The Long Game by Vijay Gokhale: Book Review
In a year when we were spoilt for choices on books that explored the India-China relationship, this book by Former Ambassador to China Mr. Vijay Gokhale is definitely among the best. The author decides to look at six negotiations that have taken place between the 2 sides since 1947.
There are many facets of the Chinese negotiation tactics that are revealed throughout the book. Their habit of stretching out negotiations, stalling when it does not favor them, hiding their motives, and not relenting at all, basically tiring and frustrating the other side into conceding to their demands.
The reason the Chinese stretch out negotiations is that they never set deadlines for any of them. Thus, they have time on their side that the other side might not have. This is accurately highlighted as a weakness for India, where India has in the past put headlines for negotiations due to electoral compulsions and public pressure. Therefore, when negotiating with the Chinese it is best that we do not set unnecessary deadlines for a resolution. The Sumdurung Chu standoff took over 9 years to resolve. The present talks between India and China have been going on since the Standoff started in 2020 and we have so far had 14 Corps Commander level talks. Though the slow progress in these talks has frustrated a lot of Indians, we cannot throw in the towel and will have to keep at it. Therefore, even if these talks stretch out for another year or two, India must be ready for the long haul. The fact that both sides are still talking is itself a good sign, it also gives India time to ramp up infrastructure on its side of the LAC and also to carry out much-needed defense modernization to bridge the capability gap between the 2 sides.
The book also goes into detail on how systematic the Chinese were in their negotiations with India, making incremental gains starting from 1949 till the signing of the 1954 agreement with India. It also reflects badly on India which negotiated poorly having had a lot more leverage yet giving up a lot and getting almost nothing in return. India certainly was a young country with very little experience in foreign affairs and negotiations, unlike the Chinese communists. The Chinese even without much leverage were able to get exactly what they wanted, in many cases using India to get legitimacy for their actions. Even recognition of the PRC came at a huge cost to India, as it had to completely break relations with KMT led ROC in Taiwan. Could India have waited? or at least got China to accept Indian sovereignty in Kashmir in return? This was followed by the Chinese invasion of Tibet, which also India legitimized by signing the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse Between Tibet Region of China and India also known as the Panchsheel agreement in 1954. This again came at a huge cost, as we recognized Tibet to be officially a part of China without a settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary and also gave up all privileges in Tibet that India had inherited from the British.
Though Indian negotiations with China in the 1950s have left most Indians with heartburn, India has certainly learned a lot of lessons. Best reflected in the later chapters on how India dealt with China in the 1990s and into the new millennium. For e.g. we get an insight into how at least at multilateral forums, China does not like to be singled out, it is only when they are cornered does China concedes in order to save face. This proved useful during the India US civil nuclear deal and also with the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN.
The book ends with a lot of anecdotes about Chinese diplomacy and how India needs to prepare for future negotiations. The big boundary settlement process has been stalled for years now, will India be able to get a favorable settlement? if there is a settlement at all. We don't know honestly. Not to mention that the boundary settlement would be far more tricky and difficult to resolve. As with any settlement on the boundary even if it does not include Aksai Chin or the Sakshgam Valley, China will have to concede and recognize Ladakh as a territory of India, which runs parallel to the Pakistani claims on the region.
The other important question should also be whether India and China go for a piecemeal settlement of the boundary issue rather than a comprehensive boundary agreement? much the same way India and China have been resolving the frictions points since the standoff between the sides started in April 2020. I leave it to the judgment of the reader.
This book was a fascinating read and uncovers a lot about how the Chinese negotiate, a must-read for any person interested in understanding the relationship between the two countries.