Nirupama Rao on how India should deal with an insecure China

Former Indian ambassador to Beijing and Washington D.C. and former Foreign Secretary says that sober, calibrated diplomacy and reviewing trade relations and driving harder bargains are the way forward

Nirupama Rao on how India should deal with an insecure China
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Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Nirupama Rao has served in key positions under two different regimes. She was the foreign office spokesperson, the first woman to hold the post, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time and she was in the centre of diplomatic frenzy that preceded and followed the failed Agra talks between Vajpayee and Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf in July 2001.

She was India’s ambassador in China from 2006 to 2009 during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first term, and India’s foreign secretary from 2009 to 2011, and India’s ambassador to the United States in 2011-13 during Singh’s second term.

Her engagement with China had spread over her career, from her involvements with Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to China in 1986, to her serving an Indian ambassador in Beijing from 2006 to 2009. She is at present working on a book about India-China relations between 1949 and 1962.

In an email interview with Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, retired diplomat Rao assesses the present stand-off between India and China in eastern Ladakh with the trained and experienced eye of a seasoned diplomat and China hand, casting a critical eye on China’s “hubristic approach”.


She says of the present mood in China: “Nationalism is the wolf’s milk that a whole generation of the post-Tiananmen youth in China has ingested.” She talks dispassionately about how India should handle an insecure China.

Following is the text of the email interview with Ambassador Rao:

Is the Chinese troop build-up in eastern Ladakh the usual aggressive posturing which dies out after a while, or does it mark a change in Beijing’s policy towards Delhi?

Nirupama Rao: There are many speculative reports that are crowding the public space and engendering all types of theories of Chinese behavior. Two facts are certain: the Chinese, buoyed by their military and logistic and infrastructure resources, and a hubristic approach to neighbourhood relations, are showing a very muscular and assertive attitude in reinforcing their claimed Line of Actual Control (which they say corresponds to their “traditional customary boundary”).

The other fact is that India’s presence in the areas along the LAC is much more visibly asserted because of improvements in our infrastructure and the higher operational alertness of our military personnel. These two when taken together make for a kinetic additive to a situation where the two countries have differing perceptions of the LAC in some areas. Of course, it is also difficult to deny that China has paid short shrift to the factor of sensitivity in dealings with India across several fields, leading to the erosion of mutual trust that we have witnessed in recent years.


To what extent is the Border Road Organisation (BRO) activity in the region a trigger for the Chinese reaction?

NR: Trigger is a misplaced word. Border management and improvements to infrastructure play an important, key role in the defence of the country. The Chinese have done the same on their side of the LAC. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I do not believe that any aggressive intent can be imputed to legitimate activities we carry on our side of the LAC.

It is being said that there has been no tension in this part of the Line Actual Control (LAC) since the end of the 1962 war. So, does this mean China is doing a rethink on the question of maintaining peace and tranquility which has served as the basis of relations on the border for more than two decades now?

NR: Yes, this is a new area of tension but do not forget that the Galwan area saw action during the 1962 conflict, and preceding it, a period of so-called “armed coexistence” between the two sides. So, there is a history about Galwan.

Nonetheless, we are dealing with a China that is quite a different country from the first- generation People’s Republic we in India saw in the fifties and sixties of the last century. Nationalism is the wolf’s milk that a whole generation of the post-Tiananmen youth in China has ingested. They don’t seem to realize that their new-found strength must not be seen as bullying and provocative.

Bluntly put, this sense of entitlement in a power of their strength and resources can be very intimidating to the rest of the world. It will not win them friends or influence. A great power also has to be a purveyor of a universal idea (like for example in the case of the United States it has been freedom, democracy and human rights) that make for the global good as one seasoned China-watcher recently observed. That is yet to be seen in the case of China.


You have served as Indian ambassador to China and you have directly dealt with the Chinese establishment. What is your perception of the Chinese way of looking at India-China relations?

NR: They see us as a neighbour they cannot wish away, an ancient civilization, a chaotic and rather messy democracy, the dominant presence in South Asia, an irritant on matters Tibetan, a rising power that they try to check by various stratagems they deploy to woo our South Asian neighbours so that we are hemmed in.

They do not want India to be seen as their competitor since they constantly obsess about China’s assumed superiority, which they benchmark only against the United States. In bilateral summits and meetings, of course, they follow a carefully choreographed, formal (almost straight-jacketed) and scripted display of benevolent cordiality. Sometimes the image that comes to mind is that the Chinese Communist Party leaders cast themselves in the mould of the Qing emperor, accepting tribute and goodwill from the rest of the world!

Have there been changes in India’s view of China, especially in the last few years?

NR: Post-1962, I believe that the distrust of China has not evaporated – it is embedded in the Indian psyche. But we have tried to craft a modus vivendi with China that avoids a slide into conflict and confrontation, even as that approach is being stressed since China is certainly pushing and shoving more than it did in recent decades.


In contrast to India’s sharp responses to provocations from Pakistan, the Indian foreign office has maintained a studied and calibrated silence with similar provocations from China. Is it the best way of diffusing temporary tensions and flare-ups from the eastern neighbour?

NR: Sober, studied and calibrated diplomacy is always the recommended action of first resort. We are right in following this approach towards China following the recent incidents. Pakistan is shown a sharp response because of a long history of undisguised, violent provocation it has directed against India leading to the failure of every diplomatic initiative we have taken vis a vis that country. But ultimately, even India and Pakistan have to settle their differences through mature, patient negotiations, not by protracted confrontation. Diplomacy is as ancient a profession as war. And it wins over the battlefield. It builds more secure futures than conflict does.

Mr. Vijay Gokhale (former foreign secretary) has in a recent article in The Hindu pointed out that the Chinese establishment of today has adopted an aggressive policy compared to the more nuanced stances pursued by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, and that it would help China if it goes back to the older approach. First, do you see a marked change in China’s foreign policy posture today compared to the 1990s? And do you think the change was inevitable because China is an economic power to reckon with in today’s world, and it can afford to flex its muscles? ‘Warrior wolf’ has become the buzzword to describe the new Chinese diplomat. Is it a fair and accurate description of the Chinese approach in the present moment?

NR: My personal view is that the Chinese were more nuanced and seemingly sophisticated in their dealings with the world in the eras of Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiaoping because they were buying time to build the country, cement ties with foreign countries because China was ostracized and isolated, and because they were keeping their powder dry as they improved their position.

Zhou Enlai possessed the sophistry and veneer of the classic Chinese Mandarin, and he deployed it to excellent use for instance, at Bandung, and with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He ‘acted’ his part as China’s ‘face’ to the world. Where India was concerned, he did not bring to the ambit of the Sino-Indian equation any special, emotional attachment. Zhou was adept in the ways of diplomacy, he adapted himself to different audiences, a study in ambivalence and seeming sincerity.

At the Bandung Conference, he was the talk of the town, the object of almost forensic attention, widely seen as “the shrewdest Asian diplomat of his time” according to the Western media, and even capable of manipulating his attire to suit different political audiences. The language of Chinese diplomacy -- essentially Chinese Communist Party diplomacy -- despite the changes in the country, and the huge economic leap they have made, remains the language of the Long March, of the struggle against foreigners, imbued with a style that reeks of suspicion and secrecy, and aimed at restoring Chinese ‘greatness’. Their historical memory is that of the ‘wrongs’ unleashed on them by inimical forces, of their humiliation at foreign hands; they resolved at the outset of the founding of the People’s Republic that they would never allow themselves to be similarly subjected ever again.


For quite some time now many analysts have held up the India-China relationship as an ideal where differences are not allowed to come in the way of maintaining friendly relations, and to join hands in matters of mutual interest like trade, and that this should be the model for India-Pakistan relations as well. Do you think, the India-China relationship is under stress?

NR: The test of the relationship is how well it undergoes stress tests. We still have not exhausted the avenues for diplomacy. At the same time, the governments concerned have to manage the public debate on issues of difference better. The public debate cannot drive diplomacy or our responses.

There is an aggressive anti-China lobby in India which would want India to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Beijing and join hands with the US and EU in countering the growing Chinese influence. Do you see any merit in this view?

NR: The challenge of China has to be met in many ways. Aggressive rhetoric is not the prescribed way. We have to deploy our diplomatic assets in a deft way that allows for maneuverability and nimbleness. Our partnership with the United States is a valuable asset, no doubt, and we need to ensure high visibility during this time for our strategic and defence dialogue with the Americans and the leadership-level trust that exists between our two countries.

Our naval and maritime cooperation with them and with democracies like Japan, and a more energized Act East policy also should be in the line of vision of the Chinese, showing the strategic assets we can leverage in the Indian Ocean region.

Relations with Indonesia have not received the focus from India that they deserve. It is also time we paid much more attention to our relations with EU and its leading members like France and Germany, two like-minded democracies who are committed to multilateralism, to equality and non-hegemonic behaviour in the international sphere.

On the geo-economic front, we should carefully assess our trade and investment relations with China, the interests of Chinese companies operating in India, and see how we can drive a much harder bargain and deploy greater pressure that signals to Beijing that the relationship with India is no trifling matter. The tough gets going in many ways.


The India-China border talks at the Special Representative level have been going through endless rounds despite change in governments. Do you think that any progress is being made on that front, and it is a key to stability in bilateral relations?

NR: The Special Representative-level talks have been useful, they have generated some valuable understandings, particularly the Guiding Principles and Political Parameters for a settlement of the Boundary Question. The negotiating has been difficult and complex but peace and tranquility have been maintained in the border areas as a result of the impetus for confidence-building and tension reduction provided by these talks. They have also provided a forum for strategic dialogue between the two countries. This dialogue cannot be abandoned. It provides for a forum sanctioned at the highest political level for interaction on sensitive and complex issues concerning the relationship.

What do you think is the way to deal with a complex neighbour like China?

NR: With reason and maturity, with full awareness of the past in our relations and the lessons learnt by both sides from it, with the realization that the present and the future of this relationship will be difficult and complex, by developing our economic and strategic strength as a country, so that we are better and better equipped to withstand the threat from China.


How would you assess Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China overtures in the last six years?

Overall, there has been a continuum in our China policy over the last three decades. Various Prime Ministers of India during this period have led policy approaches to China that have favoured dialogue over confrontation, peace and confidence-building in the border areas, improvement of relations in several areas despite the unresolved boundary question, dialogue at the highest level, maintaining a constructive attitude.

But the problems in the relationship have not gone away. There has been no diplomatic talisman to solve these problems that either country has unearthed. Realism should dictate our policy: realism about our relative strengths and weaknesses vis a vis China, and how we deploy our not inconsiderable strengths in a manner that make our movements on this diplomatic and strategic chessboard against China more empowered and astute.

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Published: 27 May 2020, 1:59 PM