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The Geo Interview with Ambassador Vijay Gokhale - Former Foreign Secretary of India

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Vijay Gokhale

Image Credits: Indian Express

Amb. Vijay Gokhale discusses with The Geostrata's Pratyaksh Kumar, his latest book: 'The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India'. The discussion focuses upon some of the highlighted and important themes in the Indo-Chinese negotiations since the Republic of India’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China as in 1950.

Pratyaksh: Welcome viewers! It's an absolute honor for the Geostrata to host Ambassador Vijay Gokhale, the former foreign secretary of India. Sir has also served as India’s ambassador to China. In today’s edition of the Geointerview the discussion will be broadly based upon sir’s recent book,’ The Long Game-How the Chinese Negotiate with India’. Welcome, Sir.

Amb. Gokhale: Thank you

Pratyaksh: Sir, before we get into the whereabouts of the inherent themes that you have so clearly highlighted in your book, I would like to ask you that instead of covering the entire corpus of the Indo-Chinese relationship, how did you come about the idea of covering this very specific aspect that how the Chinese negotiated with India and what's the story behind you writing this book?

Ambassador Gokhale: Well first of all let me thank the Geostrata for interviewing me. It's always a good occasion when you can get your views across to a much wider audience, particularly people who are now in universities or just leaving universities. So I am glad that you agreed to do this interview with me. You know there are a number of excellent writings on Indo-China relations per se. A number of both scholars and those who have earlier served in government have written about it. But there are relatively few writings about the mechanics of how India and China have negotiated, given the fact that we are close neighbors, and that we have had certain issues and problems which have towered the relationship from 1947 until now.

I thought that some writing or books on how the two countries approached those issues, what was the strategy and tactics that each side adopted, what was the outcome of those negotiations and whether there were any lessons to be learned would be a useful addition to a lot of writing on India-China relations that are already taking place. I also felt I was uniquely placed to do so because having had the privilege of serving the government for forty years I have participated in a number of negotiations or had heard about them from my colleagues. So, I guess it was a combination of my own experience as well as my sense that it would benefit others to put down certain views on how the Chinese negotiated that led to my writing this book.

Pratyaksh: Okay, thank you, Sir! Sir, given your personal experience on the ground, how do you see the current Indo-China relationship panning out, especially in the aftermath of the Galwan valley clashes and more recently China, as the last chapter of your book mentioned that the negotiations over listing of Mazood Azhar. Now China has again blocked the listing of top Let commander Abdul Rehman Makki. So how do you see that panning out?

Amb. Gokhale: To answer that question I have to go a little into history. While India became independent in 1947 and the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, we both followed very different political, social, and diplomatic systems. And therefore, there was never the sort of convergence with China that we had with other countries which after liberation or independence had adopted democracy as the form of government. There were misunderstandings about each other, about each other’s intentions, about each other’s motives for relations. And therefore what initially appeared to be a very friendly relationship rapidly deteriorated into the border war of 1962.

Now, the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 was an attempt by India to make a fresh beginning. And a modus vivendi arrived and with the Chinese leader Mr. Deng Xiaoping. And that modus vivendi consisted essentially of three main points; the Indian side agreed that we would no longer make the territorial disputes a central factor in the larger relationship. In other words, we would allow the relationship to grow in every dimension, while at the same time also trying to solve the border question. The second agreement by both sides was that we would initiate talks on the boundary question in order to reach a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement. In other words, neither side would force the other into any settlement which was disadvantageous. And the third important element was that we both agreed that pending that settlement we would ensure peace and tranquility on the border.

In other words, neither side would use force or threaten to use force. This modus vivendi worked very well for 25 years. But essentially what we began to see from 2013 was that the Chinese side appeared to be going back on this modus vivendi insofar as it concerned the non-use of force in the border areas. So what we saw in 2013 was a series of incidents that escalated both in scale and in scope along various points of the Indo-China Line of Actual Control culminating in the very tragic event of June 2020 when a number of our military personnel were killed in an attempt to stop Chinese encroachment across the LAC.

So, if you ask me to characterize the relationship today I would say that we have moved from the phase of peaceful coexistence, which is what Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping had put into place into a phase of armed coexistence. In other words, there is now likely to be a situation where both sides place a significantly greater number of military forces in closer engagement positions than previously and this situation is not likely to be reversed in the near future.

Pratyaksh: Sir, the chapter in the book where you highlight the negotiations between India and China over Tibet, you have highlighted how the highest political leadership of the Communist Party of China, they had this deep mistrust of Indian intentions despite India conceding to several geostrategic or geopolitical advantages that it could have enjoyed. Do you think that mistrust is still the case and how does that affect the relationship between both the countries?

Amb. Gokhale: So you have touched on the very central point of this relationship. Regrettably, that lack of trust or understanding has persisted throughout the relationship from 1949 till today. And one of the important points to bear in mind is that when Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping reached this modus vivendi or this arrangement with which both sides would build relations with each other, it was hoped that one of the things this would do was to build this trust or understanding. Regrettably, that did not happen and my sense is that with the Chinese side there is always the lingering suspicion that India was buying time and developing relations with the west, with a view of constraining the rise of China.

Now, this has been the Chinese perception for some time and continues to be the Chinese perception. But the point is the Chinese do not seem to give India any agency of its own in foreign policy. In other words, it does not seem to think that India has an autonomous or independent capability of making foreign policy decisions. Its whole view of India is one where it sees India essentially as an adjunct to another major power; historically the Soviet Union or recently the American states in a manner as to suggest that all of India's decisions are influenced by them. Now on our part, the mistrust is also there. And that mistrust arises from the Chinese inability to carry through on certain promises or agreements or treaties they signed after 1988. For instance, we had two major agreements in the 1990s. The agreement on building mutual trust and on the establishment of confidence-building measures along the Line of Actual Control. Now effectively the Chinese have broken both the agreements, by engaging in violent activity or the threat of the use of force across the LAC.

Similarly, in 2005 we had an agreement on the guiding principles and political parameters to settle the boundary issue. In other words, we both agreed on certain principles, certain guidelines by which we would resolve it. But here again, very soon after this, the Chinese side began to call Arunachal Pradesh South Tibet. They started issuing paper visas if you showed your birthplace as Arunachal Pradesh or you said that you belonged to the State of Arunachal Pradesh. In other words, they started discriminating between citizens of India and residents of areas they claimed to be part of the People’s Republic of China. And again this was contrary to the agreement that we would settle the issue according to certain guidelines and parameters which included the phrase that the “due interest of settled populations” would be taken into account during the settling of the boundaries. So, I can give you a number of other instances where the Chinese side went back on certain commitments they had given. And therefore from our perspective also trust and understanding didn’t develop. And therefore as I said at the very start of this answer you have to put the finger at the crux of the issue; there is a fundamental lack of trust and misunderstanding between the two sides which lies at the heart of the relationship.

The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India by Vijay Gokhale

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Pratyaksh: Thank you, sir! While reading the book one of the most interesting factors that I discovered and in my opinion, I believe not many people might know about this, not just the Chinese Communist Party but even the Tibetan government had their claims over Indian territories like Sikkim or Darjeeling or Tawang. And the way you mentioned the strategic importance of Sikkim in Chinese calculations, do you think China sometime in near future would come for and would lay claims over these Indian territories?

Amb. Gokhale: I think the issue of Sikkim appears to be settled because this government, that is the People’s Republic of China, has in 2005, in an agreement recognised that Sikkim is an integral part of the Indian Union. Now, of course there is always the possibility that they will not abide by this agreement either. But in doing that they will reopen the position that India has taken on a number of issues of concern to them not only including Tibet but also including Taiwan. Therefore I find that unless I am very much mistaken, they will not take that precipitant stake. However, their claims to territory that is part of the Indian Union including the regions which are part of Ladakh in the western region and the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern region remain alive claims of the Chinese side. And therefore, these are the areas that we ought to be concerned about because the Chinese have never given up their claims, nor ever acknowledged that these are a part of India unlike what they have done with Sikkim in 2005.

Pratyaksh: Sir, while also reading the book there are multiple instances where you have mentioned the specific or the special characteristics that the Chinese deploy in their diplomacy. For example, they always try to seek time, they effectively use the ‘doublespeak’ if I am to quote 1984, and they also portray a certain sort of ambiguity over any issue. And now we can see they are doing the same when it comes to the India-China border question. So do you think they are even seeking a solution to it, having read the book I don't believe that they would want to solve it until and unless they can extract some bigger price out of it?

Amb. Gokhale: Yes! Let me begin by saying that the Chinese are very skillful diplomats. Perhaps not just India but the rest of the world also did not, or shall I say underestimated their capabilities. We forget that even though the government was a communist government after 1949, China has been a long-standing civilization, a major world power throughout history, and has a great deal of diplomatic expertise and certain institutional memory. To that extent the institutional memory was lost in India because after roughly 1800, we were fully colonized and we did not have the right to conduct diplomatic relations with other countries. In the case of China, it was only partially colonized and therefore its government was still allowed to have diplomatic relations with other countries therefore they have long-standing traditional diplomacy and highly skilled diplomats. For a long time the rest of the world, India included, underestimated this capability.

Now to come to the question of whether they would like to settle the issue with India, after the year 2000, when a very rapid development took place in China and where they grew economically at a much faster rate than India, they today find themselves in a position where their economy is perhaps 6 times that of India. According to the latest world bank figures, India's economy is about 3 trillion dollars and the Chinese economy in 2021 was 18 trillion dollars. Similarly in terms of military expenditure as well, the gap would be 1 to 5. Now, in this situation perhaps, and I can only guess, the Chinese side feels that both the current situation and the future trajectory, allow China enough time to wait until the settlement is in their favor.

I am not saying that this is a wise decision because over the last 12 to 18 months, the Chinese economy has shown a fairly serious strain and there has been a substantial slowing down of growth. New problems which have risen include a falling population and therefore a falling labor market, much more expenditure on social security and welfare schemes and ultimately a falling population makes it more difficult both in terms of productivity and in terms of generating enough capital to support social security and old age schemes. So my own sense is that the Chinese economy will now gradually slow down and India has the opportunity over the next 20 or 30 years, if not to catch up then certainly to come substantially closer to them.

Perhaps the Chinese are overestimating their future capacity (vis a vis) but that notwithstanding, the Chinese feel that the advantage is clearly on their side, and therefore they are in no hurry whatsoever to conclude a border agreement or to settle any other issues they have with us unless they see a distinct and clear advantage to themselves.

Pratyaksh: Sir, now I would like to draw the attention away from the CCP towards the role of the Civil society. In the book, you have mentioned how formidable the Chinese think tank community is. How do you see the Indian think-tank community developing and how can it help the Indian government in particular or the country in general to counter China and several other similar problems that we face?

Amb. Gokhale: One of the hallmarks of many of the great powers, the United States, the former Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. One of the hallmarks that was or remains is the synergy between the government and the government departments on the one hand dealing with national security and foreign policy and on the other hand, what we call as the foreign policy and strategic community. This consists of think tanks, university professors, and certain experts in the media who have covered foreign and national security policy and who effectively are called civil society because they do not necessarily work in or for the government.

In the case of India for whatever reason and that is the subject of an entirely separate talk, that synergy did not develop. The government and the strategic community remained apart. The government went on with the day-to-day business of foreign and strategic policy but did not over time have the luxury of time to discuss and debate and research the broader issues. The strategic community had the luxury of time to do that but it had no ability to input into policy making unless of course, it was an individual basis. If you as a strategic think tanker knew somebody important in the government then you could do some input as an individual but never as an institution and I think this is one of the big lacunas in India's strategic and foreign policy institution building.

In recent years and months, this situation is being somewhat rectified, first there is now a much greater linkage in synergy between the government and the strategic and foreign policy community through such institutions as the national security advisory board as well as various other small groups that have been formed, so the government to take inputs from the strategic community. Secondly, a number of think tanks are coming up in the non-government sector and have been supported through private funding or through non-government funding in order to make it sustainable. Institutions like the Observer Research Foundation or ORF, the Takshashila Institution, which is in a bigger room, the Chennai Center for Chinese Studies, and so on. These are very positive developments as well. Thirdly a lot more work is now being done in universities like Ashoka, Jindal, Shiv Nadar, and so on. Chinese studies, including teaching the Chinese language to the younger generation because you cannot really do serious research on any country unless you know their language and culture.

So the beginning has been made but I think it is nowhere near adequate and I think that the key to this lies in showing, in demonstrating that the strategic and foreign policy community can make a good living by doing research on foreign policy subjects in general and China in particular. When the young generation sees employment opportunities and possibly even in the capacity to influence government policy and maybe even to work in the government, that is the time when the think-tank community will rev up into a higher gear and that is solely needed today.

So one of the things in writing books, in speaking, and so on is to try and build that interest in the younger generation because we cannot pretend that we exist in isolation. We are 1.3 billion people, that is a fact but we still have to contend with 6 and a half-billion other people and history tells us that if we want to become a major country with a major economy it cannot be done by depending only on 1.3 billion, we need to connect with rest of the world and in connecting with the rest of the world, the strategic and foreign policy community or the think tanks are as important as government or business or media or students from India who go abroad. All these basically form the ecosystem for what hopefully lead India to become a major economy very soon.

Pratyaksh: We certainly hope that India continues to follow the right trajectory that it has embarked upon. China has had a history, in the domains of multilateral diplomacy, as also mentioned in multiple instances in the book, that when China tries to foster its own national interest it will pretend to be working in the name of and as you quote ‘principles’, and it will try to do the back channeling work and putting other players in front. In that context, do you see that now there is a fundamental change in China's policy wherein under Xi Jinping, their aggression has been growing across their bodies. So do you think that now China doesn't care about the notion of principles that it used to seek so dearly?

Amb Gokhale: Even before the Chinese communist party seized power in 1949, one of their major tactics was what it called United front work. Thus mounts it to describe United Front Work, which Mao Zedong described as one of China's three magic weapons and essentially what it simply means is bringing together various strands of thought of views, binding them together with you and then hiding among them in order to influence them and to achieve your objectives. And in the realm of foreign policy, Mao was very successfully able to engage in United Front Work. For instance, in the 1950s when China was facing great pressure from the United States, China tried to rally the Asian countries together. For example in the Bandung Conference, the Afro-Asian conference of 1955, it encouraged them to oppose the West or what they called imperialism. So China is very adapted, engaging in the united front work and when it joined the United Nations in 1970, it continued to adopt the same united front tactics inside the United Nations.

Unlike India, which sort of undertook a leadership role in the non-aligned movement for instance. China, never, took a leadership role upon multilateral affairs. It preferred to hide within the crowd and shoot off somebody else's shoulder and this has been followed by the Chinese irrespective of whether they were a relatively weak country economically and militarily or whether they are a relatively strong country today. We should be careful not to confuse tactics with strategy, the aggressive behavior that we see today and what is called as the wolf warrior diplomacy tactic. The strategy is still united front, for instance, the Belt and Road Initiative - the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is basically 75% Chinese money and 75% Chinese owned. In other words, the Chinese can pretty much decide what the bank's lending policy will be but it has cloaked itself by bringing other members on board and says "we are not China, we are a multilateral organization."

Similarly the two recent initiatives announced this year, the global development initiative and the global security initiative, are also inherently united front tactics. Essentially China's goal is to stop the rise of the United States and to prevent the United States from disrupting its own rise. But rather than talk in those terms, it suggests that the United States is following a cold war policy of the 20th century whereas China is adopting a forward-looking approach of the 21st century which is global in nature and which therefore tends to be beneficial to the rest of the world. Of course, within the global development initiative, the BRI is hidden, and that it is simply a Chinese plan, using its own money and technology, and equipment to connect the economies of most of the developing countries to the Chinese economy.

Similarly, the Global Security Initiative is basically an effort to disrupt the western system of American alliances globally and to develop new political equations which make China the global center. We should be careful in distinguishing this strategy from the tactic, which sometimes are soft and sometimes are hard. But China never wants to take leadership up front and center. It prefers to hide behind others and put pressure upon them as if it is part of the group. This is something that we need to be aware of, when we as Indians deal with the Chinese, not just on political issues but also in the WTO, in other functional bodies of the world, and in several multilateral negotiations whether it is over 5G or any other critical emerging technology as well.

Pratyaksh: Following your description of the tactics adopted by China, it is diplomacy, do you think it has had a bigger hand behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Amb. Gokhale: Nobody will be able to actually establish the extent to which China knew about the invasion. My personal view is that it is unlikely that any world leader shares such information even with their closest ally when it comes to issues such as war. Therefore, while the Chinese might have had some inkling that Russia might use force to secure a limited objective, I think it was caught by surprise by the scale and the scope of the Russian attack by Russia on Ukraine, including its capital and on areas lying west of the Dnieper river. Now on the 4th of February i.e about 20 days before the invasion, China and Russia had signed a joint statement which has been more far-reaching in its scope than any other joint-statement previously concluded between the two sides.

Because the joint statement initially said that there were no limits and no ceiling to the cooperation that the two could undertake. This has subsequently led to a misunderstanding between them and the Americans, the Europeans and even with us to suggest that China in some way may have colluded with Russia on the invasion. However, my sense is that the Chinese were taken by surprise in the same way that we were and the rest of the world. Like us they have been struggling to make sense of a war which does not directly affect them but which indirectly affects all of us, in terms of economy, in prices of resources and energy, disruptions to global supply chains, food security and so on. Now, in the case of India, because of our relationship with Russia and good relations with the west, we have been able to straddle a very difficult position and walk a very thin line in an effort to protect our national interests, while being sympathetic to both the west and to show understanding to Russia.

In the case of China, it has been much difficult for them to walk along a similar razor’s edge, because the United States and the West believes that China continues surreptitiously to support the Russian war effort, by purchasing their oil by cheap prices, by perhaps giving them market access, by helping them transit matters for evacuation of their products and so on. So I believe that the Chinese are facing a much greater challenge than us on this matter. They are still unable to find a way to extricate themselves from this, they have not offered to mediate, because they feel again that this is against their basic policy of not taking the lead and therefore, they are waiting and watching to see how the situation evolves. The important point to remember however is that China has not broken western sanctions, it has broadly gone along with them and it has also not tried to challenge in any way what the west is doing in the multilateral institutions.

I think in this phase, the primary focus of the Chinese is to study the impact of the financial war that the United States has launched upon Russia, to identify the vulnerabilities, where will China be vulnerable and be found wanting if a similar situation falls on China. This is what they are studying most carefully and i think that we will see in the next 3-4 months both, a much more clear position by China on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as well as signs by the Chinese government that it is taking counter-measures to ensure that the west is not going to be able to do China’s financial, economic, technological and commercial systems what it has done with Russia’s.

Pratyaksh: In what is going to be my last question which doesn’t exactly concern the book per se, given your vast experience at the Indian Foreign Service, what has been your personal experience and what lessons do you have for us at Geostrata and people in general who are increasingly getting interested in domains like International Relations and Foreign Policy.

Amb. Gokhale: I have found working in government in general and the Indian Foreign Service to be particularly satisfying. We must remember and I never forgot this in my career. This is not a career that we are following, it is a public service. And therefore as a public servant, you are both conscious of your duty towards the country and duty 24x7 into 365 and therefore you have to act and think accordingly.

Now, why the Indian Foreign Service and diplomacy remain relevant is because ultimately relations between nation-states have come down to mean relations between people. Despite all the technology that has evolved between the telephone or telegraph and even the computers and despite the new technologies which are coming in like the AI, machine learning, quantum computing and so on, ultimately, human beings will be taking decisions and therefore, human contact is important to put your case in order to make an assessment about the other side and in order to make decisions.

If India is to become a major economy, i.e. to grow from the current near figure of 3 trillion dollars to $30 trillion, it can only happen by greater external engagement. If India was the world’s largest or the second largest economy from the first century of the common era to about 1800, it was because of our trade links with the rest of the world. The prosperous part of India was not the Indo-Gangetic plains but regions like Gujarat, the Malabar coast, the Coromandel Coast, and Bengal. This is where the wealth of India was really generated and it was generated because of the maritime domain and maritime trade and that meant making connections with people and countries and governments outside your own.

Therefore, I think the relevance of the Foreign Service will only grow for the next 30 years as India tries once again to reach out to become a maritime power, which it is already in the process of doing, to increase our exports and in all of this, we need people to lead this effort, and these are the officers of the Indian Foreign Service. Therefore, I think this is something that young people should think of as a career, and even if people do not want to join the Indian Foreign Service, the strategic and the Foreign Policy community will become very important over the next few years. And that too is a career worth considering because aside from universities and think tanks, a number of consultancy companies these days want young professionals who have some knowledge and understanding of International Affairs because the more connected you are to the world, the more risks there are and you need somebody to analyze those risks. So I think there is a very bright future for the people who study International Relations and if you can combine it with degrees like law or engineering or science, I think you have an unbeatable combination in terms of future employment opportunities.

Pratyaksh: Thank you so much Ambassador sir. It has been Geostrata’s absolute honour to host you and we hope that Citizens of India learn more about the Indo-China relationship in particular, an endeavour to which you have contributed significantly and Foreign Policy in general. We thank you once again.

Amb. Gokhale: Thank you and I hope that Geostrata continues to reach out to the younger generation and you are doing an important job. Thank you again.

Watch the entire interview on The Geostrata's YouTube page





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