Fifth Columnist: Beijing first
With the appointment of Vijay Gokhale, Modi has done well to keep his focus on China

Prime minister Narendra Modi has done well to keep the country’s foreign policy focus on China intact by appointing Vijay Gokhale, India’s former envoy to Beijing, as the new foreign secretary.

China is the pretty much the new pivot of world politics and economics and its relationship with India becomes crucial, given the competitive nature of the equation between the two Asian giants.

Gokhale replaces Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, another former Indian ambassador to China. Both of them represent the new breed of Indian diplomats, who are driven by the passion to achieve difficult and vital goals for the country – not surprisingly, both are equally fluent in Mandarin.

They have held top assignments and strategically important Indian missions abroad; Jaishankar has served with distinction in USA and China while Gokhale was Indian envoy to Germany and China.

Jaishankar is credited with being one of the architects of the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2005, thereby justifying the confidence placed in him by the then UPA government and prime minister Manmohan Singh. It goes to his credit for negotiating with Chinese officials to stop the practice of issuing stapled visas for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir.  

In a move that riled Beijing no end, Jaishankar instructed the Indian embassy in Beijing to show Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of India while issuing visas to Chinese nationals in response to the Chinese practice of showing Jammu and Kashmir as disputed territory, parts of it in China.

But more importantly, Jaishankar also reflected his deep liberal values by stressing the need by inviting and respecting the opinions of people outside the closed confines of the foreign


He understood the value of China as the number two economy of the world and the complicated socio-political system that had evolved in that country as a result of remaining closed to the rest of the world for a considerable length of time during the after the rule of the great helmsman Mao Zedong. Jaishankar stressed on the need for deepening business relationship with the third largest geography in the world.

During the Doklam standoff last year, when the state-controlled Chinese media began flashing images of its country’s war drills on the internet – leading to the seeming imminence of a military standoff on the border – Jaishankar defended the Indian position with sophistication and aplomb, telling Beijing in no uncertain terms that there can be no compromise with national sovereignty and that there existed well-established institutional mechanisms between the two countries to sort out any issues, including Doklam. Within a few hours of this categorical statement, China’s President and strongman Xi Jingping replaced Gen Fang Fenghui, the chief of the Peoples’ Liberation Army joint staff department, which is roughly equivalent to US joint chiefs of staff. Within 24 hours, the two armies clinched a deal to mutually withdraw troops, suggesting that Fenghui was responsible for precipitating the standoff. To be sure, then ambassador Gokhale and NSA Ajit Doval played their parts, but the role of the foreign secretary in such a crisis, becomes crucial.

The man replacing Jaishankar has to be seen in this light. Fluent in two civilisational languages – Sanskrit and Mandarin – Gokhale is imminently qualified to hold his new job. His knowledge of China and the temperament of its people will go a long way in determining New Delhi’s orientation towards Beijing.

Unlike most of modern world, China still remains the forbidden kingdom. While the big powers of the world are largely democratic with a vibrant press exposing their government’s every move in detail, China has not allowed the world to know much about itself. The inscrutability of the Chinese language and visa restrictions on tourists wanting to visit the country has ensured that there are only a few experts familiar with the pulse of the people and its largely unknown political leadership.

In his insightful book, ‘China Shakes the World: The Rise of A Hungry Nation’, James Kynge, former China bureau chief of the Financial Times based in Beijing, who spent a number of years learning mandarin and studying Confucius, provides brilliant insights into that country, the paradoxes of common Chinese and tribe of billionaires, most of whom still operate in a down-to-earth manner on their home tables inherited by them from their grandfathers.

However, despite his fluency with the language and access to the highest in the land, Kynge faced hostile behaviour from crowds at the marketplace and was occasionally chased for being a westerner. It is here that Gokhale’s role, with his deep knowledge and insights into China, would be invaluable.

In any case, the new foreign secretary will have his hands full with the prime minister’s foreign policy ambitions expanding its ambit at a fast pace. India is poised to engage with the world on a surer footing. At the Republic Day celebrations last week, the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was of the view that India should play a more assertive role in the Indo-Pacific region. With perennial bug bear Pakistan and an instable Afghanistan in the neighbourhood, Gokhale has challenges ahead that will severely test his mettle.

Ranjit Bhushan