Throwing down the gauntletNew Indian foreign secretary’s appointment will reinforce view that India is willing to deal with the Chinese on their own terms
New Delhi—There’s an interesting pattern at play in the appointment of India’s top diplomat: of the last six foreign secretary appointments, four have been former ambassadors to China, including the newly appointed Vijay Keshav Gokhale, who replaces S Jaishankar (who was ambassador to China as well) on January 28, 2018.
Gokhale was the Indian envoy to Beijing during the Doklam standoff, quite possibly the most affecting diplomatic standoff between the two nations in the past few years.
News reports at the time suggested Gokhale was ‘the man on the ground who was in regular touch with Chinese interlocutors’ during the three-month-long impasse, and had played a vital role in the eventual disengagement of the military forces from the high Himalayan plateau. His contribution to defusing the tensions between Asia’s two giants was key to his elevation as foreign secretary.
A different neighbourhood
Gokhale’s appointment comes at a trepidatious time for Indian diplomacy. The South Asian neighbourhood is taking a radical turn away from the historical influence of India. Sri Lanka, despite backing a government closer to Delhi, remains close to China.
In Nepal, KP Oli’s victory on the plank of anti-Indian nationalism and the 2015 blockade means Indian political capital is at an all-time low, while Chinese participation in the political process has become more active. In Bangladesh, although there is a friendly government under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, there has been a domestic upsurge against what India considers ‘illegal immigrants’, centred in Assam and the National Register for Citizens drive. Maldives has recently signed a free trade agreement with China.
Then there is Pakistan—the eternal bogeyman. As a commentator wrote, ‘China’s rise as a great power in [India’s] own vicinity presents a challenge that it has not encountered in the past.’
But despite a neighbourhood that seems to be slipping out of India’s grasp, it is increasingly clear that India’s foreign relationships are being affected by the emergence of the Chinese not just in South Asia, but across the world. In his book How India Sees the World (2017), former Indian foreign secretary [and former ambassador to Nepal] Shyam Saran writes, ‘...China is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the one country that has a direct impact on India as far as international relations go.’ Saran argues that there is an increasing understanding that while China may be a superior military and economic power, India must engage with it on both fronts, bolstering its ‘defence preparedness’ to confront Chinese military assertion, while ‘exploring [economic] opportunities with China’ for a mutually beneficial relationship.
Commentators have noted that the India-China relationship remains fraught with complications. And yet, while China has in the last year asserted itself in the neighbourhood and pushed forward its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India has pushed back. It challenged BRI on grounds of sovereignty, saying, ‘No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ India is also, as think-tank Observer Research Foundation’s Professor Harsh Pant wrote, ‘pushing back in the wider Indo-Pacific’, where it is developing closer ties with nations such as Japan, Vietnam and Australia, who are wary of China’s increasing military presence in the region.
Gokhale’s appointment follows on the lines of previous foreign secretaries. India understands that the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean—the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy—is a long-term challenge to its own hegemony in the region.
Gokhale, also the only Indian diplomat to have served both in China and in Taiwan, is said to be ‘known for keeping a low profile’ and ‘often firm in his decisions’. Keeping in mind his role in the Doklam stand-off and his vast experience in dealing with China—he headed the East Asia division at the Ministry of External Affairs, and has also served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Hanoi among other stations—Gokhale’s appointment will reinforce the view that India is willing to deal with the Chinese on their own terms. Analysts have also argued that Gokhale as foreign secretary signals a shift away from India’s older foreign policy mandate of absorbing Chinese pressures on the Line of Actual Control when it ‘kept quiet on the transgressions’.
A larger net against the same backdrop
Indian foreign policy in the years ahead will continue to be defined against the larger background of China, and its presence in the near vicinity. The aspirations of Indian foreign policy have changed; India now seeks to protect its interests not just in the immediate neighbourhood, but beyond.
This could not be better emphasised than by former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who wrote, ‘[W]hile it is a bonus to have friendly neighbourhood ties, it is not a prerequisite for India’s progress and the achievement of its aspirations.’
Despite his close ties to the neighbourhood, Saran, too, wrote recently, ‘Every neighbour will be tempted to use the so-called Chinese card to extract concessions from India. India should not fall victim to a fear of losing ground to China.’ Both commentaries suggest a vision of Indian foreign policy that goes beyond the South Asian neighbourhood.
Although China, via its economic strength, has asserted itself ‘asymmetrically’ in South Asia, India understands it cannot be tied down in the neighbourhood by its Asian rival, especially in a rapidly changing global geopolitical scenario.
What this means, analysts say, is that if Nepal expects the new foreign secretary to bring immediate changes to the Indian strategy in the country, it would be misguided. The secretary is but part of a larger framework that decides foreign policy in Delhi, and expecting Indian policy to change in the neighbourhood because of a new top diplomat would be incorrect.
Indian foreign policy has geared itself towards a rising China, and any shift in its policy towards Nepal will need to be seen against the background of growing Chinese imprint on the country’s political process, and not as the result of a change in diplomatic personnel.
Mulmi is consulting editor at Writer’s Side Literary Agency, and has previously worked with Juggernaut Books and Hachette India