‘India has carved out its own path in foreign policy’

Richa Mishra | Updated on August 08, 2021

Title: The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with IndiaAuthor: Vijay Keshav GokhalePublisher: PenguinPrice: ₹699

In his new book, former diplomat Vijay Keshav Gokhale throws fresh light on India-China relations since Independence


The element of distrust between India and China is not just from India’s side but from China’s side too, said Vijay Keshav Gokhale, a former career diplomat turned author.

Gokhale, who was the 32nd Foreign Secretary of India, was also the Indian ambassador to China. In conversation with Business Line on his latest book, The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, Gokhale said, “The idea behind penning this book was to not turn it into a research paper, but to speak about our relations with China to a wider audience, as China interests everyone.”

Stating that Pokhran and 123 deals are fine examples of how India has carved its own path, Gokhale points out that the Masood Azhar incident should be seen to understand as to how the principle of consensus works so far as the Chinese are concerned. Excerpts:

In your book you have debated upon India’s diplomatic perspectives, taking some key incidents as examples. Do you think India has been consistent in its policy, particularly with China?

Well, I think consistency has to be defined because no government’s foreign policy can be static or remain unchanged. Every country is either growing or shrinking not just in terms of economic capacities but also in terms of relative power vis-a-vis other countries and, therefore, foreign policy is a fluid process where adjustments are being made continuously. So, what I can say is that in the early years after Independence, particularly in relation to China, we not only suffered some disabilities because of the lack of diplomatic experience, which was because we were a colony of the British, and we didn’t have any direct diplomatic dealings with other countries.

But, also immediately after Independence, we did not build a larger structure of foreign policy for consultation. In other words, beyond the government there were no other mechanisms such as think-tanks, research institutions or even better coordination between various departments within the government which might have fed into the foreign policy process and as a result we suffered some setbacks in our initial relationship with China.

But, as I do point out, subsequently, some of these lacunae or rather quite a few of these lacunae have been addressed. I am, of course, not claiming that the situation is completely optimal, there is room for improvement, but certainly we have learnt lessons in our dealing with the Chinese side and hopefully this will continue in the future.

The first chapter begins with “Recognition” — how the two countries (India and China) see each other. The perception on ground is that there is lack of consensus within our political parties. Is it true?

In a democracy it is perfectly fine to have differences in policy. That is part of the democratic process. But, in general, in terms of foreign policy, those differences have not been many. In fact, there has been a broad consensus in the overall direction of our foreign policy. That is true with respect to China as well. One of the points I bring out in the book is that the Chinese perhaps assumed that there were greater differences within the Indian political system than was actually the case.

Both during the 1998 nuclear tests and during the subsequent Indo-US 123 deal there was a general political consensus on the direction, although there may have been some differences in terms of modalities — on how to approach the Chinese side or on how to square the issue with them. So, I think it is important even now to remember that in terms of foreign policy the national consensus continues to hold.

My point in saying that there was lack of political consultation in the 1950s was for two reasons — one was that we know there were differences of opinion between PM Jawaharlal Nehru and some of the members of his Cabinet. But, as one of the letters that PM Nehru wrote to Deputy PM Sardar Patel shows, his view was that it was not necessary to brief the Cabinet in any great detail because they may not be interested in the subject.

My point is that given such an important subject whether or not it was of interest to the Cabinet, it ought to have been consulted repeatedly in the matter. The second point I make is that there were some errors of commission. For instance, there were reports coming in from the Indian offices in Lhasa and Gangtok suggesting that the Chinese side may not be positive towards our perception that the Bboundary is settled. Yet, these reports were set aside, rather than being acted upon. The point is that there was undue haste. This could be because of lack of diplomatic experience, and also because the political leadership had not evolved the system of consultation wherein any problems or any differences that might have cropped up could have been resolved in advance.

Talking about diplomatic maturity, what is the dual strategy on Tibet?

I think our position on Tibet with respect to the People’s Republic of China has been made clear both by PM Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988 and PM Vajpayee in June 2003. The sum and substance are that we recognise the Tibet autonomous region as part of People’s Republic of China. So far as the India-China boundary is concerned, may I be permitted to recall that the boundary agreement was reached prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and in our view that was the period when Tibet had the authority to make treaties, so there is a clear differentiation and there is no contradiction there.

Why is our foreign policy being seen as getting influenced by the Americans?

The chapter on Pokhran clearly demonstrates that we acted as our own master. I say this on the basis of whatever evidence is available in the public domain that both the Americans and the Chinese were caught by surprise at our nuclear test. The underlying point that I am making is that we did not seek the prior approval of anybody.

Thereafter, of course, how we were able to overcome the challenge that we faced is another matter. There I think there is a legitimate diplomatic strategy to use the help of some to make others see our point of view. This is where diplomatically we leveraged relationships with some countries to ensure that others who were opposed to us, who were in the shadows to block us, were also brought in agreement.

Here, obviously, because China was the major one, and we have had a troubled history, their opposition was likely to be greater. But India’s position had changed with the five nuclear tests. The lesson that should be drawn from the two chapters Pokhran and the Indo-US 123 deal is: once national priorities are clear then you leverage it diplomatically, unless you are so powerful that you could do it alone — today even the US cannot do it alone. All countries leverage their diplomatic relationships with others to achieve national objectives and we are doing nothing different from everybody else.

Do you think bilateral relations are important?

I think after the end of the cold war, and particularly from the time of PM Vajpayee, India has mainly followed the policy of multi-alignment, which essentially means that we grow our own bilateral relationships and partnerships with all the major countries in the world — Russia, the US, China, the EU. Bilateral relationships have always assumed primacy in our foreign policy and multi-alignment approach feeds into that. We believe each has a place in our foreign policy. However, it is fairly evident that bilateral relationships obviously impinge on others as well. While bilateral relationships are important, we should not give veto powers to any country to decide what our relationship with other countries should be like.

Is India weak as a negotiator?

I have to disagree with you on this. Our capacity to negotiate with China has substantially improved and continues to improve. In the last 20 years, the power differential has widened — in other words China’s GDP is now six times India’s and China’s military expenditure is four times India’s. Given this background we have broadly been able to achieve some successes.

Our negotiating tactics have improved. Of course, there is room for further improvement. I think sometimes we beat ourselves up on matters where we should actually be looking at whether we have achieved a credible objective or not rather than imagining that we must achieve a certain objective and then decide we haven’t. Obviously, the objectives are first set by the government and then we set out to achieve them.

So why is this trust deficit with China?

I think firstly we must be clear that it is mutual. It is not simply that the Indians distrust the Chinese, it is equally true that Chinese distrust Indians too. If we look at the history of Indian diplomacy, we have given an appropriately high position — from Prime Minister Nehru to Prime Minister Modi — to China, the respect and attention it deserves as a major power. However, we must ask ourselves whether it has been reciprocated. Whether China sees India as a major country and gives it the respect and position that is due to India. My own assessment is that this has not been the case. Distrust perhaps has been generated because of Chinese behaviour and they need to introspect on this far more than India.


Published on August 08, 2021

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