FROM ALL ACCOUNTS Vijay Keshav Gokhale is another experienced Indian Foreign Service officer who has now reached the pinnacle of his service. With rounded experience of having served in different parts of the world, he brings valuable skills to the high table. But of all the ideas and skills that he has, his experience in dealing with China, where he served as India’s ambassador until last year, is probably the most important.
Gokhale’s appointment is part of a well-established trend now. Four of the last ten foreign secretaries have served as ambassadors to China. This should surprise no one. China is now a major security and strategic headache for India. In recent years, incursions across the long border, including the hotly contested parts especially in the north, have gone up dramatically. But the most recent challenge for the country came in the eastern region. He was in Beijing when the Doklam crisis erupted in June 2017. He was involved in resolving the crisis, with troops from the two countries moving away, by a bit, from their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation some months later. It took a dozen rounds of negotiation, beginning with the hard position held by Beijing, to sort out the issue. Having an expert on China—and Gokhale is one not just by virtue of having served there—at the Ministry of External Affairs is an asset in preparing for a future where China will not only be assertive but perhaps also aggressive. In addition to having served in Beijing, he was posted in Taipei, seat of China’ s pre-revolutionary rulers. His experience of the Sinic sphere is thus rounded well, unlike the rough edges displayed by some other officers who have served in Beijing. Gokhale has also articulated a different—more aggressive—line on China.
It would, however, be a mistake to consider China best countered solely by confronting it head-on—be it militarily or diplomatically. Dealing with China needs much more than that. One part of India’ s strategy has to involve stronger relations with powerful countries that are concerned by China’s menacing military postures. These, for the most part, are nations in the Western politico-military sphere. This part of India’s planning appears well-attuned to future needs. What Delhi needs to strengthen is the other end of that strategy—by building bridges with countries in Southeast and East Asia. India has for long paid lip-service to its ‘look east’ policy without gaining much traction on it. It is matter of chance that Gokhale had also served in Kuala Lumpur, from 2010-2013. The combined experience of having served in China and Southeast Asia makes him the right person at the right time to be at the bureaucracy’ s helm in the Ministry.
India lays a lot of emphasis on building symbolic capital when it comes to managing its international relations. The presence of ten leaders of ASEAN countries at the Republic Day parade this year was one such symbolic event. Much more needs to be done if this policy is to get some teeth. The political will to build strong politico-military ties with key countries—Vietnam is one example—is essential if the second part of India’ s strategy to handle China is to succeed. Having a cadre of experienced officers who have served in China and Southeast Asia is a necessary part of implementing these measures. There have been foreign secretaries who have served in China in the past but what is important is the new perspective that Gokhale brings. One does not need China- bashers, but Sinophiles are best avoided now.