By Liu Zongyi Source: Global Times Published: 2018-1-7
At the very beginning of 2018, the Indian government announced the appointment of Vijay Gokhale, India`s former ambassador to China, as the next foreign secretary succeeding S. Jaishankar, who completes his extended tenure on January 28. The foreign secretary is the top diplomat in India, equivalent to the vice minister in the foreign ministry in China. Indian foreign ministers are usually political appointees, thus the foreign secretary plays quite an important role in foreign affairs, not only serving as the senior adviser to the prime minister, but also the main official who implements foreign policy.
Among six former Indian foreign secretaries, four were ambassadors to China, and most of them spoke fluent Chinese. The appointment of Gokhale, who is a well-known expert on China, indicates that diplomatic affairs between India and China occupy an important position in New Delhi`s scheme of things.
The primary reason for Gokhale`s appointment to the top post is his rich experience in diplomacy. He has served in Hong Kong, Hanoi, Beijing and New York. He was high commissioner to Malaysia from January 2010 to October 2013, ambassador to Germany from October 2013 to January 2016, and to China from January 2016 to October 2017. Gokhale has also headed the East Asia Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and in that capacity dealt with all issues related to China and North Korea, besides Japan, Mongolia and South Korea.
While working as the ambassador to China, he deftly handled many bilateral issues for the Modi administration. He played a key role in defusing the Doklam military standoff between India and China that lasted from June to August last year. His excellent performance in Indian diplomacy and his hard-line stance toward China have won him the appreciation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which further contributed to his appointment as the foreign secretary.
Some Indian media outlets said that "the appointment of Vijay Gokhale as foreign secretary signals a quiet but significant shift in India`s approach toward China." As a matter of fact, the appointment of Gokhale as foreign secretary should not be taken as a "significant shift."
For one thing, India`s approach toward China began to change as early as Modi came to power and Ajit Doval was appointed national security adviser, and S. Jaishankar the foreign secretary.
For another, the appointment came about as a result of India`s diplomatic system. Diplomatic policymaking in India is done by three departments: the prime minister`s office, the National Security Council led by an influential adviser, and the Ministry of External Affairs. The prime minister is the final arbiter of diplomatic policy. The appointment of Gokhale demonstrates that his diplomatic skills appeal to Modi. It also indicates that India will continue its hard-line stance toward China, except slight adjustments in keeping with international situation.
Since Modi took office, Indian leaders have been quite optimistic about the country`s development prospects, with the wish that India will become a force to reckon with in multi-polar Asia or even the multi-polar world. They are especially concerned about China-US cooperation, wary of Beijing becoming the dominant power in Asia. It is because of this that the Indian government views economic cooperation initiatives proposed by China through the lens of geopolitical competition, holding that the Belt and Road initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as the economic cooperation between China and some South Asian countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have encroached on its interests. New Delhi holds a strong grudge against China-Pakistan relations.
After the administration of US President Donald Trump put forward the idea of Indo-Pacific to enhance India`s international standing, and listed China as its major strategic competitor in its new National Security Strategy report, some Indians are well aware of US hopes that India can serve as a balance between Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions, and its real aim is to contain China`s growing power in the Asia-Pacific.
Nevertheless, the Indian government still expressed its appreciation of the report, which demonstrates India`s desire to contain China. One can see difficult times ahead for the future of India-China ties.
In recent years, the Indian government has secretly been in touch with authorities in Taiwan. It is hoped that Gokhale, who knows well about cross-Straits affairs as well as the significance of the one-China policy, will do a good job in dealing with India-China ties and avoid the mistakes made by Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj who required China to reaffirm the one India policy for India to agree to the one-China policy.
The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.