Review

Playing Chess With China

A new book by a former Indian envoy to Beijing has important lessons for today’s policymakers.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Bharatiya Janata Party supporters prepare to burn posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Allahabad, India, on June 17, 2020.
Bharatiya Janata Party supporters prepare to burn posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Allahabad, India, on June 17, 2020. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP via Getty Images

Relations between India and China, which have seen their share of ups and downs since the late 1950s, have reached a particularly low ebb. In June 2020, the countries experienced their first deadly confrontation in over four decades: a clash between the Indian Army and the Chinese military in the Galwan Valley in the disputed region of Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese forces were killed. Despite multiple meetings between local commanders, the standoff has yet to end.

The fraught relationship between Asia’s two major powers makes former Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s recent book, The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, both topical and invaluable. No other work, scholarly or otherwise, specifically examines China’s negotiating behavior with India with this level of analysis. Gokhale, who also served as the Indian ambassador to China from 2016 to 2017, is in a unique position to draw on a vast trove of personal knowledge of the subject. Although he is now retired, Gokhale’s views provide important clues to the current Indian government’s thinking with regards to China.

Much writing on Sino-Indian relations adopts a chronological approach, but Gokhale focuses on six significant episodes since 1949, drawing important implications for their significance to present-day 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 U.S.-India civilian nuclear accord, and India’s successful effort to place the 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 convey its unhappiness about an issue.

Relations between India and China, which have seen their share of ups and downs since the late 1950s, have reached a particularly low ebb. In June 2020, the countries experienced their first deadly confrontation in over four decades: a clash between the Indian Army and the Chinese military in the Galwan Valley in the disputed region of Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese forces were killed. Despite multiple meetings between local commanders, the standoff has yet to end.

The fraught relationship between Asia’s two major powers makes former Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s recent book, The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, both topical and invaluable. No other work, scholarly or otherwise, specifically examines China’s negotiating behavior with India with this level of analysis. Gokhale, who also served as the Indian ambassador to China from 2016 to 2017, is in a unique position to draw on a vast trove of personal knowledge of the subject. Although he is now retired, Gokhale’s views provide important clues to the current Indian government’s thinking with regards to China.

The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate With India, Vijay Gokhale, Vintage Books, 200 pp., 699 rupees, July 2021

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 adopts a chronological approach, but Gokhale focuses on six significant episodes since 1949, drawing important implications for their significance to present-day 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 U.S.-India civilian nuclear accord, and India’s successful effort to place the 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 convey its unhappiness about an issue.

Even though a great deal has been written about India and China’s growing rivalry, Gokhale manages not to traverse much familiar ground. Instead, he homes in on little-known particulars 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, he reveals that India’s offer of a “no first use” agreement with China in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests was little more than a ploy; the Indian government knew China would decline the offer, but it sought to appear flexible and conciliatory.

The Long Game deals first with the issue of New Delhi’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which Gokhale shows was far from straightforward. Although some in India’s foreign-policy circles favored an early recognition, others counseled caution and restraint. Those who favored early recognition ultimately prevailed—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 in foreign-policy matters and the institutional weaknesses of the foreign-policy apparatus. As a result, India ceded substantial funds and properties held by the previous Kuomintang government to the new regime without any clarification on the question of the border. By caving to the new government’s persistent demands, India placed itself at an early disadvantage.

China again bested India’s diplomats after it seized Tibet in 1950. As Gokhale argues, China’s principal goal after its military invaded and occupied Tibet was to extinguish any element of autonomy that the region once enjoyed. Owing to its British colonial heritage, India had inherited certain extraterritorial privileges in Tibet, including some trading posts and consular representation in the capital, Lhasa. Once again, China proved deft when dealing with India. Then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had verbally assured the Indian ambassador to China at the time, K.M. Panikkar, that Beijing would respect New Delhi’s interests in Tibet. But once China invaded, Chinese officials backtracked and prompted India to cede its privileges there.

The Long Game argues that India has become nimbler in its diplomacy with China in the post-Cold War era.

The Long Game argues that India has become nimbler in its diplomacy with China in the post-Cold War era. China adopted a particularly intransigent stance toward India in the wake of its nuclear tests in May 1998. Beijing sought to make common cause with Washington in isolating New Delhi, working in concert to push India to eschew its nuclear arsenal. It even used its ties with India’s communist parties to try to influence Indian policy on critical issues under negotiation. Nevertheless, Gokhale shows that India’s policymakers skillfully warded off international and domestic pressures. After multiple rounds of talks between then-Indian cabinet minister Jaswant Singh and then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, India succeeded in keeping its nascent arsenal intact while making minor concessions to the United States.

The final section of Gokhale’s book deals with key lessons India can learn from the history of its diplomatic dealings with China. His careful parsing of Beijing’s tactics recalls the noted American political scientist Nathan Leites’s analysis for the Rand Corp. that sought to explain Soviet political leadership and foreign policy. Gokhale identifies strategies that China routinely employs in its diplomatic parleys with India and others. These involve meticulous preparation before negotiations begin, attempts to set the agenda at the outset, the use of unofficial channels to influence public opinion, carefully selecting the venue for meetings, and setting benchmarks for the other side ahead of talks. Careful attention to these characteristic behaviors could enable current and future Indian diplomats to avoid possible pitfalls.

The Long Game sounds an important alarm bell for current Indian policymakers. Given China’s dexterity in negotiating with India, diplomats should be alert to the strategies used against them in the past. They should not be taken in by bland Chinese verbal assurances or allow Beijing to influence Indian domestic politics, and they should develop a keener understanding of China’s internal workings. At this particularly fraught moment in Sino-Indian relations, Gokhale’s nuanced and informed account should provide useful and practical guidance to his former colleagues in the foreign ministry as they grapple with continued challenges from China. Like Gokhale, they first need to familiarize themselves with abundant scholarship on Beijing’s contemporary politics.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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