Tribhuvan Tiwari
‘A Climate Of Fear Isn’t Good For Relations With Australia’
The Indian foreign secretary on India-China, Bangladesh, Af-Pak, and of course Australia

Nirupama Rao is the second Indian woman diplomat to hold the prestigious position of Indian foreign secretary. The personal touches to her spacious office are limited; she has chosen to channel her energies into formulating and articulating India’s foreign policy when the country’s rise has “caught  the imagination of the world”. Rao took time out from her busy schedule to speak to Pranay Sharma in what is her first major interview as foreign secretary. Excerpts:

The close cooperation between India and China at the Copenhagen summit has surprised many. Can we expect similar cooperation between the two sides on other issues?

India and China have similar perspectives on many global issues, so this need not come as a surprise. Through the joint effort, we were able to safeguard the interests of the developing world while addressing the challenges of climate change. That has established a very positive paradigm. Bilaterally also, our relations with China have grown in substance and are now multi-dimensional.

“The trials of those held in Pakistan for 26/11 have moved at a glacial pace. It hasn’t provided us much confidence.”
What would this cooperation symbolise, since it came when there were a series of negative articles in the media about China?

Setting aside what one may have seen in the media, we have to acknowledge that the relationship has grown tremendously in the last few years. There’s definitely a positive content to our cooperation, whether it’s at the political level, leadership-level dialogue, party-to-party contacts, official exchanges, military-to-military and defence dialogue, and educational exchanges. We have a large number of Indian students studying in China; and a growing number of Chinese students are coming to study here.

And the boundary issue?

It’s a complex issue; it will take time to resolve, and we have to be patient. But,  importantly, there is political will on both sides to address these issues through dialogue and negotiations, so that a mutually acceptable solution can be found. While we seek a solution to the boundary issue, both sides have agreed to maintain peace in the border areas.

“The trust and warmth the PM shares with leaders of US and Russia reflects the respect accorded to India by both countries.”
What’s expected from the Bangladesh PM’s visit next week?

With Bangladesh, there are many shared ties of history, culture, freedom struggle and liberation. The blend of these memories infuses this relationship, imparting a very special meaning to it. The dialogue we have had with the Awami League government, since Sheikh Hasina assumed responsibilities as prime minister, has been very substantive. It has been across the spectrum of bilateral contact. We feel Prime Minister Hasina’s visit will be a landmark event in our bilateral relations, taking this relationship to an even higher level. Considering the spirit of mutual trust and confidence, I think both governments are on the same page.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US was followed by a trip to Moscow within a week’s time. Was India trying to strike a balance between Washington and Moscow?

We have very comprehensive and substantive relationships with both Russia and the US. They have to be seen as standing on their own. The PM’s Washington visit was very successful. We utilised this visit to reaffirm the “global strategic partnership” that both governments have decided to launch. The relationship is in a transformational phase, in which the bilateral dialogue and partnership are addressing not only global challenges, but also helping to advance global security and counter global terrorism. We are also addressing sustainable development, the global economy, and empowerment of future generations.

The relationship with Russia is a time-tested one. With Russia, the pillars of our cooperation are ‘rock solid’. The personal chemistry the prime minister has with both President (Dmitry) Medvedev and Prime Minister (Vladimir) Putin was very much in evidence, as it was between him and President (Barack) Obama. The degree of trust and warmth and very good communication that exists with the leaders of both these countries is really remarkable, demonstrating the respect with which India is viewed by the top leadership there.

“Through the joint effort in Copenhagen, we safeguarded the developing world’s interests while addressing challenges of climate change.”
How concerned is India about the new thrust in President Obama’s AfPak policy and his hints about withdrawing US troops by 2011?

President Obama has announced that 30,000 additional US troops will be deployed in Afghanistan soon. We have welcomed the strategy, (meant) to strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces. We have also welcomed the reiteration of the need by the US to squarely tackle the threat of terrorism in our region, and for Pakistan to ensure that terrorists don’t enjoy safe haven in its territory and that under its control.

What scenario are we looking at in Afghanistan in the next two years? Does it open up more space for India to, say, train the Afghan army?

We have seen the resurgence of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in recent years. There are also sanctuaries in Pakistan which unfortunately nurture and support groups that are a threat to peace and security in Afghanistan and to the region and beyond. With the international community’s support, the Afghan government can overcome these challenges. But you need a long-term commitment to ensure peace and development in Afghanistan. The situation there is of direct concern to us; we have an abiding interest in its stability and prosperity. We have reiterated our commitment to assist Afghanistan’s people and government in building a peaceful, democratic and pluralistic country.

“India’s dialogue with the Awami League government is substantive. Sheikh Hasina’s visit will be a landmark event in bilateral relations.”
What kind of assistance has India been giving to Afghanistan?

Our assistance has focused on development of infrastructure, human resource development and capacity building. We do a modest amount of capacity building for the Afghan army in terms of training—for their officers in our training institutes. But the major focus will be on development and capacity building—for example, in areas like agriculture. We will be guided by what the Afghan people and government want.

Is the situation in Pakistan a cause for worry for India?

A stable Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours is in India’s interest. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the recent violence there definitely has implications that, in a sense, go beyond the borders of Pakistan. We are taking steps to safeguard our security. But we want a stable, secure and peaceful Pakistan.

Do you see an early resumption of the dialogue between India and Pakistan?

The Mumbai terror attack led to a pause in the ‘composite dialogue’. Pakistan will have to decide what kind of relationship it wants with India. We never shut the door on dialogue with Pakistan. But if you have to transact meaningful dialogue to improve relations, Pakistan has to take steps to fulfil its commitments of not allowing (the use of) its territory for acts endangering India’s security.

Is that a pre-condition?

The nation is yet to come to terms with what happened in Mumbai. We have to really proceed with an understanding of the feeling of our people. We cannot be oblivious to the people’s grief and the concern that they continue to feel about the actions emanating from Pakistan. It was a conspiracy which was engineered there; groups from Pakistan were responsible for the tragedy. Then we have the issue of the trial of those who have been arrested in connection with Mumbai—the trials have moved at glacial pace. It has not provided much confidence to us. We have never and do not want to escalate tensions with Pakistan. But Pakistan must understand our concerns on this issue. We are waiting for Pakistan to show that degree of sensitivity.

“Attacks on our students in Australia are of grave concern to us, as also to the mostly middle-class people who send their children there at great cost.”
There are quite a few in the West who say you have to deal with a section of Taliban to stabilise Afghanistan. How would you characterise such a position?

We support the Afghan government’s determination to integrate those who are willing to completely abjure violence and adhere to the principles of democracy, pluralism and human rights as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. This process is best left to the people and the Afghan government. Interference by outside countries on this issue will be counterproductive. But the concept of reconciliation should not be seen, as it is by some countries, as a quick-fix solution to enable an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The Taliban problem is a serious one. As I said, there are no quick-fix solutions.

Despite the Australian government’s assurances, attacks on Indian students are continuing.

It’s very tragic that this young student was murdered in Melbourne. Even earlier, there have been attacks on our students in Australia. Obviously, it’s of grave concern to us as also for the parents, who are mostly middle-class and send their children there at great cost and difficulty. They send them to Australia because it has been seen as a country providing an excellent education and having a safe environment. These incidents have shaken their confidence and belief about Australia. It is very, very important to restore that confidence. A climate of fear and suspicion is not good for the relationship between the two countries.

What does Nirupama Rao as the foreign secretary bring to the table?

I’m serving a very hallowed institution and also a country whose profile is growing internationally. This transformation in India’s image has also generated an increased need for our involvement in a host of diverse issues globally. Therefore, I see my role as foreign secretary in helping in managing this external transformation in an efficient and orderly manner so that the benefit of the involvement with the outside world can accrue to the greater good of our development within the country.


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