Gokhale: Need for a Midas touch
Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, more popularly known as S Jaishankar, finally retired from the Indian foreign service (IFS) after 40 years of an illustrious career. He is succeeded by the 1981-batch IFS officer Vijay Gokhale. Jaishankar had served as the country's top diplomat in the US and China while Gokhale has been Indian Ambassador to Germany and China. Both the diplomats have had a prolific experience of having worked in a number of strategically important Indian missions abroad. Both Jaishankar and Gokhale represent the new breed of foreign office mandarins, who are driven by the passion to achieve difficult and vitals goals for the country and come backed with relevant education, experience, and exposure. Jaishankar, for example, has been an alumnus of Air Force Central School and St. Stephen's College, New Delhi. He earned his MA in Political Science and MPhil and Ph.D. in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. True to the JNU culture, he remained grounded, having more faith in basic research and data crunching, unshaven and sporting the salt and pepper hair. His functioning reflected both the confidence and elitist values of the Air Force Central School and St. Stephen's College. He was the chief motivator for the India-US Nuclear Deal of 2005 and as the Indian Ambassador to China, he was the one who negotiated with the Chinese officials to stop the practice of issuing stapled visas for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir. In a tit for tat, he instructed his Embassy staff to show Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of India while issuing visas to the Chinese in response to the Chinese practice of showing these two territories as part of China while issuing visas to Indians. But his tenure as the Ambassador to China or as the Indian Foreign Secretary also reflected the liberal values he must have imbibed since the JNU days, the exigencies of world politics and the need to invite and respect opinions from outside the closed walls of the foreign office. He clearly understood the value of China as the number two economy of the world and the complicated socio-political system that it has evolved into as a result of remaining shut off from the rest of the world for a considerably long period of time during and after the rule of Mao Zedong. China has the world's one-fifth population and is the third largest geography in the world. Jaishankar stressed on the need to deepen India's business relations with China. During the recent Doklam stand-off when Chinese state media began releasing the pictures of Chinese military's war drills on Internet and Indian think tanks began developing a cold feet fearing that a China-India military face-off is imminent, this suave and sophisticated diplomat rose to the occasion and pronounced that while there will be no compromise on the issues of national security, there exists well-established institutional mechanism between India and China to resolve any dispute including Doklam. Soon in a dramatic move, Chinese President Xi Jingpin replaced General Fang Fenghui, the Chief of the People Liberation Army's joint staff department, equivalent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within a day, the two armies clinched a deal to mutually withdraw the troops, suggesting that Fenghui was responsible for precipitating the standoff and an impediment to resolving it.
Of course, apart from Jaishankar, various other interlocutors like Indian envoy in China Vijay Gokhale and Indian NSA Ajit Doval played a key role in defusing the crisis, it was Jaishankar's confident pronouncements in New Delhi that instilled a sense of relief in India. Where does that confidence emanate from? It comes from knowing the Chinese society, thinking of its people and leaders, and their likes and dislikes in clear terms. It is in this light that Vijay Gokhale, who has served as the Indian envoy to China, taking over as the Indian Foreign Secretary is of critical importance. Gokhale is considered as an expert on Chinese matters and is fluent in Mandarin and Sanskrit.
Unlike China, most of the world powers are open democracies with a free media that dissects every government decision to the last detail. China has not allowed the world to know much about itself except that it is working painstakingly to become the world's number one economy and a raise a formidable military power. The inscrutability of the Chinese language to a vast number of world population and the visa restriction on visiting the country in the past have ensured that there are fewer experts who can feel the pulse of the Chinese people and its leaders. Few can claim any expertise on the great Chinese philosopher Confucius whose teachings define everything Chinese -- from its day to day life to politics. The 2007 book 'China Shakes the World: The Rise of A Hungry Nation' by the China bureau chief of Financial Times James Kynge (1998-2005), who spent years learning Mandarin and Confucius and can speak fluently on Confucius in Mandarin provides brilliant insights into the thinking and paradoxes of the common Chinese and the latest tribe of billionaires, most of whom still work in a down-to-earth manner from their study tables that they have inherited from their family decades ago. Despite his ability to speak Mandarin and having contacts with top politicians and administrative officials in the country, Kynge faced hostile behavior from the crowd in marketplace, hooted and chased for being a Westerner. He says the biggest difficulty in communicating with the Chinese is that they quote Confucius in every talk and but they do not accept any other explanation of the Confucius' teaching or philosophy. They believe that no one else can understand Confucius fully except the Chinese.
The new Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has had his stint in China, and given that he is believed to be fluent in Mandarin, his knowledge about the country and temperament of its people will help a great deal in formulating Indian foreign policy that not only takes into account the Chinese sensibilities but also respects them. Indian policies will bring more effective results vis a vis China if it factors in the fact that China has a bigger population to feed and keep motivated than India – the basic priorities of the two countries are not much different.
As the new Indian Foreign Secretary, Gokhale will have his hands full with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy ambitions expanding its ambit at a fast pace and globalised business, international peace, and issues related to climate change take the centre stage, India is not only all set to engage with the world on a more surer footing, but also all set to set the agenda for international engagements. In the recently-concluded confabulations with 10 nations of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the occasion of India's Republic Day, the ASEAN members were of the view that India should play a more Assertive role in the ASEAN and Indo-Pacific region. Unlike with neighbours, India's relations with the ASEAN are free from conflict and acrimony. India is also a key partner of the US in its fight against terrorism and the two countries also look to further enhance their multilateral cooperation. But of all other engagements, Gokhale must not forget that neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan desperately need the Midas touch of Indian diplomacy. If the Modi Doctrine of Indian foreign policy can win the confidence of these two nations and their people, much of India's ambitions will be fulfilled.
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