After nearly a year of strain and drift in the relations with China, the government appears to have bestirred itself to mend ties. It is making up for the barrenness through the past year by clustering together within the space of one week three high-level engagements with China.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval are heading to Beijing next week, while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will meet her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the Russia-India-China “trilateral” in Moscow on Monday.

However, from available media reports, India’s focus is on security issues. Ajit Doval’s forte is terrorists and spooks; Parrikar’s thoughts dwell on national defence; and, even Swaraj appears to be sticking to the talking point dictated to her – the importance of the United Nations “blacklisting” Pakistan’s Masood Azhar, the founder of banned terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The Modi government has entrapped itself. It all began from the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of Azhar with Chinese President Xi Jinping in May last year.

The decision to do so was a tactical blunder. Modi’s advisors should never have dragged him into the murky world of Azhar.

At best, it should have been left as Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s domain. He paid a six-day visit to China last November and held in-discussions with that country’s security czar, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu.

Would Modi think of taking up Lalit Modi – or Vijay Mallya – with David Cameron? Or, David Headley with Barack Obama? There ought to be a sense of proportions. Big powers attach solemnity to their summit meetings and Modi was on a state visit to China.

At any rate, why such unseemly hurry? Azhar was not about to migrate to planet Pluto – nor was the United Nations Security Council in New York about to disband.

The South Block should have cautioned the Prime Minister’s Office that a fact of life today is that no third country wants to take sides in India-Pakistan shenanigans.

We may give spin to the statements by foreign countries to make them appear favourable to us, but the fact of the matter is that the world community feels frustrated not only by the lack of political maturity on the part of the ancient South Asian rivals to behave as responsible countries but also by their considered judgement that neither India nor Pakistan is lily-white.

A point of no return

China is simply disinterested in taking sides on the India-Pakistan convulsions. The official Chinese media is consistent in its reportage of the developments on the India-Pakistan front – factual, neutral and unsentimental.

Hasn’t China ignored the sensational Pakistani story about the so-called Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav? The Pakistani army chief Gen Raheel Sharif openly alleged that India undermined the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in which Beijing would be investing $46 billion. Yet, the Chinese media downplayed it.

This reticence in steering clear of India-Pakistan controversies also needs to be juxtaposed with the incremental shift in China’s stance on the Kashmir problem through the post-Cold War era.

Given the backdrop of the fraternal Sino-Pakistan relationship (which is “higher than Himalayas” and “sweeter than honey”), it is unrealistic to expect that China should have sided with us to corner Pakistan on the Azhar issue. Wouldn’t India adopt “double standards” when self-interests are involved?

Therefore, by making Modi talk Azhar with Xi, we took matters to a point of no return. And when Beijing didn’t budge from its stance, Modi lost face.

Since then bureaucrats typically covered up their blunder by altogether chilling on the China ties, making Azhar the litmus test of China’s cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, a period of “strain and drift” followed. This of course suited the American lobby in our country to nudge India by a few inches closer to the United States’ rebalance strategy in Asia. Meanwhile, if our intention was that Beijing would take fright and sign on the dotted line on Azhar, that hasn’t happened.

From the measured Chinese reaction to the high-profile visit by the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to India last week, it is apparent that if India decides to surrender its strategic autonomy and bandwagon with a US-sponsored alliance system in Asia, China will view it as India’s strategic decision – although it has repeatedly expressed appreciation for India’s independent foreign policies.

Diplomacy is not in its finest hour when it keeps scoring self-goals. What has compounded the folly of injecting the Azhar moment into the China ties is that Indian diplomacy also failed to prioritise the overall normalisation process.

Media reports quoting officials in the external affairs ministry say that Azhar will “dominate the agenda” of Swaraj and Doval’s meetings next week with their Chinese counterparts. By all means, raise the Azhar issue, if Swaraj and Doval must. But do not enshrine the Azhar moment in the sanctum sanctorum of the India-China relationship.

China is a unique partner – arguably, even irreplaceable – for Modi’s development agenda. At a time when India’s foreign trade as a whole has dramatically dipped, trade with China stands out as an exception.

Diplomatic failures

Now, the goal of trade policy is not limited to increasing export opportunities. Nor is it just about improving trade balances. Rather, trade policy is about taking opportunities to improve the economy’s productive base.

From such a perspective, it is obvious that fostering the flow of Chinese investments into India ought to be a top priority for Modi’s development agenda and should constitute the first circle of Indian diplomacy towards that country.

The added spin-off here is that investments, if properly directed to the infrastructure and manufacturing sectors, also could help create job opportunities in big numbers in a near future (which also happens to be an unredeemed campaign pledge by Modi.)

On the contrary, economic diplomacy, which Modi had vowed to make the centrepiece of creative work in the foreign-policy establishment in South Block, is languishing on the backburner.

India has slammed the door shut on Xi’s signature One Belt One Road, whereas, at the very least, we could have had selective use of infrastructure projects that meet our critical needs.

The South Block instead chose to organise a Track II to lecture to Beijing how it would have conceptualised and gone about the implementation of One Belt One Road if only our mandarins had been put in charge.

When diplomacy lacks imagination, it is bad enough, but when it enters the theatre of the absurd, a wasteland appears.

Countries such as the US, Germany or Russia pursue an intense engagement with the Chinese leadership. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has visited China not less than 10 times in as many years in power.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it a point to schedule meetings with the Chinese leaders on the sidelines of international conferences whenever and wherever possible. Beijing began respecting him not only for his erudition and moderation but also for his manifest commitment to the normalisation process.

But Modi has not had a single meeting with a Chinese leader since he came across Xi at Ufa during the BRICS summit last July. The climate change conference in Paris and the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington turned out to be lost opportunities.

We should not have allowed Azhar to cast such deep shadows on the Sino-Indian normalisation. He simply doesn’t deserve such an Indian recognition. Leave him to our public relations in New York.