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There was a time until a decade back when having served in Islamabad and Washington were considered prerequisites to get the top job at South Block.
The pattern continues with the government on Monday announcing that Vijay Keshav Gokhale will succeed S Jaishankar as India’s next foreign secretary. Jaishankar and Gokhale are China experts. Jaishankar retires on January 28, after three years at the helm. He had taken over in controversial circumstances in January 2015, when the Narendra Modi government sacked Sujatha Singh.
Gokhale is currently secretary (economic relations) in the Ministry of External Affairs. He was posted as Ambassador to China in 2015 and returned in October 2017. He is credited with handling the delicate negotiations with China during the 73-day Doklam military standoff.
Gokhale has also served as India’s Ambassador to Malaysia, and a rare diplomat to have served both in Beijing and Taipei. Gokhale, a 1981 batch Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, has also served in Vietnam.
The 58-year-old will be taking the reins at South Block at a difficult time. While South Block pats itself on the back for getting the Donald Trump administration on the same page as itself regarding Pakistan, China’s growing influence in New Delhi’s immediate neighbourhood remains a challenge.
Nepal now has a not so India friendly Communist government, while developments in the Maldives, Myanmar and Sri Lanka have not been encouraging as Beijing increases its footprint.
Meanwhile, India has tried to strengthen its outreach in the Asean region, and make common cause of its concerns regarding China with the US, Japan, Australia and the 10 Asean members.
New Delhi now is part of trilateral and quadrilateral dialogues involving the US, Japan and Australia. All these dialogues focus on the shape of the emerging security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi will be hosting leaders of the 10-member Asean at the Republic Day parade later this month.
Gokhale, with extensive experience in China and Asean countries and somebody known to believe in 'traditional diplomacy', could bring in much-needed stability at South Block and be a foil to India's intrepid National Security Adviser, Ajit Kumar Doval.