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A rare insight into China’s negotiations with India

NewsA rare insight into China’s negotiations with India

Retired Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s book, The Long Game; How the Chinese Negotiate with India, identifies the strengths and vulnerabilities in a manner that’s useful for anybody negotiating with the Chinese.


Vijay Gokhale, who retired as India’s Foreign Secretary and had also served as India’s Ambassador to China, has had a rare insight into China’s negotiations with India on various issues. His path-breaking book, “The Long Game; How the Chinese Negotiate with India” throws light on how India has dealt with and continues to deal with its greatest strategic challenge. It is a study of vital negotiations between the two countries, soon after Independence until the current times, by examining six historical and significant events in the India-China relationship. The lessons drawn are extremely valuable with long term relevance and also has international ramifications.
The specific situations where India dealt with China range from recognition of the PRC and negotiations over Tibet and Sikkim. The aftermath of India’s nuclear tests and the US-India nuclear deal, and getting Masood Azhar designated as a terrorist by the UN. He has identified the strengths and vulnerabilities in a manner that’s useful for anybody negotiating with the Chinese. “The Chinese want to be seen as the beautiful swan gliding on the placid surface of a lake in sylvan surroundings. Below the surface, their feet are churning away and roiling the waters for the other creatures…but this remains unseen.”
The author has given a rare insight into how our negotiations and relations with China have evolved over the last seven decades. That India was keen to recognise communist China in the late 1950s and went overboard to please China while China insisted they were not interested in getting recognition unless India met their demands, is something that is not openly written about.
As the author points out, China was never fully colonised and the Chinese state had an unbroken record of dealing with foreign powers. Specifically, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had experience negotiating with the Japanese, the Soviets and the Americans since the 1930s. India’s leaders, by contrast, had dealt only with the British, who were quite different from the Chinese Communists. Sardar Patel had nevertheless warned Prime Minister Nehru, “even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends”.
India was among the first countries to derecognise the Kuomintang and officially recognise the People’s Republic of China. In 1950, Mao Zedong was invited to be the chief guest at India’s first ever Republic Day celebration in January 1951. We continued to back the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s cause across international fora without receiving any quid pro quo from them. As a result, a foreign policy decision of enormous magnitude and its timing which had relevance for India’s core security and strategic interests was arrived at without adequate deliberation within the government.
Gokhale states: “how to recognise the new regime in China appears to have been confined to the tight circle of advisors around the Prime Minister and lacked wider political consultations.” He concludes by stating, “India’s approach to the whole idea of recognition (of the PRC) was a mixture of emotionalism and conjecture. There was no strategy.” Ironically, we were in a hurry to recognise China, whereas they were in no hurry to be recognised.
The second chapter titled “Tibet the Price of Friendship” is about Tibet and extensively covers the negotiations which eventually led to the agreement on “Trade and Intercourse” between the Tibetan region of China and India on 29 April 1954. The agreement translated to what came to be known as the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel)”. Unfortunately, both India and China did not discuss and settle the shared frontier while discussing the question of India’s rights and privileges we had inherited from the British. We seem to have taken Chinese silence on border issues as consent, which was a grave error. In fact, in “July 1952, the Indian Embassy was forbidden from raising the frontier issue”, whereas in December 1953, Zhou said “only those issues would be taken up for discussion, ‘which are ripe for settlement’”.
The chapter titled, “Pokhran: How to Untie a Knot from the Tiger’s Neck” talks about India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and their aftermath. The event highlighted how China played an important role in exercising its influence so as to counter India with regard to nuclear testing. It also gives brief insights on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), on how China plays the role to sideline India. The nuclear tests no doubt had caught the Chinese completely by surprise, they now concentrated on isolating India and played up US and Western concerns on a possible nuclear conflict over Kashmir.
“Sikkim-Half a Linguistic Pirouette” discusses the position of Sikkim with regard to the Indo-China negotiations as a result of which China formally recognised “Sikkim State of India” on 11 April 2005. The discussions at the highest level over decades and the Chinese wanting to leverage various trade concessions have been well documented. There is no doubt that “compulsions of democracy have led to India compromising on the deal outcome”.
The fifth chapter titled “123 Deal, The Big Turnabout” covers the insights on the India-China negotiations on the 123 Nuclear Deal in 2008. When India conducted its nuclear tests, China thought it had succeeded in enticing the US into building an international coalition to isolate India. But India succeeded in getting sanctions lifted, and ultimately signed a nuclear agreement with America as well as got a “clean” waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. China used its “close connections” with Left parties in India to “build domestic opposition” to the Indo-US nuclear deal between 2007 and 2008. “Knowing the influence that the Left parties wielded in the United Progressive Alliance government of Dr Manmohan Singh, China perhaps played on their fears about India’s tilt to the Americans. This may have been the first example of China’s foray into domestic politics, but they were careful to remain behind the scenes”.
“Masood Azhar, The Principle of Consensus” covers China’s role in continuously blocking India’s bid to recognise Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohhamed’s (JEM’s) chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UNSC 1267 Sanctions List. The author reveals how China used the Russians to stall the listing of Azhar. The Chinese side also claimed that Pakistan had reliably assured them that the “JeM was defunct” and that “Masood Azhar had ‘retired’”. Finally, Azhar was designated global terrorist at the UNSC on 1 May 2019.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepared a grand welcome for China’s President Xi Jinping in his home state, Gujarat. However, even as the two leaders sat together on a traditional swing at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Riverfront, followed by a more than 200 People’s Liberation Army troops intruded into Chumar in Eastern Ladakh.
The book helps make sense of these mixed and contradictory signals as it delves into the Chinese style of diplomacy—a style that has been consistent since Zhou Enlai’s time.
The last chapter is a must and for those who want a deeper understanding of India’s relations with China. China prepares meticulously for every meeting and uses every trick to bring pressure on India. India should be wary and prepared for such situations as well as its persistent attitude. The use of information and narrative shaping to advance the Chinese interest, the subtle deployment of the PLA during negotiations and investing in the political parties of foreign countries amongst other techniques adopted by Beijing have been well flagged.
Chinese negotiators have followed a pattern set by Zhou Enlai for many years, though aggression is now seeping into their diplomatic intercourse. Only the lead negotiator speaks; the others simply take notes. They insert a Chinese proverb or two—“how to untie the Tiger’s knot” was the one thrown at the India when it sought to normalise ties after the Pokhran nuclear tests. They select a venue that makes it difficult for the opposite side to frequently consult decision-makers back home. The choice of words is important, as a different phrase on the same issue shows a shift in the Chinese position.
It is evident that there is a pattern of a fundamental asymmetry in India-China relations. We do not raise issues such as Tibet, Taiwan, Uyghurs and human rights violations in Hong Kong, whereas China has openly helped Pakistan against us.
From a military point of view he has not dwelt on the negotiations regarding the 1962 conflict to include the release of our prisoners of war as well as has not talked about the so called East-West swap when it was proposed by Chou En Lai to agree to Chinese claims in Aksai Chin in return for recognition of Arunachal Pradesh, which was apparently also raised by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. But maybe the details of these negotiations continue to remain firmly in the classified domain.
However, after reading the book, it is possible that China would have changed the frame of references with the passage of time and today with the comprehensive power gap between the two countries having considerably widened China is not talking about this any longer. As the author states; “It may become progressively more difficult to extract concessions from China.” This is a statement of fact given the very entrenched and rigid attitude of our neighbour.
China’s relationship with India has wide-ranging security and economic implications for the country. Understanding how the Chinese conduct diplomacy can help India better prepare for future negotiations.
The author is a China expert, has worked in China, Hong Kong and Taipei for a long time as an Indian Foreign Services officer, and was also present during the Tiananmen Square incident. He is amongst a few in India who know China extremely well.
This is truly an insightful book and a piece of very fine writing which puts into context the current relationship between India and China and is a must-read for anyone interested in India’s China policy. It’s a rare blend of scholarship and personal experience as a practitioner at the highest level. Unfortunately, there seems to be on end in sight to “the long game”.

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh (Retd) is an Indian Army veteran.

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