A new book by former Indian ambassador to China traces the strategic and political tactics used by Beijing in achieving its diplomatic success

China’s strategies in past negotiations with India, from the Tibet trade agreement in 1954 to the more recent sanctioning of the Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar in 2019, are the subject of the new book, The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, by former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale, to be published on July 19. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Gokhale says many of the core strategies in Beijing’s approach, even in the present “Wolf Warrior” era under President Xi Jinping, have remained broadly consistent, and offers lessons in how to engage China. Excerpts:

The early years of India’s engagement with China —starting in 1949, from recognition of the PRC to the agreement on trade with Tibet in 1954 — you write were marked by “a poverty of tactics” and “a mix of emotionalism and conjecture” in how we negotiated, compared to the Chinese who were better prepared. Why was that so?

Before I answer your question, I want your readers to understand why I wrote this book. There are a number of wonderful books on individual issues related to India-China relations, about the issue of Tibet, about the boundary, and so on. But there are relatively few books on the gamut of diplomatic relations that covers a 60 or 70-year period, and on an analysis of how this relationship developed and how both sides approached it, negotiated it, and what the outcomes were. This was my objective in writing this book.

Coming to the questions that you posed, what I tried to show in the first two chapters is that there were certain disadvantages that India faced in its early negotiations with China, whereas the Chinese leadership had some experience in foreign affairs because the Communists even when they were a revolutionary party fighting the Civil War, were dealing with the Soviet Union, United States and Britain because of the Second World War, and with the Japanese, and therefore had some diplomatic experience.

The Indian leadership, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders, had very little diplomatic experience. We were fighting the British in our own homeland, and there was relatively less interaction with foreign countries, nor was there any need to do that. Essentially, India’s foreign relations were being handled by the British, not by Indians. So when we became independent, we were relatively inexperienced in diplomacy even in comparison to the Chinese.

But more importantly, after we became independent, we perhaps neglected the creation of a foreign policy structure which would support the government in the execution of foreign policy.

The Chinese did it differently. When they assumed power in 1949, they set about very consciously creating not only a foreign service, which of course, the Government of India also did in 1947, but in creating the supporting infrastructure — the training institutions, the think-tanks, and the strategic community that would surround the Foreign Ministry, and the mechanism by which the Foreign Ministry would consult with other wings and elements of the Communist Party and the new Communist State. In sum, in the early years, not only did we have diplomatic inexperience in contrast to the Chinese, we also had weak institutions. I think the outcome was, therefore, that we were unable to derive maximum benefit from our diplomacy, although, as I tried to point out in the book, we held some pretty good cards in the early years after independence.

On two early instances when we were negotiating with China with fairly good cards, recognising the PRC in 1949 and the 1954 agreement on trade and intercourse with Tibet, which recognised Tibet as a part of China, did India give away something for nothing?

My focus in the book was to try and decipher how the Chinese handled the negotiation, rather than how the Indian side handled it. Firstly, I felt there are quite a few books about how the Indian side handled it. Secondly, I really wanted to focus on whether we could understand Chinese negotiating strategy. I looked at whether the Chinese had a clear objective, the strategy, and then what tactics they adopted in the execution of that strategy. The objective was clear, of course. That was that they wanted to recover Tibet, which in 1911, after the collapse of the Chinese Empire, had more or less become semi-independent, or independent or autonomous, whichever way we wish to describe it.

This particular vision was not a vision articulated in 1949. It was a vision which the leaders of the Communist Party had articulated as early as the 1930s. This vision had been articulated not just within the country, but to foreign correspondents. In a sense, we might have missed the fact that very early on, the Chinese Communist Party had clearly signalled that it intended to recover Tibet and other so-called outlying parts of the Chinese Empire. That was point number one — a clear objective. Secondly, it was a question of strategy. Of course, they were fully conscious of the fact that not only were they not in the physical possession of territory, at least not until late 1950, early 1951, but that on the opposite side of Tibet was a country that they wanted friendship with, because the other alternative, which is making India an adversary, would be dangerous in view of the fact that they were already facing enormous threats in the east from the United States and its allies. So the strategy had to be tailored to an objective that might have been achieved militarily, but which they would have preferred to achieve diplomatically.

I tried to bring out how cleverly the Chinese made the strategy, so that they virtually persuaded India to agree to their whole position on Tibet. It's interesting because you see the same kind of persuasion used by the Chinese leadership in the Geneva Conference of 1954 on the Indo-China question. Although I don't mention this part about the Indo-China question because it is not a part of the book, what I want to tell your readers is that the Chinese were not engaged in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of strategy. It was strategizing before proceeding with the tactics, and the tactics were determined on the basis of strategy. My chapter on Tibet looks at how the Chinese unfolded those tactics and then achieved their goals with India bloodlessly.

Coming to elements of how China negotiates, on the India-U.S. 123 Agreement or the nuclear deal, you write how in a multilateral setting, China often looks to use other countries to push its case, while concealing its own objectives. There is also a fear of being isolated, which India exploited successfully. Looking 10 years on, at India’s unsuccessful bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group which China opposed, is China today less concerned than in the past on standing alone on such issues?

One theme that runs through all the chapters is the use of grand deception as a legitimate strategy of Chinese diplomacy. What is interesting to me was that they did not see any contradiction, on the one hand in practising grand deception, and on the other hand of talking about mutual trust. This grand deception is there both when they deal with us bilaterally, and as we discovered in the 1990s and in the current century, when they deal with us multilaterally. We really saw this on the two issues that I talk about, relating to the nuclear tests of 1998 and then more clearly during the 123 deal.

As to the second proposition that you made that the Chinese are no longer afraid of taking a position, I would again say that if we were to look at Chinese diplomacy, from the very start of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese in fact were never scared, or hesitant, about taking a stand and sticking by it. If you look at the Korean crisis of 1950, the decision of the Chinese to challenge the Americans and South Koreans when they crossed the 38th parallel, and then to hold the 38th parallel, that itself should indicate to us that the Chinese, if their national security is seriously threatened or if their interests require it, will take a stand, although their usual position is to hide behind the others or not to take a frontal position. You see this in various events that take place in China’s diplomatic history from 1950 onwards.

What has changed now in the times we live in, is that China’s power has exponentially increased, and therefore, their willingness to stand alone, even in isolation, in preserving the national interest, is much more pronounced. It is again a change of style, not a change of substance, because as I demonstrate in the book in a number of chapters, while they prefer to hide behind others, when it comes to the final denouement, they step forward and then they really don't look at what implications there will be for the bilateral relationship. They try to secure their national interests, and then they subsequently deal with any fallout that occurs. That was essentially the message that I took away from the chapter on the 123 deal and the whole saga of how India eventually prevailed over China in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to get the 123 deal through and to get a clean waiver.

Another theme you highlight is the use of delaying as a negotiating tactic, sometimes used to gauge the other side’s bottom-line. Is that something unique in how China negotiates?

I would not want to use the word delay, I would prefer to use the word timing. The Chinese, I feel after doing a lot of work on their diplomacy over the last 70 years, have an impeccable sense of timing. They understand how to use time to achieve diplomatic objectives, on how to extend the time period. What they do essentially by extending the time period is that they buy time either to do homework, or to strengthen their position in some manner, or to gain allies, or for any other purpose. So the objective of delay, as you put it, is essentially buying time to strengthen the position for negotiation, and at the same time, to track the other side against the time deadlines.

If you look at almost any action that China has taken with almost any country, you will see this factor operating. You will see this, for instance, in the negotiations in 1971 between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai was aware when the negotiations were taking place that a U.S.-Soviet summit was also due and that the Americans had delayed the U.S.-Soviet summit because Nixon felt that he would go to Moscow in a stronger position if he had China under his belt. So Zhou Enlai essentially used time to try and extract the maximum concessions from the Americans by showing no anxiety whatsoever in progressing matters. Whereas Kissinger was interested in nailing the issue down of bilateral openings, China continued to drag out the negotiation on Taiwan, and eventually did secure the American recognition that there must only be one China.

You see this again in the Sino-Soviet normalisation. Before Gorbachev came to China in 1989, he had in his famous speech in Vladivostok in 1986 talked about the opening to China. But China very cleverly kept on suggesting, ‘We should make progress on the boundary issue between the Soviet Union and China and talk about other things before we talk about a summit’. They push the Soviet Union as far as they could to gain major concessions before Gorbachev came. I could relate a whole series of other incidents where they use time. I think that they are masters of using time and they understand how time can be used in diplomacy.

On the contrary, I would say that certainly in the early years of our Independence, we put ourselves under time pressure, and this is one of the critical points I make in my book. We are keen to nail down an agreement, to announce it, to proclaim to the world that we have resolved an issue. That, in a sense, puts time pressure on us. Over the years, of course, we have learnt to handle that, and I think we have demonstrated in very recent interactions with the Chinese side that we too can handle time in a diplomatic way so that we don't get trapped against the time deadlines. I won't be more specific than that, but I think you understand what I am saying. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating aspect of Chinese diplomacy which deserves much more study.

Is time pressure an inherent weak point for democracies because you have term limits, you have elected leaders who want these deliverables and may rush negotiations to get those done. Is that something that democracies have to live with in negotiating with China?

To some extent, yes, because after all, politics is a four, five, or six year cycle, and all leaders want to deliver achievements to their people whether domestic or foreign policy. Nevertheless, I think it's a question of learning how to tackle the Chinese tactic of using time to get benefits in negotiations. The chapter I write on how we handled the Masood Azhar issue indicates that India has learned its lessons there, and that India has understood how time can be used not only to withstand Chinese pressure, but also to put pressure on the Chinese. One of the impressions I hope readers have when they finish the book is that, if you look at the entire arc of negotiations with China from 1949 to 2019, you see a steady learning process in India. I do feel, therefore, that Indian diplomacy is much more capable now of dealing with the Chinese than in 1947 or in 1949. And notwithstanding the fact that there is a very substantial difference in our economic and military capabilities, we are capable of using some of the elements that we have learned to negotiate with the Chinese.

On the Masood Azhar issue, you reveal the Chinese side justified their blocking of his sanctioning at the UN by improbably saying he had “retired” from terrorism, which was a contrast from what they were saying publicly about standing with the international community on combating terror. It is not unusual for the Chinese to be insensitive. They talk mutual sensitivity, but in fact, what they mean is that the other side must be sensitive to their issues. They are not necessarily sensitive to the issues of their opposite numbers, and in some cases, that sensitivity is actually funny and laughable, as it was in this case. In a sense, it indicates a mindset where they really don't try to understand the problems of the other side and simply treat them as routine, whereas they expect the other side to be highly sensitive and to look at their problems in the way the Chinese look at it. That's part of the psyche, and I believe it’s one of the weak points of China's diplomacy. It's a point that I think countries are beginning to understand and exploit. There are many weaknesses in China’s negotiating abilities, some of those are brought out in the book. I think we have to leverage and use them.

You point out that the top leadership in China never gets into the nitty-gritty of negotiation. That may be all the more true in the Xi era. What then are the benefits of engaging with the top leadership, as India did with the two informal summits? Is it to provide broader direction?

The reluctance of the Chinese leadership at the very top to get into a negotiation is not new. It is not a phenomenon we are seeing under President Xi Jinping. If you recall, even during the Kissinger-Zhou Enlai talks, Mao never met either Kissinger or even Nixon until the discussions with lesser leaders was over. And in both cases, because the transcripts are now easily available, you will see that Mao never actually spoke of anything concrete. He spoke of philosophy, books, worldview in a very elliptical way. I think this tendency essentially is not a foreign policy tendency. It is very much part of Chinese Communist Party politics.

The less clear you are as a top leader, the easier it is to manoeuvre out of a difficult situation. I can correlate any number of events from Mao to Deng Xiaoping to Xi, where the senior most leader has been vague in order to avoid making a commitment. One of these I very clearly bring out in my first book, Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest, where at the height of the agitation, when General Secretary Zhao Ziyang tries to meet Deng Xiaoping to resolve an issue, Deng is mysteriously ill and unable to receive him. And so Zhao Ziyang is left interpreting Deng’s view, but eventually Deng can go either way. He leaves himself the flexibility to go either way. My own sense is this is a very wise tactic that they use to avoid getting trapped, and it's more often used domestically than in foreign affairs.

That having been said, we all know that in the 21st century, where digital communications have become de rigueur, there is a more and more a tendency of leaders to talk directly to each other. We've seen this in telephone diplomacy, in pull-asides, meetings in the margins of international conferences. Direct diplomacy or leadership diplomacy has become an essential part of this. This may again perhaps be one of the weaknesses of Chinese diplomacy, because Chinese leaders are not comfortable doing that. Of course, by not engaging directly with the leaders of other countries, you miss out many diplomatic opportunities. This is a weakness of Chinese diplomacy.

However, the main point that I make in the book is that we should not engage in leadership diplomacy with the Chinese with the expectation that we will get an immediate result. So long as we are clear of this, it should be our effort to engage in direct diplomacy. It should be our effort for the leadership in India to get a good understanding first-hand of the leadership of any other foreign country, and particularly of China.

On the current “Wolf Warrior” phase of Chinese diplomacy, is the change in style, and do the main guiding principles of how China negotiates remain unchanged, or is this also a change in substance?

I think this is entirely style, and there is no change in substance. By that I don’t mean that Chinese negotiating capabilities, tactics and strategy in 1949 remain unchanged in 2019, because they do undergo an evolutionary process as does the diplomacy of India and any other country. But what I do mean to say is that this does not reflect a fundamental deviation from China's core negotiating principles. It is simply a style, and therefore, I think we should not pay too much attention to it. The more we pay attention to it, the more excitable we become, the more the Chinese turn the screws. We just need to get over it and get down to business. I think the Chinese are shrewd enough to realise when we see through things. There are a number of instances in the book where the Chinese realised that the game is up, and then they get down to business. So I think we should deal with them in that way.

On the current state of relations, we are in a strange situation where India views ties as being in a new normal because of the still unresolved 2020 border crisis, and has said things can’t be business as usual, but China is saying publicly the basic contours haven’t changed. How do you assess China’s strategy, and how do you think India should approach this new moment in the relationship?

I don't think I’m in a position to offer any advice. I think there is enough wisdom inside the government to do that. But essentially, I think the manner in which we have handled the situation in Eastern Ladakh is more or less along the correct lines. I think the message that has been delivered by the Government of India, that we cannot on the one hand have a disturbed situation on the Line of Actual Control, while on the other hand returning to business as normal in every other aspect of our bilateral relationship, is a message which I think is both clear and can be easily backed up by action.

I can only conclude that the learning process in dealing with China continues, but we have sufficiently absorbed the lessons of the past. I am quite confident that we have the wherewithal diplomatically speaking, because this is essentially a book about diplomacy, to deal with China. That having been said, I do want to add that because China's national power or comprehensive power is substantially greater than ours, it is always going to be a challenge to deal with China diplomatically. Therefore, we have to keep ourselves current and we have to continue to keep the learning process going.