Gokhale has the seniority, experience and track record. A 1981-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, he has the advantage of being a China expert.
In January 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to appoint S. Jaishankar as his foreign secretary, there were ripples in babudom. Jaishankar, then ambassador to the US, was barely three months from retirement while the then foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s term was to end only in August. A peeved Singh made way for Jaishankar, who had earned Modi’s trust with his successful handling of the prime minister’s maiden visit to the US. When Jaishankar’s two-year term ended, it was extended by another year.
When the appointments committee of the cabinet announced Vijay Gokhale as the next foreign secretary on January 1, there were no ripples. It was an expected appointment, as Gokhale was next in line. His role in helping defuse the Doklam standoff was a plus. Gokhale, as ambassador to China during the standoff, was one of the three diplomats (the others being Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval) whose adept handling helped resolve the situation.
Gokhale has the seniority, experience and track record. A 1981-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, he has the advantage of being a China expert. Well versed in Mandarin, and having specialised in the region, he brings to the post an expertise that may be needed time and again.
The echo of the Doklam standoff may just be an irritant, but China’s rising ambitions pose a different set of challenges altogether. China has not been too happy with India staying away from the Belt and Road Initiative meeting held last year, and India’s resistance to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir remains a vexing issue.
“Gokhale’s knowledge of China will be his greatest asset, especially at a time when Modi is assessing India’s relationship with this neighbour. There are so many issues with China, and the foreign secretary will have to perform a fine balancing act,’’ said Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Jaishankar, with his expertise on China, was one of the architects of the Sino-Indian Astana Consensus, which was concluded a few weeks before Doklam erupted. The consensus, which asked India and China not to let their differences aggravate into disputes, worked as a template to resolve the crisis.
Another major achievement for Jaishankar was India’s victory at the International Court of Justice in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case. Although the final decision is pending, India stole an early march over Pakistan. Jaishankar also played a key role in managing Modi’s rockstar scale visits to various countries, especially the United States after Donald Trump became president, and easing India’s entry to multilateral regimes like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
“The rise of China is an important factor for the changing world today. Gokhale’s previous dealings with China and the knowledge about the country will prove to be very helpful,’’ said Ashok Kantha, former ambassador to China. Gokhale belongs to the strong, silent type of officers. He is not known for flamboyance, but is respected within the service for his diligence and dedication. “China, Pakistan and the US are the main challenges for any incumbent,’’ said former diplomat Dilip Sinha. “Pakistan is too politicised for any foreign secretary to change much. China, despite Doklam and similar issues, is largely a stable relationship in terms of management. The US, under Trump, is a different matter altogether, and that is where quiet diplomatic work will be required most,’’ Sinha said.
Apart from China and Pakistan, the rest of the neighbourhood is also a matter of concern. When Jaishankar was sent to Kathmandu to convey India’s objection to Nepal’s newly drafted constitution, which failed to give the Indian-origin Madhesis equal rights, Nepal was not too happy. The subsequent blockade of supplies to Nepal resulted in ties hitting a new low. With the China-leaning K.P. Oli likely to be back at the helm in Kathmandu, Nepal needs careful handling. Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives, which recently negotiated a trade treaty with China, despite its India-First policy, also require continuous engagement.
With Modi having invited all ASEAN heads of state for the Republic Day celebrations, India’s Look East policy is on the fast lane. Gokhale, with his expertise in this part of the world, seems to be the man for the job.