Vijay Gokhale retired as India’s Foreign Secretary in 2020 after nearly four decades in the diplomatic corps, specializing in China, including a posting as Indian Ambassador in Beijing, experience much in evidence in his recent thoughtful and surprisingly frank book on Sino-Indian diplomacy.
There are any number of reasons why The Long Game might be thought specific and narrow: it targets a explicitly Indian audience; it is about diplomacy—and China’s modus operandi in diplomatic negotiations in particular—rather than Sino-Indian relations per se; it is structured around six case studies rather than providing a complete historical survey. Yet despite these (or perhaps because of them) the book proves enlightening, especially perhaps for readers with a few decades of newspaper-reading under their belts who may remember some of these situations as they played out. That Gokhale writes clearly and concisely (the book is well under 200 pages of actual text) makes the book accessible to the lay—and non-Indian—reader.
The cases Gokhale chooses to cover are, as he lists them out:
(1) Recognition by the Government of India of the People’s Republic of China on 30 December 1949; (2) the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India of 29 April 1954; (3) India’s nuclear tests in 1998; (4) China’s formal recognition of Sikkim as a part of India on 11 April 2005; (5) the India–China diplomatic negotiations on the 123 Nuclear Deal in 2008; and (6) the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UNSC 1267 Sanctions List on 1 May 2019.
In the first two, Gokhale’s view is that Chinese knew what they were doing while India did not. For example:
The lapses on India’s part—the absence of wider political consultations within the Indian leadership, the overlooking of its national interest in its anxiety over the timing, and the erroneous assumption that the act of officially recognizing the People’s Republic of China was tantamount to the automatic establishment of formal diplomatic relations—led the Government of India to see the act of recognition as its only objective. In the process, India unilaterally gave up some crucial negotiating
This Gokhale puts down mostly to the (new) Chinese leadership’s pre-PRC experience in international relations:
Despite the vast political experience of India’s first-generation leadership after Independence, they had had limited opportunities of handling diplomatic relations… The Chinese Communists, on the other hand, had greater experience in dealing with foreign powers from the 1930s up to 1949, including with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which was their fraternal partner, the Americans and the British, who were their allies in the Second World War, as well as the Japanese. Moreover, China had a generally unbroken tradition of diplomacy because, unlike India, it was never directly governed by colonial powers and the Chinese Empire continued to have external relations. The leaderships of India and China were, thus, unevenly matched in terms of diplomatic experience when both became masters of their respective countries at the end of the 1940s.
Gokhale never however quite specifies what additional benefits India might have achieved had it played its hand differently. It is interesting to learn of Indian “privileges” in Tibet, for example, but it is hard to see how these could have been maintained.
Gokhale is, in addition, open about whence Sino-Indian territorial disputes arise. He notes that in October 1947
the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa had … addressed a letter to India’s Prime Minister seeking the return of ‘all our indisputable Tibetan territories gradually included into India’, which included parts of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan.
Gokhale does not pronounce upon the validity of early 20th-century Anglo-Tibetan agreements, but does go over their provenance and paints a picture of PRC officials poring over maps and documents which were then used to inform their—in Gokhale’s view—relatively effective diplomacy.
In the final four cases, Gokhale shows India becoming more adept, while China had let its India experience atrophy, allowing India—particularly in nuclear affairs—to steal a march or two. But he portrays India as on whole operating at a disadvantage.
Gokhale was a player in these four, although he hardly lets himself intrude on the narrative. He concludes with a chapter on “Lessons for India”, some of which, ironically or not, sound as though they might have been pulled from Sun Tzu: “Knowing the adversary is important, and a study of earlier negotiations may provide clues and ideas…”
Indian observers will no doubt have their own views of the events Gokhale describes and of his portrayal of them; they, after all, have direct skin in the game. For a broader audience, The Long Game serves as a salutary reminder that in Asia there are usually more than just two sides to every issue. Except for a slight tendency for repetition , something which a stronger editorial hand might have ameliorated, Vijay Gokhale is an eloquent, and not always overly diplomatic, guide through what easily could have been a thicket of weeds.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.