Playing Chess with China – Foreign Policy

Relations between India and China, which have had their share of highs and lows since the end of the 1950s, have reached a particularly low level. In June 2020, countries experienced their first deadly showdown in more than four decades: a clash between the Indian army and the Chinese army in the Galwan Valley, in the disputed region of Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese forces were killed. Despite multiple meetings between local commanders, the stalemate is not yet over.

The strained relationship between the two major Asian powers makes former Indian Foreign Minister Vijay Gokhale’s recent book, The long game: how the Chinese negotiate with India, both timely and invaluable. No other work, academic or otherwise, specifically examines China’s negotiating behavior with India with this level of analysis. Gokhale, who also served as India’s ambassador to China from 2016 to 2017, is in a unique position to tap into a wealth of personal knowledge on the subject. Although he is now retired, Gokhale’s views provide important clues to the current Indian government’s thinking on China.

Much writing on Sino-Indian relations takes a chronological approach, but Gokhale focuses on six significant episodes since 1949, drawing important implications for their significance for current politics. These include India’s decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, India’s 1998 nuclear tests, India’s absorption of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, the US-India civilian nuclear deal and India’s successful efforts to place Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar on the United Nations global terrorist list. Each episode reveals important insights into China’s negotiating behavior, such as the characteristic use of unofficial channels to express dissatisfaction with an issue.

Relations between India and China, which have had their share of highs and lows since the end of the 1950s, have reached a particularly low level. In June 2020, countries experienced their first deadly showdown in more than four decades: a clash between the Indian army and the Chinese army in the Galwan Valley, in the disputed region of Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese forces were killed. Despite multiple meetings between local commanders, the stalemate is not yet over.

The strained relationship between the two major Asian powers makes former Indian Foreign Minister Vijay Gokhale’s recent book, The long game: how the Chinese negotiate with India, both timely and invaluable. No other work, academic or otherwise, specifically examines China’s negotiating behavior with India with this level of analysis. Gokhale, who also served as India’s ambassador to China from 2016 to 2017, is in a unique position to tap into a wealth of personal knowledge on the subject. Although he is now retired, Gokhale’s views provide important clues to the current Indian government’s thinking on China.


The long game: how the Chinese negotiate with India, Vijay Gokhale, Vintage Books, 200 pp., 699 rupees, July 2021

Much writing on Sino-Indian relations takes a chronological approach, but Gokhale focuses on six significant episodes since 1949, drawing important implications for their significance for current politics. These include India’s decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, India’s 1998 nuclear tests, India’s absorption of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, the US-India civilian nuclear deal and India’s successful efforts to place Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar on the United Nations global terrorist list. Each episode reveals important insights into China’s negotiating behavior, such as the characteristic use of unofficial channels to express dissatisfaction with an issue.

Although much has been written about the growing rivalry between India and China, Gokhale manages not to cross a lot of familiar ground. Instead, it focuses on little-known details of the bilateral negotiations in each of these cases. And unlike many of his former colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service, Gokhale pulls no punches, writing with astonishing candor. For example, it reveals that India’s offer of a “non-first use” agreement with China following its 1998 nuclear tests was little more than a ploy; the Indian government knew that China would decline the offer, but it sought to appear flexible and conciliatory.

The long game first deals with the issue of New Delhi’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which according to Gokhale was far from straightforward. Although some in India’s foreign policy circles favor early recognition, others advise caution and restraint. Those in favor of early recognition eventually won out, but without addressing any of India’s major concerns, from the status of Tibet to its own border with China. Gokhale attributes this failure to the dominance of then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on foreign policy issues and to institutional weaknesses in the foreign policy apparatus. As a result, India handed over substantial funds and property held by the former Kuomintang government to the new regime without any clarification on the boundary issue. By giving in to the persistent demands of the new government, India quickly put itself at a disadvantage.

China beat Indian diplomats again after seizing Tibet in 1950. As Gokhale argues, China’s main objective after its military invaded and occupied Tibet was to extinguish any elements of autonomy that the region once enjoyed. Due to its British colonial heritage, India inherited certain extraterritorial privileges in Tibet, including trading posts and consular representation in the capital, Lhasa. Once again, China has shown skill in its relations with India. The then Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, had verbally assured the then Indian Ambassador to China, KM Panikkar, that Beijing would respect New Delhi’s interests in Tibet. But once China was invaded, the Chinese authorities backtracked and pressured India to cede its privileges there.

The long game argues that India has become more nimble in its diplomacy with China in the post-Cold War era. China took a particularly hardline stance toward India following its nuclear tests in May 1998. Beijing sought common cause with Washington in isolating New Delhi, working in concert to push India to give up its arsenal nuclear. He even used his ties to India’s communist parties to try to influence Indian policy on critical issues under negotiation. Nonetheless, Gokhale shows that Indian policymakers ably fended off international and domestic pressures. After several rounds of talks between then Indian Minister Jaswant Singh and then US Under Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, India managed to keep its nascent arsenal intact while making minor concessions to the United States.

The final section of Gokhale’s book discusses key lessons India can learn from the history of its diplomatic relations with China. His careful analysis of Beijing’s tactics is reminiscent of that of renowned American political scientist Nathan Leites. To analyse for the Rand Corp. which sought to explain Soviet political leadership and foreign policy. Gokhale identifies strategies that China regularly employs in its diplomatic talks with India and others. These involve meticulous preparation before the start of negotiations, attempts to set the agenda from the outset, the use of unofficial channels to influence public opinion, the careful selection of the venue for meetings and the establishing benchmarks for the other party before the talks. Paying close attention to these characteristic behaviors could help current and future Indian diplomats avoid potential pitfalls.

The long game rings an important wake-up call for India’s current policy makers. Given China’s dexterity in negotiations with India, diplomats should be mindful of the strategies used against them in the past. They should not be fooled by bland Chinese verbal assurances or allow Beijing to influence Indian domestic politics, and they should develop a keener understanding of China’s inner workings. At this particularly difficult time in China-India relations, Gokhale’s nuanced and informed account should provide useful and practical advice to his former Foreign Ministry colleagues as they grapple with China’s continued challenges. Like Gokhale, they must first familiarize themselves with the abundant scholarship on contemporary Beijing politics.

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