In 1991, Chinese Premier Li Peng, who was on a visit to India, handed over Rs 500 to an Intelligence Bureau official who had been assigned as the liaison officer with the Chinese delegation. Although it is customary for visiting delegations to give gifts of mementos, the cash ‘gift’ was considered a breach of protocol, and according to media accounts, was promptly returned to the Chinese embassy.

It appears that Chinese visitors have, at the very least, been sensitised to the impact of inflation in India in recent years. For yesterday, visiting Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie committed another such breach of protocol, when he handed over a cash ‘gift’ to two IAF officers – but this time the ‘gift’ was for a total of Rs 1 lakh.

The IAF pilots had flown the visiting delegation from Mumbai to Delhi, at the end of which journey they were given the money in a sealed envelope. The officers, who were taken by surprise, alerted their commanding officer, who in turn arranged for the money to be paid into the government depository.

The episode caused some anguish on the Indian side because the gift of cash, a definite breach of protocol, was perceived as a diplomatic slight as well. But in the interest of avoiding making a diplomatic incident out of it, the Indian authorities soft-pedalled the issue.

In fact, it is such soft-pedalling, and the Indian inclination to walk on eggshells for fear of offending Chinese sensibilities, that emboldens China to push the limits of propriety and protocol in its conduct with India.

It is of course true that the practice of distributing hong bao (red packets with cash) is commonplace in China, typically at Chinese New Year time, but more commonly as an expression of gratification for services rendered. In more recent times, it’s become a metaphor for payments that are made to “grease the tracks” – the Chinese equivalent ofchai-pani money, in a sense.

But that is no defence for the Defence Minister’s action – he didn’t, for instance, mistakenly transplant a Chinese culture into an Indian context. For one thing, the protocol defining interactions such as these are well codified, and there is no way he wouldn’t have known that he was in breach.

To that extent, Gen Liang’s action must be perceived as deliberate, one that was calculated to push the limits of protocol. And from India’s tepid response, it can only be surmised that it had the effect it was intended to have.

Indian wariness about offending Chinese sensibilities runs so high that our officialdom is capable of swallowing any number of slights and not make a fuss. But even a cursory look at the tortured course of Sino-Indian relations establishes that this only gives yet more elbow room to China to swing its arms in India’s face.

In recent times, China has been overly dismissive of India’s claims to ascendance, and have been particularly mocking – in some cases, deservedly so – of Indian claims to having acquired strategic parity with China. Whenever they have sensed a weakness in the Indian leadership (even if only domestically), they have tested India’s resolve with provocations along the volatile border.

In the estimation of some analysts, this is part of a strategy of projecting Chinese hard power in its neighbourhood.  In his book When China Rules the World,  Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today and a columnist at The Guardian, argues that China’s rise to global leadership – which he thinks is certain to happen – will challenge the ‘western-centric’ view of the world, of civilisations and even of what constitutes ‘modernity’. China, he reasons, is not a nation-state, but a civilisation-state, and it will draw on its civilisational strengths — among other things, a belief in a hierarchical world and on racial (Han) supremacy — to reshape the world in its image.

What does all this mean? In ancient times, China thought of itself as being the centre of the world; its Chinese name to this day reflects that Sino-centric, superior worldview (although, to be fair, such overinflated perceptions of self were widely shared in medieval times).

In acknowledgement of its superiority, China historically sought ‘tribute’ from its ‘vassal states’, which when paid with the customary markers of ritual genuflection, brought in return the promise of military support and patronage. Jacques reasons that “when China rules the world”, it will establish just such a template for its relations with its neighbours and other countries farther afield. In other words, the world – and India – should prepare to ‘kowtow’ to China.

Yet it is also true that historically, official Chinese attitudes towards India have grown benign during periods when India was perceived as rising economically with the capacity to bend the diplomatic arc in its favour in the region and beyond. That’s clearly signals that where the Chinese sense power in an adversary, they acknowledge it; but where they sense weakness, they only seek to take advantage of it to the hilt.

Although he came bearing a pacifist message, Gen Liang’s breach of protocol is merely another manifestation of the Chinese inclination to test India’s resolve. The response from the Indian side, which was overly considerate to Chinese sensibilities, only signalled that the Chinese strategy had worked yet again.

– Venky Vembu