“The oldest and the most unshakable empire in the world has in eight years by the cannon-balls of the English bourgeoisie been brought to the eve of a social revolution,” wrote Karl Marx in 1850. “When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, ‘Chinese Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity’”.
As the world has discovered in recent years that the gates of the Chinese republic bear somewhat different words, there has been a proliferation of literature seeking to make sense of why the emerging superpower behaves in the ways it does.
In much of this work, cliché is king: a quote from the Art of War, or throwaway references China’s alleged hegemonic impulses, substitute for genuine insight or learning.
The best thing about Vijay Gokhale’s slim book, The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With China, is it needs no recourse to cant to make its case. A foreign secretary, and ambassador to Beijing, Gokhale writes with authority on the negotiating strategies which led India to succeed—or fail—in six negotiations, from 1950 to talks over terrorism and nuclear issues.
Gokhale’s work adds to a large body of work on diplomatic negotiating culture and strategy. Typically, the argument rests on claims that national negotiation cultures have something to do with the wider cultural milieu from which they are born.
Former German diplomat Wilfried Bolewski, typically, suggests American negotiating styles emerge from what he calls its “linear-active” society; Mexican diplomats, by contrast, are drawn from a “a high context and multi-active society” where life “is not organised around the clock”.
Essentialism of this crude kind is, however, eschewed by Gokhale. Instead, he argues, rigorous preparation—in addition, of course, to the time-honoured tools of flattery, guile and intimidation—have not a little to do with China’s successes. The Indian negotiator, he counsels, must travel armed with “detailed knowledge of the subject at hand, and the careful study of available records of previous interactions”—prepared for the traps that will have been laid.
Less clear from this account, though, are the ways in which the wider relationship of power which governs nation-states have shaped Chinese actions—and limited the options of its competitors and adversaries. Like much recent Indian diplomatic writing, though, Gokhale’s case for a more focussed, aggressive diplomacy elides over important context.
The case of Tibet, Gokhale writes, illustrates the lack of a coherent Indian negotiating strategy. Ahead of China’s annexation of the region in 1950, he writes, India’s agents in Tibet, he writes, “recommended that India should meet Tibet’s requirement of arms and ammunition, and extend its diplomatic and political support to the Tibetan government”.
Instead of using this threat to secure its own interests—securing Beijing’s recognition of British-era borders—New Delhi instead sought to reassure China that India posed no threat.
New Delhi’s strategy, Gokhale asserts, did not “allow for the serious consideration of giving possible material support to Tibet”. “Even if India may not have had the financial means to give the sort of military assistance that might have made a difference, it could have maintained ambiguity on this point. Deception is a legitimate tactic in diplomacy and negotiation”.
This is true—but the evidence seems somewhat more nuanced than Gokhale’s account suggests. India’s intelligence and military archives remain a walled garden, closed to scholars, but there are some tantalising suggestions available that India did consider a military response as the People’s Liberation Army massed around Chamdo in 1961, and proceeded to enter Lhasa.
Prime Minister Nehru, records PB Sinha and AA Athale’s official history of the war of 1962, authored for the Ministry of Defence, “was of the opinion that China could create trouble for India by infiltration or by occupying Indian territory along the border.
“The subject was discussed at a meeting held by [the] Foreign Secretary, and attended by India’s Ambassador to China, [the] Director of [the] Intelligence Bureau, and the Chief of Army Staff”, Sinha and Athale write. “The consensus that emerged from the meeting was that India was in no position whatsoever to intervene militarily in Tibet”.
Less than three years earlier, moreover, India’s war in Kashmir had ended in a less-than-conclusive stalemate, which we know from accounts like Lieutenant-General LP Sen’s Slender Was The Thread strained the new Indian Army’s resources to breaking point. The Indian economy was shattered by the communal violence of 1947-1948;
In 1955, the PRC introduced sweeping reforms across Tibet, sparking off a low-grade insurgency. The violence grew through 1956, culminating in clashes around the town of Litang.
The Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, support the kind of military effort India rejected, supporting a Tibetan insurgent campaign operating from bases in Nepal.
As a study published in 2017 by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses noted, China came to believe—correctly or otherwise—that India was not unaware of the operations of the CIA. The suspicions fuelled the series of actions that led up to the war of 1962—a phase Gokhale’s account, perhaps oddly, skips over.
The results of the CIA intervention, though, were negligible: they served, at most, to convince China that India was enmeshed in a Cold War effort to contain Communism.
Karl Marx, whatever his failings as a Prophet, was an astute observer of history: he understood, as few did, that that Empire would reshape society in China—as in India—in unprecedented ways. The hideous sufferings the country suffered as a consequence of European and Japanese colonialism—which match, even exceed, the obscenities inflicted on India—engendered a State and society both determined to compete with the modern capitalist world, yet deeply suspicious of it.
To deal with modern China is a challenge that cannot be addressed through muscular negotiation or cunning strategy alone. The rise of China is a challenge India cannot win, unless it restructures its own administrative capabilities, and revolutionises its society.