Why was India missing at Panchsheel conference in Beijing?

India and China formulated the five principles of peaceful coexistence in 1954, so why was India absent from the event marking 70 years of the initiative?

Speakers at the Panchsheel conference in Beijing (photo: @SudheenKulkarni/X)
Speakers at the Panchsheel conference in Beijing (photo: @SudheenKulkarni/X)

AJ Prabal

A social media post on X on Saturday by socio-political activist and columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni from Beijing evoked sharp reactions in India. Mr Kulkarni’s post read:

I met Mr Wang Yi, China’s indefatigable Foreign Minister, in Beijing yesterday.

I: “Your Excellency, I am sad India is not officially present at this conference to mark 70 Years of Panchasheel because India (Jawaharlal Nehru) was its co-author.”

Mr Wang Yi: “We had invited India. Nevertheless, our two countries should continue to work together for promoting the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”

Kulkarni went on to ask, “Why is Modi Govt boycotting this meet? Wasn’t India, along with China, a co-author of Panchsheel in 1954? I am in Beijing. Participating in a conference to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence…the world remembers Nehru and his pioneering contribution to Panchsheel. But our Govt has forgotten. Many speakers (including me) at this global conference in Beijing on 70 Years of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence praised Nehru’s wisdom and vision…”.

Nehru had famously commented: "If these principles were recognizsed in the mutual relations of all countries, then indeed there would hardly be any conflict and certainly no war."

The post was greeted by some in India with dismay, wondering whether Prime Minister Modi’s flying visit to Italy to get selfies taken with Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and hugging the Pope was worth more than being in Beijing for this conference. Others reacted sharply and accused Kulkarni of criticising the Indian government abroad. Some asked why India should celebrate an event in China which ‘betrayed’ India in 1962 and remains hostile to it.

Foreign policy experts and former Indian diplomats, including some who were Indian ambassadors to China, have maintained a discreet silence in public and steered clear of the controversy. What is clear, however, is a missed opportunity for India to communicate its stand on global peace and multilateralism.

The five principles formed part of the legacy of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai in their unsuccessful quest to find a solution to the vexed boundary issue in 1954.

However, the principles were embraced and endorsed by non-aligned countries and remained a foundational principle of India’s international relations.

Addressing the conference in Beijing, Xi Jinping said, "The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence answered the call of the times, and its initiation was an inevitable historic development. The Chinese leadership in the past specified the Five Principles in their entirety for the first time, namely, 'mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity', 'mutual non-aggression', 'mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs', 'equality and mutual benefit', and 'peaceful coexistence'."

The invitees included former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and political leaders and officials from countries closely associated with China over the years.

China will provide 1,000 'Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence Scholarships of Excellence' and 1,00,000 training opportunities to Global South countries in the next five years, besides launching a 'Global South Youth Leaders' programme, he informed.

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin asserted that this was indeed the ‘Asian century’ and that the world’s future would be written here in Asia. "Whenever you work on concrete peace you find these five principles to be the keys that can unlock almost any lock," he said and added that the key lesson of Panchsheel for today's world are that "beyond differences of cultures, histories and political systems, peace is possible based on shared principles rooted in our common humanity, rationality and spirituality"

Old war mentality, bloc against bloc, is not inevitable, he added reminding the audience that “people are on the brink of confrontation and war everywhere around the world". Xi reiterated China's commitment to “fairness and justice" because "without them, power politics will be the order of the day, and the weak will be at the mercy of the strong".

Significantly, he called for strengthening "the authority and central role of the United Nations" because “international rules should be made and observed by all countries. World affairs should be handled through extensive consultation, not dictated by those with more muscles…we will never take the path of colonial plundering, or the wrong path of seeking hegemony when one becomes strong".

Western commentators apparently remain sceptical, accusing China of harbouring imperialistic dreams. By boycotting the meet, India appears to have signalled its own reservations about its northern neighbour.

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