's peregrinations in November, it will be accused by the Indian nationalist camp as buckling under Chinese pressure. An element of grandstanding, unfortunately, is entering into the Sino-Indian relationship, which runs against the grain of its maturing in the recent decade.
Equally, a question mark now envelops the rationale of India hosting the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers in the coming weeks within the framework of the trilateral format. To be sure, the equilibrium within the format has been disturbed. Russia and China have been developing an intense strategic partnership; India's traditional ties with Moscow have significantly weakened under the current pro-US leadership in Delhi; and, now, India's normalization process with China has suffered a severe setback.
At the same time, Russia has begun a serious attempt to choreograph a positive trajectory to its languishing relationship with Pakistan by taking it out of the trough of benign neglect and injecting some dynamism into it. China, of course, enjoys an "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan.
Indian policies are predicated on the assumption that a Sino-US clash of interests is inevitable as China's surge as a world power has become unstoppable, and Washington will have use of Delhi as a counterweight to Beijing sooner than most people would think. Surely, there is disquiet in Delhi about the administration's regional policies, which no longer accord India the status of a pre-eminent power and which place primacy on the US's alliance with India's arch rival, Pakistan.
But Delhi hopes that Obama will ultimately have to pay heed to US business interests and therefore India holds a trump card in the burgeoning market that it offers to the American corporate sector - unlike Pakistan, which is a basket case at best, a can of worms at worst.
Simply put, India is estimated to be the biggest arms buyer in the world and a market estimated to be worth US$100 billion is presenting itself to exploitation by American arms manufacturers - provided Obama has his wits about him and realizes on which side his South Asian bread is buttered. Delhi hopes to incrementally pose an existential choice to Obama through an idiom that the US political establishment understands perfectly well: the business interests of its military-industrial complex.
One thing is clear. Powerful Indian lobbyists have been at work in whipping up a war hysteria and xenophobia over China. The Washington Post recently featured a Delhi-datelined report on the shenanigans of these Indian fat cats who mainly comprise retired Indian defense officials and senior bureaucrats who act as commission agents for big American arms manufacturers. There was a time when the Sandhurst-trained Indian military personnel retired to the cool hill stations and spent the sunset of their lives playing bridge or going for long walks and regaling their visitors with their wartime stories while sipping whisky.
Nowadays, the smart ones among the retired generals and top bureaucrats take up residence in Delhi's suburbs and overnight transform themselves into "strategic thinkers" and begin networking with some American think-tank or the other, while probing a new lease on life as brokers or commission agents for arms manufacturers.
All in all, it is virtually certain that these lobbyists can expect a windfall out of Sino-Indian tensions. After all, a case has been neatly made about the imperatives of a close Indian tie-up with the US. The current Indian political elite doesn't really need any prompting in that direction, but all the same, a degree of public accountability may at times become necessary. Transparency International has bestowed on India the distinction of being one of the most corrupt countries on the planet and it is an open secret that India's arms procurement program provides a vast avenue to siphon off national wealth.
If the Indian market for military hardware is worth $100 billion, it is quite understandable that a gravy train is getting ready for the Indian elites. The People's Daily commentator may have unwittingly waved off the train from the platform. And that was exactly what the Indian elites and fat cats wanted.
Now, all eyes will turn toward the visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington in November. Obama has let it be known that Manmohan will be the first dignitary to be honored with a state banquet during his presidency.
The Americans are vastly experienced with the Indians' Himalayan ego and by now they know well enough where and how to tickle Indian vanities. How they pedal fresh dreams to the Indians and pick up the fruits of their endeavors will be keenly watched not only by the multitude of Indians back at home, but also by the Pakistanis, Chinese and the Russians.