The Perennial Standoff | Book Review — The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India by Vijay Gokhale

The ‘long game’ between the Asian giants is still in progress and the contours of Delhi’s comprehensive strategy towards China remain blurred.

The long game
Rich archival material reflects on India’s strategy with China over the years

India’s former foreign secretary (FS) Vijay Gokhale, who is acknowledged as an astute China expert, retired in January 2020 and has been a diligent chronicler of his considerable diplomatic experience after laying down office. The quality and quantum of his output over the last 18 months is indeed commendable and one can only conjecture that the esteemed former FS may not have gotten much sleep post retirement!

Gokhale’s first book Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest was published earlier this year and the second has followed a few months later. Both books had set themselves a specific focus and while the first one was a recall of the author’s personal experience in Beijing in 1989 when the tumultuous events of Tiananmen unfolded, this slim volume is a 101 for the lay reader on how China has conducted its diplomatic negotiations with India over the past seven decades.

Six negotiations critical to the uneasy India-China bilateral relationship have been chosen by the author spanning the period from 1949 to 2019 and these include recognition by the Government of India of the People’s Republic of China in December 1949; the Agreement on Trade between the Tibet Region of China and India in April 1954; India’s nuclear tests in 1998; China’s formal recognition of Sikkim as a part of India in April 2005; India-China diplomatic negotiations on the 123 nuclear deal in 2008; and the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UNSC 1267 Sanctions List in May 2019.

Lucidity is a hallmark of Gokhale’s writing and this is evident in this relatively slim (160 pages) but import-laden account of how India and China handled their complex bilateral interaction from their emergence as modern nation-states (1947 and 1949, respectively), with a tangled mix of an imagined past, often leavened with lofty nationalistic aspirations and deep-seated historical anxieties.

Gokhale notes in his preface to the book that this is not a purely academic work and that it is “intended to be a researched account of events, accompanied by analysis that might hold lessons for India in future negotiations with China”. These intentions are realised in ample measure, for the notes are adequate and the analysis is pithy, measured and rigorous. An index would have been desirable but publishers seem to have applied the guillotine to this valuable part of a book.

The first chapter relates to the manner in which independent India decided to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) barely three months after it was established on October 1, 1949, and Mao-led China sought legitimacy as the successor to the Chiang Kai-shek led Nationalist (KMT) regime. India had already become independent two years earlier in August 1947 and Gokhale notes with muted dismay that a foreign policy decision of enormous magnitude and relevance for India’s core security and strategic interests was arrived at without adequate deliberation within the government.

Prime minister Nehru was keen to accord the PRC recognition ahead of the rest of the global community and brushed aside the reservations of his deputy PM Vallabhai Patel and governor general C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), who urged Nehru to go slow on the matter. In hindsight it appears incredulous that this momentous policy decision was not even brought before the cabinet and Gokhale limits his observation to noting that “how to recognise the new regime in China appears to have been confined to the tight circle of advisors around the Prime Minister and lacked wider political consultations.”

This is rich archival material and could have been the basis for a searing critique of the misplaced certitude and limited comprehension that Nehru had of strategic geography, communist China, Chairman Mao and politico-diplomatic negotiating strategy apropos a major and proximate neighbour. But Gokhale is pithy in his analysis, which is conveyed in a restrained manner. Specific to Patel and Rajaji he queries: “Why were such voices of advice ignored?” The chapters that follow are replete with such wry observations, objective critique and understated inferences.

Tibet was becoming a major issue and prudent advice was rendered to Nehru by the secretary general of external affairs GS Bajpai, who cautioned: “We cannot, however, without the most careful consideration give up the special relationship that we have had with Tibet. My provisional view is that this is one of the matters to be taken into account when we take up with the Communist regime, the question of recognition.”

PM Nehru, however, had arrived at his own determination about why a quick recognition of the PRC was desirable—and squandered many options that would have a bearing on the territorial adjustment, even as he rejected the sage counsel from his top diplomats, let alone consulting the military top brass. As Gokhale concludes candidly, “India’s approach to the whole idea of recognition (of the PRC) was a mixture of emotionalism and conjecture. There was no strategy.” Driven also by the international calendar (Nehru wanted this ‘done’ before a mid-January 1950 Commonwealth Conference in Colombo) —India decided to recognise the PRC on December 30, 1949, without obtaining any significant accommodation of its own core interests. There was no ‘give’ from Beijing and a gullible Delhi allowed the interlocutor to ‘take’ what it had prioritised.

However in the last four case studies—from 1998 to 2019—Delhi was able to internalise the earlier lapses and improve its negotiating strategy with Beijing in obtaining its desired objective. The determined manner in which the 123 nuclear deal was pursued by India is illustrative, and Gokhale adds that the American resolve in the matter was critical and had not been factored by an over-confident China.

The last chapter titled ‘Lessons for India’ would be of great value for younger diplomats and China watchers. The use of information and narrative shaping to advance the Chinese interest, the subtle deployment of the PLA during negotiations and investing in the political parties of foreign countries amongst other techniques adopted by Beijing are flagged by the author. Many elements are discernible when one reviews India’s Galwan experience and Gokhale’s conclusion is bleak: “It may become progressively more difficult to extract concessions from China.”

India’s territorial dispute that began in 1949 continues to fester in 2021. The ‘long game’ between the Asian giants is still in progress and the contours of Delhi’s comprehensive strategy towards China remain blurred.

The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India
Vijay Gokhale
Penguin Random House
Pp181, Rs 699

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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First published on: 12-09-2021 at 03:30 IST