India's foreign secretary designate Vijay Keshav Gokhale (right) with an Israeli diplomat Photo: Courtesy Twitter

Fluent Mandarin speaker Vijay Keshav Gokhale is India’s new Foreign Secretary. In a much-predicted move the Indian government announced that Gokhale will commence the role on January 29 when he formally takes over from Dr S Jaishankar.

Vijay Gokhale was Ambassador to China before returning to Delhi in October 2017 and has also served as India’s China and East Asia Director and as Joint Secretary, East Asia. For the majority of his previous career Gokhale worked on the China desk in India’s Ministry of External Affairs and now joins a long line of Mandarin-speaking “China hands” as the Ministry’s head. According to Ashok Kantha, who preceded Gokhale in Beijing, his experience makes the appointment “excellent”.

“He has served in the permanent mission to the UN in New York and has dealt with multilateral diplomacy,” Kantha told Asia Times “He has also served extensively in the region.”

Doklam crisis

Vijay Gokhale was in Beijing as Ambassador between January 2016 and October 2017 and his tenure oversaw a series of bilateral strategic issues. The crisis between India, China and Bhutan over Doklam was particularly tense when, in June 2017, the Chinese started building an all-weather road that would lead right to the tri-junction area. Bhutan complained that this, by changing the strategic character of the area, went against the spirit of ongoing bilateral negotiations and asked New Delhi to assist by sending in troops. The resultant military standoff between India and China brought a series of eyeball-to-eyeball – and sometimes physical – confrontations.

A visit by India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval to Beijing led to a thaw. While the visit was ostensibly to prepare for an upcoming BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) meeting, Doval used the opportunity to discuss the border issue with the Chinese.

Gokhale was India’s key point person for the negotiations and government sources told Asia Times that he pushed for a firm line and maintained that the Chinese would eventually see India and Bhutan’s point of view. He was in India when, at the end of July, word came that Beijing was ready to negotiate a scaling down of troops to diffuse the crisis. Gokhale rushed back to Beijing and spent the night in discussions with his Chinese counterparts and by morning a compromise had been thrashed out.

Negotiating a complex world

In his new role, Gokhale will have to tackle several more complex China-related issues as India’s foreign policy unfolds under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India has rejected China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and it was left to Gokhale to convey this to the Chinese leadership. Delhi argued that the BRI causes major issues of sovereignty and these need to be resolved before India can participate. India has also raised concerns about Chinese aid to various countries in the region leading to a debt trap.

Washington’s latest US Security Strategy also present challenges. The strategy, unveiled two weeks ago, calls China a “challenge to American power, influence and interests”, claims Pakistan is a sponsor of terrorism and highlights how Islamabad has become a key strategic and economic ally and an integral part of both the BRI and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

India, sandwiched between two potentially hostile, nuclear-armed neighbors, will have to walk a delicate diplomatic path just as the global influence of traditional ally Washington, under President Donald Trump, seems to be on the wane. For Gokhale it is this that will surely test his considerable experience to the limit.

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