India’s neighbourhood is a strange one. Here, despite many historical-cultural continuities across national borders, countries understand very little of each other. In fact, in a somewhat counter-intuitive sense, this knowledge gap has only widened through the postcolonial period, belying the common histories of anti-imperialist struggles. Nowhere is this more starkly visible than in the case of India and China—two aspirational southern Asian powers forever locked in a relentless and often destructive battle for legitimacy, hegemony and self-preservation.
The story of India and China, after the former gained independence from the British in 1947 and the latter turned Red two years later, can be characterised in many ways. Yet the most dominant motif would be mystery. Even for the most seasoned China-watchers in India (or anywhere else), making sense of Chinese diplomatic behaviour can be a bewildering task. It is complex and beguiling. Typically infused with a mix of distinctive cultural mores and a peculiar sense of civilisational hauteur, Chinese diplomacy, if taken for granted, can disarm the most experienced of diplomats.
This is where the insights of a practitioner matter. They have the rare benefit of working with primary knowledge and experience, unlike academics or researchers who rely largely on secondary information when it comes to China. Any analysis on the subject that emerges from such a point is no less than a gold mine for both lay observers of China and future diplomats trying to comprehend Chinese officialdom better. It is in this context that Vijay Gokhale’s The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India becomes a critical addition to the ever-growing literature on Chinese diplomacy.
Gokhale served in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) for 39 long years, retiring as India’s foreign secretary in January 2020. During his career, he held several positions at the ministry of external affairs, most prominently in the East Asia division, and was posted to several countries—including as India’s top envoy in Malaysia, Germany and China. It was his final ambassadorial posting, to India’s northern neighbour, that lends The Long Game a sharp edge of credibility.
This is even more so because his stint in Beijing overlapped with the Doklam crisis—arguably the most frigid period of the India-China relationship in this century. He is widely credited in the Indian media as a key hand behind the eventual de-escalation in the high-stakes frontier plateau straddling India, Bhutan and China.
Gokhale covers five distinct episodes that marked a moment of crisis or tension between India and China—recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Tibet affair, the issue of Sikkim, the US-India nuclear deal, and notification of Masood Azhar as a terrorist at the UN. He presents these as specific case studies on India-China negotiations and uses them to meticulously uncover the many back alleys of Chinese diplomacy.
The five chapters culminate in a final chapter that reads like both a window into the Chinese diplomatic mindscape and an instruction manual for Indian diplomats on how to negotiate better with their powerful northern neighbour. While the book is largely meant for an Indian audience, the pages contain some observations and instructions that carry universal import for all countries in the business of negotiating with the Chinese.
The book’s final words sum up the title’s raison d’etre: “Knowing the adversary is important, and study of earlier negotiations may provide clues and ideas on how to create a level playing field for future negotiations with China.”
A dominant theme that emerges from Gokhale’s chronological analysis is the transfer of institutional memory about Chinese negotiating strategies from one period to another. Starting from the issue of recognising the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which provided the first glimpses of Communist China’s playbook on India and the dire consequences of taking its words at face value, New Delhi’s diplomats have only become better at talking to their northern counterparts. They have learnt well from the blunders of the past and taken care not to repeat them. This was conspicuous in New Delhi’s tactful diplomacy with China after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests and during the India-US nuclear deal less than 10 years later. In fact, there were times when the Indian side used the Chinese playbook to outmanoeuvre China.
Gokhale pays special attention to the language of negotiation. He argues that the Chinese are “excellent drafters of text, and they have the capacity to draft the language in a manner that introduces ambiguity or allows for different interpretations”. Linguistic vagueness is a powerful arrow in the Chinese quiver. Their negotiators use it routinely not just to deceive the other party, but also give themselves enough room to walk back from their own positions. If something doesn’t go their way, they can always claim that a particular term they used earlier was “open-ended” and didn’t really mean what the other party thought it meant. On several occasions, it has proven to be effective.
Such linguistic gymnastics is just another part of the broader Chinese strategy to think “ahead to the endgame” and ensure a favourable, if not the best, outcome. Gokhale notes that the Chinese are mostly concerned about the long game, not immediate short-term objectives. To that end, they are good at packaging an agenda item in a manner that serves their own interests. For instance, in the run-up to the historic India-US civil nuclear agreement, as India desperately sought a waiver from the Nuclear Security Group (NSG), China persistently framed the whole issue as a purely multilateral one that hinged on the principle of non-proliferation. As Gokhale observes, India found this principle-based position difficult to counter.
One particular observation that Gokhale makes about modern Chinese diplomacy is of great relevance to India today—its desire to show China as a “responsible member of the international community” while portraying the other party as a “bully”. By doing so, Beijing is able to pit smaller powers against the bigger ones on a contentious issue. While Gokhale makes this argument in a multilateral context, it is also true in a more immediate regional domain. The Chinese impulse to look like a force for good is very visible in India’s own neighbourhood, especially since the end of the Cold War. Be it in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal or Pakistan, Beijing has tactfully used its economic clout and longstanding connections with political actors in these countries to pitch itself as a benign regional partner that cares about regional stability and development—in contrast to the “hegemon” that is India.
Even in the broader Indo-Pacific region, where India and “like-minded” countries are out to establish a rules-based order, China has consistently attempted to posture as a constructive, non-disruptive entity that cares about the needs and sentiments of small powers. While the reality might be different, it would be unwise for India to underplay the normative potency of this narrative, given China’s impressive political and economic influence in its immediate and extended neighbourhoods. India’s constant attempt, therefore, must be to separate fact from fiction at every stage of dealing with the Chinese—bilaterally, multilaterally or minilaterally.
Gokhale’s analysis becomes topical also because of the ongoing border tensions between India and China along the northern Himalayan belt, especially in the Galwan Valley. Since the author has first-hand experience of dealing with a similar crisis just four years earlier, one that may be seen as a prelude to the current standoffs, his observations and recommendations can be useful, even prescient, for his successors. Read between the lines—that’s the central message Gokhale has for those facing the Chinese across the table.
Gokhale also provides a primer on the various actors in Chinese officialdom that shape negotiations and also relay the Chinese version of issues to the outside world. He notes that this ecosystem is tightly linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and reflects the “absolute convergence of the Party and the State in China”. This, according to Gokhale, allows Beijing to “deploy a formidable array of other actors to influence the course of negotiations”. From propaganda to intelligence gathering, these party-state organs undertake a wide range of activities aimed at giving the Chinese a leading edge in diplomatic talks. Such bodies are few and far between in India.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of The Long Game is its limited scope. It is somewhat strange that Gokhale left out the 1962 and 1967 border escalations between India and China. Both hold critical lessons for Indian negotiators on how to (or how not to) talk to the Chinese about the disputed border. A single chapter covering both could have rendered the title more comprehensive and topically robust. Intriguingly, he also leaves out the Doklam crisis, despite having played a direct hand in its management. Gokhale probably didn’t want to unwittingly unsettle the delicate state of affairs by revealing finer points from the negotiations before the issue is resolved in full.
In all, The Long Game makes for a wholly instructive, sometimes provocative, and, at times even mind-boggling, read. Gokhale dedicates it to IFS officers, and understandably so, but his analysis has great value for a much broader audience.
Angshuman Choudhury is senior researcher and coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.