Monday, May 27, 2013

South Block Watch .... The Sunday Standard/ May 26, 2013

Chinese Checkers in Japan
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s frequent visits abroad in the last few months have raised scary expectations about India’s diplomatic expertise. His forthcoming visit to Tokyo from May 27 to 29, and Bangkok from May 30 to 31, would provide welcome opportunities, not only to strengthen important bilateral relationships but also to boost India’s Look East Policy. As Manmohan’s overseas sojourn comes close on the heels of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, he will have to play it safe while discussing China with his Japanese counterpart. The Japan visit assumes added strategic significance because both countries, along with Philippines and Vietnam, have been at the receiving end of China’s military assertiveness and muscle flexing. Sino-Japanese relations have traditionally been difficult. The Japanese expectation that strengthening economic relations with China would facilitate contentious political disputes was belied when China suddenly announced on April 27 that the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have always been its territory. The Chinese, referring to Diaoyu Islands—their name for Senkaku—said the issue concerns the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and constitutes its “core interest”, taking the dispute to a new level. The Japanese, who have administered the islands for decades, were taken aback but decided to respond assertively. Our Prime Minister and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe will have an additional issue on their agenda. The Japanese will be looking forward to hearing a first-hand assessment of Manmohan’s impressions of Li Keqiang’s visit.
Slice of the American Pie
The desire of the establishment to wrangle an invitation for Manmohan Singh to make a state visit to the US is well known. Santa Claus finally arrived in the form of US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The invitation was accepted with alacrity. The PMO was so pleased that it could not resist the temptation of selectively leaking this godsend to the press even though a formal invitation was awaited and mutually convenient dates had to be decided upon. This raises a fundamental question. Since the visit—the last for Manmohan in his second term—is supposed to extract maximum mileage at home, bilateral dialogues must be held before July. But the Americans are in no hurry. The PMO has already scheduled the PM’s visit to correspond with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September. On this occasion, US President Barack Obama holds meetings with most visiting heads of governments. In that case, a separate meeting will have to be fixed for Manmohan in Washington. Moreover, there is talk of the general elections being advanced to be held along with the state Assembly polls towards the end of the year. Should that happen, a major foreign visit on the eve of elections would be neither feasible nor desirable. But the PMO is unable to reconcile to the idea of the Prime Minister losing an opportunity to break bread with the mightiest global power before completing his second, and perhaps last, term.
Musical Chairs at MEA
The search for a new foreign secretary remains shrouded in mystery. There is still some time left for a formal announcement, as the new candidate is always appointed a month before the current incumbent’s retirement. The Prime Minister has been considering various names, and would like to follow the seniority principle as was done while appointing Ranjan Mathai, cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, the new CVC, and CAG. According to insiders, the PM is under pressure to deviate from this well-tested policy. This became apparent when the government ignored seniority while appointing the new Home Secretary. Anil Goswami (1978 batch) was chosen to succeed R K Singh from the 1975 batch. Manmohan has been unable to firm up on the next foreign secretary because of the tug of war between various power centres. If seniority is to be the criterion, then our ambassador to Berlin, Sujatha Singh, should get the job. But going by the new home secretary’s appointment, an officer of the 1977 batch may well be considered. But there is a catch. Three officers of the 1977 batch are already serving as secretaries in the MEA—Sudhir Vyas, Pinak Chakravarty and Ashok Kantha, in that order of seniority. Two of them retire by September. If the choice falls on S Jaishankar, the ambassador to Beijing, the PM has to find an honourable exit for the three seniors. The only way would be to give a short extension to Mathai and let them retire before bringing in Jaishankar. In case he is appointed the next foreign secretary, the PM would have to find a credible explanation on why so many seniors, including Sujatha, have been superseded.
Learn it from Rio
The Congress is an expert at forging alliances abroad and breaking them at home. When it comes to the skill set of domestic agencies, it should learn from Brazil. Both India and Brazil have been partners in many global initiatives. The summit-level meeting of the three large democracies of Latin America, including Brazil, Africa and Asia meant to be held in New Delhi in the first week of June has been postponed because of scheduling difficulties from Brazil. As and when it is rescheduled, it would be appropriate for South Block mandarins to use the opportunity to ascertain from the Brazilians the secret of how they managed to register splendid victories in two prestigious elections in the multilateral system. Brazilian candidates won decisively in the elections to the top jobs in the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and the Geneva-based World Trade Organization. They have demonstrated without doubt that their foreign policy machine is second to none, and surely better than ours.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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