Nirupama Rao on Indian diplomacy with the world’s largest economies

Nirupama Rao entered the Indian Foreign Service in 1973 and served as India's ambassador to the United States, China, and Sri Lanka, as well as India's Foreign Secretary from 2009 to 2011. She was the second female Foreign Secretary. Ambassador Rao currently is a Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs at Brown University. On November 17, 2016, she spoke with Bryn Miller CMC '19.

Photo source: Victor Alvarez, Brown University.

This summer, you called the divide in India-China relations the “Great Himalayan Divide.” What are some of the most important moments in India-China relations that have led to this rift?

You have to look at the history of the relationship in the modern period, after 1950. In 1947, India became independent from British rule and China became the People’s Republic in 1949 when the civil war ended. Both countries entered their current phase of history then and were newly emergent countries in Asia with great dreams and aspirations. They had been through a period of foreign exploitation and domination, so they had great aspirations to regain their lost power and eminence. India chose the democratic path and is the world’s largest, most raucous democracy. China decided to go with communism and one-party rule. These were completely divergent political paths. 

In the 1950s, there was a concerted and sincere move to build good relations between the nations. Jawaharlal Nehru worked hard to ensure that China was not isolated on the global stage. However, there were differences over territorial claims. Ultimately, when the revolt in Tibet occurred and the Dalai Lama fled to India, there was a virtual collapse of the relationship that culminated in the brief conflict of 1962. That’s really where the Himalayan divide begins. 

The China-Pakistan relationship is another problem when looking at the long-term perspective of how this relationship will evolve, as well as the idea of competitive coexistence between India and China. Yet, we have much in common in terms of development goals. Both India and China are huge countries with over 1 billion citizens each, but we can’t really say that there is a friendship of two billion. 

Taking this from the historical to the current, when you were ambassador from 2006 to 2009 what were the most pressing issues dividing the two countries and how did you approach them?

I was conscious of the complicated and complex nature of the relationship, but there is a certain equilibrium that has existed, especially over the last few decades. Trade has grown, there’s much more interaction between the leaderships of the two countries, and the relationship has become much more multifaceted. The equilibrium in this relationship made it easier to carry out my responsibilities as ambassador and easier to work with my Chinese counterparts. 

We did have the unrest in Tibet while I was ambassador, which triggered disturbances among Tibetan refugees in India and caused concerns in China. That led to tensions between the two countries, but they were managed well. These demonstrate that in diplomacy there can be huge differences, yet if one learns to manage them, create an equilibrium, and try to build more mutual trust and confidence in dealings, coexistence is possible. 

The Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 were also an issue for the relationship. The Chinese reaction was so tepid and so lukewarm. We felt that they were listening more to the Pakistanis, and that reaction didn’t help create a climate of trust between the two countries. China needs to introspect about how it looks at terrorism and how it proposes to deal with the issue of Pakistan using it as a tool of proxy war. 

Then, there was the issue of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India was looking for a clear exemption in the NSG, and the United States was supporting it. China was holding back, but ultimately it came around after U.S. persuasion and supported the clean exemption.

What are some of the key turning points in U.S. – India relations over the years?

Long years ago, they called India and the U.S. estranged democracies. During the Korean War, India pushed for an end to conflict since it was very worried that there would be a third World War. It wanted to avoid conflict and have a climate of peace to develop as it came out of the dark period of deprivation and poverty that it had experienced under colonial rule. This mindset was really the genesis of non-alignment during the Cold War, although I don’t think the Americans really understood this.

In the 1970s, the distance between the two countries grew. America did not support India’s support for Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. On the contrary, the U.S. was opening up to China by reaching out through Pakistan. This was a very hostile approach to India.

India was in danger of isolation at this time because of American opposition, so we reached out to the Soviet Union and signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. We also tested a nuclear device in 1974, which triggered U.S. sanctions. In the 1980s, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and America went the whole hog to support Pakistan and build up the mujahideen. The genesis of all the problems in this region really comes from this time, when they began to create this Frankenstein that threatens to swallow us all up today. 

In 1998, we had another nuclear test that triggered more special economic measures against India from the United States. After the Kargil War in 1999, when it was clear the Pakistan government was to blame for what had happened, the whole climate began to change. America was also beginning to be aware of India's potential to be a global presence and power, it also recognized the potential of the Indian market, and the manner in which India was perceived altered completely. 

Transitioning to across the Pacific, what were the major issues facing India-U.S. relations when you were ambassador from 2011 to 2013, and how did you approach them?

The relationship was in a very good place to begin with, due to all the initiatives taken in the Bush administration and carried into the Obama presidency. I saw the relationship grow and become more full-bodied and productive. President Obama and our Prime Minister met frequently, and strategic dialogue began between the two nations. We were beginning to coordinate our approaches to the situation in the Indo-Pacific, and our defense collaboration was growing much stronger. Of course, the role of the Indian American diaspora – which numbers over 3 million — was hugely important. This relationship was very different and in a much better place than it had been in previous decades. India and the United States were no longer estranged democracies.

How have India and America cooperated on international issues such as countering terrorism and spreading democracy during President Obama’s term? 

On the issue of spreading democracy, India has never taken an evangelical approach to this, but rather has tried to inspire people by the power of its own example. In that sense, this approach is very Asian and rooted in our history and circumstances. However, we are great cheerleaders for democracy all over the world. In terms of terrorism, we have a very productive homeland security dialogue with the U.S. Especially after 9/11, the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and the Mumbai attacks in 2008, this homeland security dialogue has become critically important in our relationship because both countries face threats from religious radicalism. This is especially important in India because Pakistan pursues a policy that promotes terrorism as a tool of war when dealing with India. America and India have every reason to work closely to gather information and intelligence sharing, to build capacity, strengthen security for our cities, and train personnel to ensure that their counterterrorism abilities are well-honed. 

What is the future of this cooperation under a Trump administration?

The relationship between our two democracies is very resilient and has the capacity to withstand any political change, since there is a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that the relationship with India must be maintained as an essential strategic partnership. The same is true across the political spectrum in India. The main political parties –the Bharatiya Janata party, which is ruling at the moment, and the opposition Congress party – all agree on this. Prime Minister Modi called President-elect Trump soon after the election results were announced, and the latest reports suggest (as of the date of this interview) that India will be sending a special envoy to get in touch with the Trump transition team in order to focus on the priorities of this relationship and to develop a plan to take it forward. 

How has President Obama’s pivot to Asia over the past 8 years affected India-U.S. and India-China relations?

The pivot or rebalancing to Asia was something that India responded to very positively. As I mentioned, our defense and security relations have grown exponentially in the past few years. We have a defense and security partnership built on equipment supplies, technology sharing and co-development. Japan, the U.S., and India are now all working much more closely together in terms of their navies exercising together and dialoguing with each other to see how to understand the emerging situation better. These are not moves which are aimed against China, but obviously Chinas’ rise has been accompanied by a much more assertive expression of its military ambitions. For example, events like the South China Sea dispute have generated tensions. India has been an advocate for an open and inclusive security architecture that includes all the countries in the region and is rule-based. To effectively deal with these disputes, we need to ensure that we have codes of conduct and rules of procedure in place, and that every country must respect the law.

How do strong U.S.-India ties affect the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing? Do you see India’s alliance with America as a way to balance a rising China?

The relationship between China and India is very important, especially since we have a 3,000-mile border with our largest neighbor. We have historical problems that we need to resolve, and we must keep the channels of communication open and defuse tensions. India would also like to see trust and mutual respect grow. At the same time, our relationship with the U.S. has become extremely vital not only in terms of trade, technology, and energy, but also because we are democracies that share so much in common with respect to our goals for the future and what we want for our people. In terms of the region, especially as the situation develops in the Indo-Pacific, there are so many new opportunities for India-U.S. cooperation. This cooperation is not directed against China, and instead aims to provide a balance in this region that will enable the creation of an equilibrium. This way, there will not be domination by any one country but we will see a concert of countries working together, thereby enabling Asia to forge an identity of its own. This should be the identity that we forged in centuries past, when we had traders and migrants and artists and voyagers and geographers all moving freely and promoting the dialogue of civilizations and cultures among themselves while avoiding conflict and dispute. Asia should not lose that fundamental identity and ability to interact and to be interdependent.

You were the first or one of the first women to hold your diplomatic positions in India. How did being a woman affect your experience?

I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1973. At this time, very few women had made their way to senior positions. When the Foreign Service was set up in the late 1940s, a few women did enter the service, but there were many rules of exclusion. If they got married, they had to leave the foreign service. When I joined the foreign service, this rule still held; I had to certify that I wasn’t married when I applied. However, these impediments were removed within a few years. Things began to change in the late 1970s. A few independent, brave women fought the system and made people realize that women were competent and qualified to be in senior posts and should not be discriminated against. Many women began to rise up in the echelons of the service. By the time I became more senior in the service, I worked on China. It was unusual for a woman to be given that responsibility. A number of us were able to set precedents and examples for others. I became the first female spokesperson for the ministry in 2001, which was a big step. It’s a demanding job since you have to be in the spotlight, represent the government, and think on your feet. Later, I was the second female Foreign Secretary. The exposure and experience it gave me was invaluable, and my appointment showed that the system placed trust in a woman to handle these areas.

"Roads near India-China border at Sikkim" by Lakun.patra — CC BY-SA 4.0 —
Bryn Miller CMC '19Student Journalist
Featured Image Source: "Discussing India-China ties with President, Mr. Xi Jinping" by Narendra Modi — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons—
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