Book Review : The Long Game – How the Chinese Negotiate With India By Vijay Gokhale

The very title of the book ” The long Game- How the Chinese negotiate with India” is captivating as no such attempt to assess how the Chinese conduct their diplomacy has ever been made; and Vijay Gokhale, who retired from the post of India’s Foreign Secretary in 2020 is eminently qualified for this task as he had served as our envoy to China and played a key role in negotiations with the Chinese even earlier in his career. Of course one would recall ” In Two Chinas” by Sardar KM Panikkar who as our Ambassador to China witnessed the transition from Koumintang China of Chiang Kai Shek to the Peoples Republic of China led by Mao Tse Tung in 1950. There is however a huge difference : The Panikkar’s is a narrative of his experience right upto the Korean war while Gokhale has penned down a Manual for Indian diplomats in negotiations with the Chinese state highlighting the Chinese mindset, cultural traits and subtle use of languages- Chinese and English unencumbered by European influence as China never experienced direct foreign rule like India.

His facile pen laid bare all these Chinese characteristics of conduct of diplomacy as he gave a precise account of how since the beginning of the P.RC in all their dealings with India the Chinese managed to get away with substantial gains especially in the 1950’s.And quite significantly the author dedicated it to the officers of the Indian Foreign Service , the first gesture of this nature which bears stamp of the author’s commitment to professionalism in Indian diplomacy. Therefore the central purpose of the book is, in Author’s words ” to identify the strategy, tactics and tools the China employs in its diplomatic negotiations with India and the learnings for India from its past dealings with China that may prove helpful in future negotiations with the country”.

The Book has seven chapters beginning with the recognition of the People’s Republic of China followed by chapters on Tibet, Pokhran, Sikkim, 123 Nuclear deal with the US, declaration of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN and finally on lessons for India from these diplomatic encounters with China.

The decision to recognise the People’s Republic of China on 30 December 1949 after the Communists led by Mao Tse Tung overthrew the legitimate government under Chiang Kai Shek and to establish diplomatic relations with the new regime on April 1,1950 was the first major strategic decision of Free India after the decision to send troops to Kashmir in 1948.And it was a tough decision as China was already in the high table as a Permanent member of the UN Security council as a member of the victorious Allied powers along with USA,USSR,UK and France : Second, the issue of Tibet was involved as India as the successor state of British India inherited certain privileges in Tibet such as its Mission at Lhasa, offices of Trade Agents at Gartok and elsewhere, movement of military escorts at Gyantse and Yadong and reciprocal rights enjoyed by Tibet in India: Third,implicit in all these is the unsettled issues of Tibet’s border with India. There was no dearth of advice on these loaded issues as the author quoted Sir GS Bajpai’s advice on retention of India’s Special relationship with Tibet and the fact that the new Chinese leaders made their intentions on Tibet very clear from the moment they captured power, and yet Pandit Nehru, the PM had decided on Nov 17 1949 to recognise China so soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1,1949 without taking into account its implications for Indian interests in Tibet.

The Chinese military take over of Tibet, the extinction of all “privileges” that India enjoyed in Tibet as the successor state of British India, the author points out was  entirely due to lack of strategic appreciation of Chinese moves,” poverty of tactics and reflected internal weakness in governance of foreign policy and lack of experience in international negotiation”.  It seemed that India was in a hurry to recognise the PRC to demonstrate that she was not with the West on this issue. It turned out to be a self imposed constraint as after the Chinese take over of Tibet discussion with the Chinese on the “special privileges” it enjoyed in Tibet under 1908 Trade Agreement with Tibet proved infructuous as the Agreement contained a provision” to return the same to Tibet when it was ready to assume the responsibility of governing itself” as the author points out. The Chinese strategy of dealing with India in a” piecemeal fashion rather than in a comprehensive way” worked and India ended up by recognising Tibet as a” region” of China , giving up ” special privileges . Thus the ” unresolved” border issue with Tibet became a Sino Indian border issue as Tibet ceased to exist as a separate entity.

The next two chapters on successful handling of 5 nuclear tests at Pokhran and integration of Sikkim into India show that appropriate lessons were not only learnt but we have acquired the capacity to deal with the Chinese. Of course the experience of the 1962 Border war helped.The apt use of the Chinese proverb- he who ties a knot in the tigers neck must untie the same came in very handy to the author to explain in details how the Chinese attempt to isolate India was effectively foiled by Vajpayee government, and especially by the astute moves by the Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Naresh Chandra, Indian Ambassador to the US who could convince Clinton administration that in the geopolitical context India’s nuclear tests were good for the US. The Chinese perception of India as” a country with a hobbled economy and a divided society” proved wrong as it didn’t quite understand the productive forces the 1991 economic reforms unleashed and its impact on Indo US economic relations.The author’s conclusion that restoration of normal relations with China within a year of India’s conduct of the nuclear tests was an achievement of India’s foreign policy is thus unexceptionable as China had to change the course.

The title of chapter 4- Sikkim: Half a linguistic Pirouette compelled me to consult Oxford Dictionary to find out that the word is of French origin meaning an act of spinning on foot in ballet typically with the raised feet touching the knee which is much like the stand the Chinese took on Sikkim the author noted. India was on a strong position because in terms of the 1890 Convention negotiated and signed between the British and the Chinese empires, the latter accepted Sikkim as within the British sphere of influence. India was thus well within its rights to enter into a new Treaty in 1950 with Sikkim to formalise the relationship between the two under which Sikkim became a Protectorate over ruling the objection of the Tibetan government. After Tibet was overrun by PLA in 1950, the Chinese refused to accord dejure recognition of India’s right even after 1975 integration of Sikkim into India and that implicit in the 1954 Trade Agreement between India and the Tibetan region which allowed movement through 6 border passes for trade between India and Tibet was recognition that India enjoyed a special relationship with Sikkim.

The author has recorded the step by step approach to the issue adopted by India taking advantage of the post Pokhran tests developments in minute details to highlight how even describing the location of trade marts on both sides of Sikkim border mattered in the negotiations as it would define the border. India’s diplomacy paid though it took time as the changing geopolitical situation arising from China’s admission into WTO, prospects of India China trade created a need to elevate the relationship into a “Partnership for Peace and Prosperity” between India and China.

This enabled India to extract in 2005 formal Chinese recognition of Sikkim as a part of India with a small price of averring in the joint statement after the PM Vajpayee’s 2003 visit to China that ” Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. “However the author has cautioned a deeper Chinese game of using the recognition of Sikkim as a step to advance her claim to access Calcutta Port located at just 725 km from border with Sikkim and even ports of Bangladesh and thereby overcome her ” Malacca dilemma” meaning her dependence on the straits of Malacca for moving oil and Gas imports from West Asia. However one must note that after commissioning of oil and Gas pipelines in 2015 from the sea port near Sitwee port of Myanmar along the Bay of Bengal coast to Yunan province of China under China Myanmar Economic Corridor initiative, China has now access to the Indian Ocean which has enhanced enormously the geopolitical importance of Bay of Bengal. Nevertheless there is strength in the author’s argument that giving Chinese access to the Sea through Sikkim might mean that ” China will have no compelling reason to seek a boundary settlement”. The continuing” stand off “in Eastern Ladakh proves that the author’s argument is right.

The next two chapters covering Indo US nuclear deal and listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the relevant provisions of the UN establish the author’s assessment of Chinese one-upmanship, that is in Author’s words” preservation of strategic asymmetry vis a vis India and sustaining the perception that she was the only legitimate nuclear power” and therefore should have a say in all regional security issues and even declaration of a terrorist though it might have been left entirely to the UN system. First, the Chinese put every possible obstacle either through the Nuclear Suppliers Group , US non proliferation lobby and even the anti US Left in India to obstruct the Indo US Nuclear deal for peaceful use of N power only to demonstrate her power as a hegemon of Asia. However all these didn’t work in the face of the US decision to give up a part of its” interest in non proliferation” in order to realise its strategic objective of partnership with India in the Asia Pacific which would obstruct Chinese dominance. Once the Chinese found that the US had her way even in the Nuclear Suppliers Group on the Indo US Nuclear deal and China found herself isolated despite all her efforts, China had no option but to abstain from the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting which allowed the consensus in the NSG to grant India an unconventional waiver to move forward with the Nuclear deal with the US. This is no doubt a big achievement of Indian diplomacy.

The author’s decision to cover under chapter 6, the decade long efforts of India from March 2009 to May 2019 which met with success in listing of Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e Mohammed, a notorious terror group of Pakistan under the relevant provision of the UN is insightful. It merits a study by all and especially the Indian Left who still have some illusion of China’s socialist credentials. The author documented in details the cynical Chinese moves in stalling “listing” only to please the Pakistan and its military because right from 1960’s China had been steadily building” a strategic alliance with Pakistan with India as the target”; and for this reason China provided nuclear and missile technology support to Pakistan . China had thus used US policy towards Pakistan after 9/11 to her advantage as US allowed Pakistan China relationship to take a definite shape.

It is only later and after a decade of successful ” blocking”, China realised that the terror unleashed by JEM under Masood Azhar with Pak support had reached a stage in April 2019 when the matter would be decided by the Security council and US and the West were serious about the matter, the Chinese yielded under pressure and agreed to the listing of Azhar as a terrorist by the UN. This is a success of the Indian diplomacy as in this very decade India worked with China and Russia to build up multilateral forums like the BRICS -Brazil Russia India China and South Africa, BRICS Bank which is New Development Bank now and Shanghai Cooperation Organization to create Asia specific development finance institutions to reduce dependence on the west dominated World Bank and the IMF. The author has unmasked the Chinese policy to have a role in South Asian security by assisting Pakistan and to use Pakistan against India which was clear in the way China “blocked” the listing of Masood  Azhar and it is unlikely to change even after Taliban take over of Afghanistan on August 15 last.
Chapter 7 – the last is most insightful as the author has analysed based on his own and the institutional memory of India’s foreign office the techniques the Chinese adopt in negotiating any matter- bilateral or multilateral to realise their goals and objectives by outwitting the other party . In other words SOP, the Standard Operating practice of People’s Republic of China in conducting negotiations with other foreign countries which the author found bears the stamp of the Chinese state that was never under any direct foreign rule. And this has made an important difference enabling China to develop its distinctive diplomatic practices and hence ” inscrutable ” to diplomats trained solely in western practices. The author’s analysis is fascinating and begins with how the Chinese carry out ” due diligence” of the issues making good use of their ” Think tanks” to set the agenda, and even before negotiations insist on unilateral commitments by exerting pressure through media. And it worked just as China extracted from India well before India recognised the People’s Republic of China that it wouldn’t have any relationship with Nationalist China based in Taiwan.China hosts several organisations to expand its “soft power” such as Chinese Buddhist Association or United Front Work department – UFWD to reach cross section of people of other countries and especially those with the left or the communist leaning as for instance the Chinese use of its influence with the Indian Left to scuttle the Indo US Nuclear deal. Infact the ILD – The International Department of the Chinese Communist party has a huge outreach to many countries and make good use of these connections to influence public opinion. Next is careful selection of the venue for negotiation to suit their interest and to deny the other party the locational advantage and to build a personal rapport. Second every effort is made by the Chinese to turn a bilateral issue into a multilateral one to delay as seen in the case of Masood Azhar by raising procedural issues and asking India to talk to Pakistan as the first step knowing fully that India wouldn’t agree. The object is to put the other party in a weaker position. Third, deft use of Chinese proverbs in negotiations to create a feeling in the other party that it is up against a state endowed with ancient wisdom and knowledge. The Chinese, the author noted have an internal code and always use the interpreters to ” think through” even when they are fluent in English or any other language used in negotiating with other countries.

The Chinese, the author noted are ” excellent drafters” and have perfected the art of introducing” ambiguities, double meaning which they use often especially in issuing a joint statement. And the fact that in China the Communist party and the state is virtually the same entity as every diplomat involved in negotiations is also a member of the party adds to the strength of the Chinese negotiators ” bargaining strength”. This chapter is therefore a set of guidelines for the Indian diplomats in negotiations with the Chinese, probably the first of its kind penned down by an Indian Foreign Service officer which explains why Mr. Gokhale has dedicated this short and brilliant narrative to the officers of the Indian Foreign Service.

In the end one cannot but note the innate humility and culture of the author when at the very end he states that ” this book was only made possible because of my good fortune in passing the UPSC’s Civil Service Examination in 1981 and thereby earned a place in the hearts of every Civil service officers- serving, superannuated and the civil service aspirants as he did everyone of them proud by penning down a remarkable Manual for conducting negotiations with the Chinese. This is a” must read” book for everyone now when our relationships with China have become extremely complex especially after withdrawal of US from Afghanistan.

(The author was a member Academic Council, National Defence College. New Delhi)

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