Nirupama Menon Rao is easily one of India’s best known diplomats, having served both as former foreign secretary and former Indian Ambassador to China. The threat of collapse of the world order will depend on the post-Covid situation, she tells The New Indian Express. The global political and economic order is definitely being tested by the threat of heightened competition and fraying of engagement between China and the US, the rise of hyper-nationalism, besides other factors, and we must read the tea leaves well and discern these trends, says the seasoned diplomat.
There had been a build-up over a few weeks of different incidents before what happened on June 15 at the Galwan Valley. You called it a ‘watershed moment’. Can you please explain?
The situation in certain pockets along the Line of Actual Control with China in the Ladakh sector, had been showing increasing signs of volatility from early May. This included the Pangong Tso area, Hot Springs and the Galwan Valley. In the latter region — Galwan — there had been no known incident of confrontation since the conflict of 1962, when in October that year a fierce battle between the two sides had been fought with considerable loss of life at this very location. In the run-up to that conflict also, it had seen increased tension and encirclement by Chinese troops of our personnel (but no loss of life), especially in July 1962.
What sets the June 15, 2020, face-off apart is that firstly, it ended a 45-year period when our troops had not been involved in a violent confrontation with China, that additionally involved a heavy loss of life which is extremely unfortunate. Secondly, the latest developments have serious repercussions on our bilateral relationship with China since in a graphic manner, we are seeing a very hostile and violently assertive face of China, which is quite at variance with their behaviour in the past three decades of constructive engagement.
Can it ever be business as usual with China from now on?
The incident is a severe setback to bilateral relations, of that there is no doubt. But engagement cannot be replaced overnight by disengagement. Our China policy has obviously to be redefined, and restructured. Faced with Chinese hostility and inflexibility on territorial issues concerning the boundary dispute, and China’s adversarial policies affecting India, especially in Pakistan, we have to weigh the fallout of disengagement with due deliberation, assessing the costs to us internally as well as externally. At the diplomatic level and between the two militaries, contact and communication will have to be maintained in order to defuse the situation that has developed along the LAC.
Looking at other areas of bilateral engagement, China is our biggest trading partner in goods. The economic adjustment we make should be conceived and implemented in a manner that also takes into account steps we must take to diversify supply chains for our key manufacturing industries, so that we reduce dependence on China. More than a hundred Chinese companies are involved in infrastructure development in India. Also, there is the flow of Chinese investments in our startups in the technology sector. Then there are Indian companies, like Infosys, TCS and Tata, who have been operating in China for some years now. We have to be deft with the policy alternatives we put in place so that our economic interests are not targeted.
The options will have to be weighed carefully. It is possible that tariffs on a number of Chinese goods will be raised. The gloves are definitely off in this altered environment, post-Galwan. We have to guard against hotheadedness in the public domain, however, as a pressure point on the government. We source around 14 per cent of our imports from China, while India accounts for less that 2 per cent of Chinese exports. In other areas, away from trade and investment, I presume there will be a slowing-down of bilateral contacts and that a degree of chill will set in in the short and possibly medium-term.
The head of government of our nation had something very different to say as against what the MEA was saying. How do you respond?
The PM’s remarks at the all-party meeting on June 19 were subsequently clarified by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Obviously, our patrol that went into the Galwan River Valley on Monday evening was there because there was Chinese transgression, and presence on what we regarded as our side of the Line Of Actual Control. Regrettably, speculation and various interpretations about what the PM said were rife for many hours after the remarks were made, and before the PMO statement.
This speculation could have been obviated if immediate steps had been taken to clarify what was said, through government channels, so as to set the matter at rest.
The slowness to respond was unfortunate and the Chinese propaganda machinery – their media which is tightly controlled – utilised the opportunity to dispute what we had all along been saying through the Ministry of External Affairs and Army Headquarters, that the Chinese had intruded into our territory leading to the tragic events of June 15. I can hardly over-emphasize the need for our official communication machinery to be more fleet-footed and responsive so that the media is not left to draw its own conclusions, and our adversaries do not exploit the situation.
Will the statement of the head of government legitimise the claims of China over our territory, as some fear?
No, I do not believe that is the case at all. The matter was clarified. There should be no confusion. I am sure our interests will be secure and well-defended by the government.
In addition to what is happening on the Galwan border, suddenly there is a border issue with Nepal. Is there something behind all this that the common man is not able to see?
Our boundary with Nepal is an open one, and has been so, traditionally. The issue of the boundary in the Kalapani area on the Uttarakhand-Nepal border is not a new one. There is a history to the issue that goes back to the pre-Independence era and the boundaries we inherited. Nepal and India have differing interpretations of the boundary in this area. Over the last few decades, there have been interactions at the diplomatic level between Nepal and India on the issue.
Most of the sectors of the India-Nepal border have been mutually agreed upon between the two countries in these diplomatic discussions. The Kalapani issue is one that needs resolution and it was decided last year that the matter would now be discussed at the Foreign Secretary-level by the two countries, after the technical-level groups failed to resolve the matter. The Nepal government has, through some steps taken recently, elevated the dispute to an unprecedented level as we have seen from media reports and nationalistic anti-Indian statements by the Nepalese leadership.
India and Nepal must now address the issue at the political leadership level, given these latest developments, so that a mutually satisfactory solution is found. Political brinkmanship is not advised. China is becoming a major player and is expanding its influence within Nepal. This is a new development that also affects the scenario. We must restore the positive equilibrium in India-Nepal relations and in my view, India as the larger country, as a brotherly neighbour, must take a mature, thoughtful, long-term view that safeguards the core values that have defined our relationship with Nepal from time immemorial. Both sides should end rhetoric, and focus on the need to remove misunderstandings.
Is this a ‘collapse’ of the world order?
It will all depend on the post-Covid situation. The global political and economic order is definitely being tested by the threat of heightened competition and the fraying of engagement between China and the US, the rise of hyper-nationalism and gated globalisation, tariff and immigration barriers, the sharpening of territorial disputes, the slowing and stagnation and even negative reversal of economic growth, the loss of livelihoods, and the weakening of multilateral institutions.
We must read the tea leaves well and discern these trends in a manner that as responsible global players, we are able to prevent this descent into the weakening of global stability and preserve peace and economic well-being, especially of the poor and disadvantaged, strengthen scientific cooperation in public health and disease prevention, and uphold the principles of international law and codes of conduct.
Can you please tell us a little about your new book?
It is a book about the diplomatic history of India-China relations in the period between 1949 and 1962, and I am in the process of completing it.