Full text of the interview of Foreign Secretary by Karan Thapar for India Tonight on CNBC TV-18

Interviewer (Karan Thapar): Hello and welcome to India Tonight and to an exclusive interview with the Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao on India-China relations in the wake of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit. I want very much, Foreign Secretary, to spend a significant amount of time of this interview talking about India-China relations. But let us start with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit. The press seems to have had mixed reviews of the outcome. How does the Government view the visit?

Foreign Secretary (Nirupama Rao): The Government sees this visit as part of a continuum, part of a process, part of a process of evolution in the relationship. Secondly, I would offer the opinion and view that this visit has had a further stabilising effect on the relationship. When our leaders meet and when they discuss issues that concern the relationship it provides for greater clarity, higher resolution, if one were to use an optic term, in terms of the way forward. And I think it is important always to have a long-term perspective about this relationship.

Interviewer: Let us look at some of the issues that would have cropped up. To begin with, stapled visas. As you said, the Chinese themselves brought up the subject. According to reports in The Hindu, the Chinese had said in Beijing that they view this as an administrative, not a political issue. Where do things actually stand today?

Foreign Secretary: As I mentioned earlier, Premier Wen Jiabao brought it up himself even before we could raise it, and we intended definitely to raise it with the Chinese. And the first point he made was that they understood that this was a serious issue. They understand the seriousness and the importance that we attach to this issue because we wanted results. We cannot accept the status quo on this. Therefore, what he told Prime Minister was that we need to sort this out, we need to sit down and discuss this, and let us get our officials to look at this more intensively with a view to resolving it as soon as possible. That is where the matter stands at the moment.

Interviewer: So, you are optimistic that this will be settled and it will be settled reasonably quickly.

Foreign Secretary: Well, that is our intention that it should be settled because the more you allow it to fester and there is a lot of public debate surrounding this issue, and I am sure the Chinese see the impact of this on the relationship. It has not had a good impact on the relationship.

Interviewer: A second issue that would have come up would be India’s claim to permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The Indian Express has said that in his private conversation Prime Minister Wen said China would not be an obstacle to India seeking a permanent seat. But none of that was actually in the Joint Statement. So, have you got an indication of support more than we have had in the past from the Chinese?

Foreign Secretary: Whenever Premier Wen and our Prime Minister have discussed this issue, the signals that we have received from the side of the Chinese and particularly from Premier Wen have been that they are looking at this issue with a lot of interest, and they are absorbed in the debate that is developing on this issue both in the United Nations and both within the countries concerned who aspire for permanent membership. So, I think they understand that this particular issue about permanent membership is very important for many of the aspiring members including India. There are other countries also, as you know, who are interested in permanent membership. So, in that context, my reading of the issue is that at the moment of course the issue has not as yet acquired that critical mass and momentum for it to be placed before the U.N. General Assembly for a vote or for an ultimate decision. But when it comes to that, and hopefully we will see momentum in that direction, the signals that we are getting from China are firstly that they see that the aspirations of a country like India to play a greater role in the United Nations including its Security Council are worthy of support. And ultimately my own reading is that when it comes to the crux of the matter, when it comes to the ultimate decision, China is unlikely to stand in the way.

Interviewer: So, you are actually optimistic that when it comes to the crux, they would not be an obstacle?

Foreign Secretary: Because when it comes to the crux you should have that groundswell of support and movement.

Interviewer: They would not want to stand against the groundswell.

Foreign Secretary: That is what I am saying.

Interviewer: On the question of terror, from the Joint Statement there is no mention of 26/11, there is no mention of bringing the culprits to justice in Pakistan, or Pakistan not indulging in anti-India terror. Your Ministry has suggested - in the briefing it has done – that this was in a sense obliquely covered by reference to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267. And in your own press statement, according to the Business Standard, you said Prime Minister Wen expressed great sympathy for the Mumbai attacks and that Chinese people have felt great concern for the victims of Mumbai attacks. Why there was not some of this in the Joint Statement?

Foreign Secretary: The fact that it did not find mention in the Joint Statement, I would suggest that you look at it in the larger context. China and India do have a dialogue on counter-terrorism issues. Premier Wen did bring this up in the conversation with our Prime Minister. Of course, you have to be realistic about the relationship also. China and Pakistan have a very close strategic consensus on many issues, and the depth of that relationship is known to all of us. So, we have a very realistic appreciation of where we stand with China on a number of these issues. But the fact is that with China the relationship that we have been able to build up over the last few years and the dimensions that this relationship has come to acquire have included a very useful discussion on counter-terrorism also.

Interviewer: One of the things that everyone picked up was that the Joint Statement perhaps for the first time after 15-20 years does not mention India’s commitment to a One-China policy, it does not recognise or reaffirm India viewing Tibet as part of Chinese territory. Is there significance to that omission?

Foreign Secretary: I mentioned in my press conference that it was not really a bone of contention when we were drafting the communiqué.

Interviewer: They did not demur at all?

Foreign Secretary: They did not demur at all. It did not really figure in the discussion. Well, you can read a number of meanings into that. First of all, every communiqué and every statement that we have made so far jointly with the Chinese have referred to the One-China policy. And in fact there is a mention of all the previous statements in the joint communiqué that we concluded this time.

Interviewer: Which is a sort of backdoor mention?

Foreign Secretary: So, in a sense there is a reference to understandings and positions expressed in those earlier documents.

Interviewer: But it is not expressed in the document.

Foreign Secretary: Yes, in this particular joint communiqué it does not find a mention.

Interviewer: So, how do you read this? What is the significance?

Foreign Secretary: I see it as an assumption on the Chinese part that they understand India’s long-stated position on these issues, that there is really no need to reiterate it because it is assumed that the One-China policy has not changed.

Interviewer: The press has interpreted this to mean that India would like some significant recognition by China of India’s total sovereign claim on Kashmir. And if that is not forthcoming, then we discreetly held back our recognition and reaffirmation of either One-China or Tibet as China.

Foreign Secretary: I think there have been a lot of dramatic assumptions that have been expressed through various sections of the media and a number of opinion makers, or at least analysts have alluded to what you have just said. But obviously in any relationship there has to be mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. In fact, one of the principles of the five principles of peaceful coexistence, which find reference in the latest document also, is mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Interviewer: So, there was a message here, subtle and discreet, but there was a message to the Chinese.

Foreign Secretary: And the message that we have been putting across not just subtly, very clearly and candidly to the Chinese is that yes on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and particularly on the stapled visa issue which directly seems to question our sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, we would like more positive statements of support from China.

Interviewer: On the question of Jammu and Kashmir, something that has emerged in the papers shortly after Prime Minister Wen Jiabao left India is the fact that the Chinese seem to only accept 2000 kilometres as the border between the two countries, not 3500, and the missing 1500 is in fact right along Aksai Chin. Does that concern you?

Foreign Secretary: First of all let me say that this is not a position that we came across yesterday or day before yesterday. We have been aware of it for some time. Obviously there are differences of perception, there are divergences between China and India on the length of the border. A lot of it has to do with their conception of the border in the western sector. And that is where the whole issue of Jammu and Kashmir comes in. It is an issue, it is a problem, it is a divergence between India and China. But the question I will pose to you is, “How do we address this issue?” We have a mechanism in place to discuss the outstanding question of the boundary. We have an ongoing discussion with China. And I think both countries need to engage each other more closely on these issues with a view to reducing these divergences.

Interviewer: I want actually to ask you a question about the Special Representatives.

Foreign Secretary: But let me add we certainly do not agree with their perception of the boundary being limited to just 1900 kilometres. In our view it is about 3500 kilometres.

Interviewer: I want to talk about the Special Representatives and the progress or the lack of progress that they are making. But very quickly, is this another indication from the Chinese that they do not recognise Kashmir as Indian sovereign territory and that is why the 1500 kilometres which has disappeared, which is all in Kashmir, is not being recognised as part of the border.

Foreign Secretary: It is really up to the Chinese to clarify that issue. I think it would be in nobody’s interest for this to become an obstacle in the relationship. And that is why we say the ball is in the Chinese court when it comes to stapled visas, when it comes to clarifying their position in such matters. Obviously, it would be in nobody’s interest for such an issue to acquire dimensions which creates more divergence between the two countries.

Interviewer: Is this in the context of the stapled visas, in the context of China’s increasing involvement in POK, another development that worries us about the Chinese overall attitude to Kashmir?

Foreign Secretary: I think you have to search even more deeply in this. And I think our vision in this sense must be directed westward and looking at the China-Pakistan relationship. And there is every indication, and the Chinese also leave us in little doubt about this in terms of their actions and statements, about the depth and substance of the China-Pakistan relationship. It is a strategic relationship that has acquired momentum over the last five decades directly after the India-China conflict over the border in 1962. And it shows no signs of diminishing. We are completely aware of this. It is not that we have sought to turn a blind eye to it when we engaged the Chinese. What is important now is that we are directly raising issues of concern with the Chinese side in a very candid and in a very forthcoming way. And that is when it comes to discussions on the length of the border, when it comes to discussions about the western sector of the boundary where, mind you, we engaged with each other on a day-to-day basis along the Line of Actual Control in a peaceful way.

Interviewer: What I detect from what you are saying is that there is a more upfront assertiveness in India.

Foreign Secretary: Well, there is much more confidence about asserting our positions.

Interviewer: Let us then very briefly come to the border talks that have been held by the two Special Representatives. The media seems to be convinced that the Chinese are either rethinking or perhaps even resiling from the 2005 agreement that settled areas would not be disturbed. Is that actually the case?

Foreign Secretary: I would not make those stark conclusions. We have had the agreement on Guiding Principles and Political Parameters for the settlement of the boundary question way back in 2005, and those agreements still hold. There is nothing to suggest any resiling from those principles.

Interviewer: Any rethinking in Beijing ...?

Foreign Secretary: I would disagree with that. I think it is more a question of we are getting down to working out a framework for a boundary settlement. And obviously it is extremely complex. You know the discussions that have been held from 1960 onwards on this question.

Interviewer: Let us then come to the economic dimension of this relationship. The two countries are hoping to achieve US$ 60 billion worth of trade this year. You have set a target of US$ 100 billion for 2015. But at the same time you have a worrying trade deficit which is just over US$ 19 billion. Can you achieve US$ 100 billion without the trade deficit becoming even bigger?

Foreign Secretary: Before I go into the problem of the trade deficit – and we just discussed the boundary question and the divergences with China on these issues – where is the relationship going to develop in very substantive terms in the future? The record of the last few years would suggest the economic relationship, the people-to-people relationship, the connectivity between the two countries. So, this is really the future of the relationship, You are going to have discussions to resolve outstanding issues, as I said, on the boundary, but where do we move forward on the economic and trade relationship. And that is where the imbalance comes in. I saw Dr. Amit Mitra’s very well-argued article the other day about the imbalance being unsustainable. And that is the message that we have made very clearly to the Chinese. They have to open the market to our IT services, to our pharmaceuticals, to our agricultural commodities.

Interviewer: But are they prepared to do that because that is how they secure the trade surplus?

Foreign Secretary: Absolutely. Well, when Premier Wen was here and you saw his public statements on the issue, I think he made the effort – I think in all honesty we should acknowledge that – to convey to the Indian public that China took this issue seriously and they intended to work towards reducing this. So, they will have to walk the talk on this really.

Interviewer: Once again, the ball is very much in China’s court.

Foreign Secretary: I think so. I think the ball is in China’s court. But Indian business is doing well in China today. We have a number of our big names doing good business in China and there is that dimension also of the relationship.

Interviewer: Let us take a break. And then I want to come back and in the context of what you said about Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit, I want to talk to you about the broader canvas of India-China relations. How do you view this relationship given the fact that on the one hand they are becoming India’s single biggest trading partner but on the other what worries all of us is the close-knit strategic relationship they have with Pakistan. That is in a moment’s time. See you after the break.

(After the Break)

Interviewer: Welcome back to India Tonight and an interview with the Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao on India-China relations. Foreign Secretary, let us then come to the bigger canvas of India-China relations. On the one hand China is India’s single biggest trading partner - you are hoping to target US$ 100 billion in 2015 – but on the other China supports Pakistan over Kashmir, it would not criticise Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of policy, it bends laws to supply Islamabad with nuclear reactors, it seems to want to check India’s emergence as a leading power, it disputes our sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh. What sort of a relationship do we have?

Foreign Secretary: Karan, I think it is a question of finding the right responses and charting a course that preserves and protects India’s interests given the scenario that you just mentioned. On the trade front I have mentioned to you what we want from China and what we intend to engage them about as far as reduction of the trade imbalance is concerned. On the other hand there is the strategic aspect of the China-Pakistan relationship and all the attendant complexities that it brings to bear even on the discussions on the boundary question, I would try to bring that out. I think the public in this country also needs a more informed debate on China. I think there has to be an element of sobriety also when we look at how we view the relationship with China. This is when we look at the way forward.

Interviewer: Two quick questions. People like Brajesh Mishra often sound concerned about the possibility that Beijing and Islamabad may work together thus posing for India the unique problem of two troublesome neighbours on the north and the west. How does your Ministry view that possibility?

Foreign Secretary: That is a situation obviously that would not be in our interest. And how do we work to prevent that? I think we have to think smartly about dealing with such scenarios. I think we run the risk very often in this country of reducing the relationship with China to one issue or another issue and then developing scenarios around it. I think we need a much more comprehensive appreciation of what the challenges are in this relationship and how do we address these challenges. And that is to my mind the best way to do that is to proceed along the lines that we have been going in the last two and two and a half decades, which is more dialogue, more engagement, more leadership level confidence in dealing with each other. I think we have set a certain paradigm for this relationship and I believe it is the right paradigm.

Interviewer: What about the fact that today China is the world’s second biggest economic power. It is heading fast towards becoming in fact the biggest. Some people say that by 2050 it would probably replace America as the biggest super power. Does that concern you?

Foreign Secretary: It should concern every Indian and I think it should really spur us on to narrowing this divide or this gap in the race with China. It should not be a relationship defined by competition or rivalry alone because it does not suit either country. Look at the stakes involved. Look at the tasks before us in terms of our development. Look at the miles that we have to cover. So, I think we have to understand as we move forward that we must make use of the opportunities we have to understand China better, to engage it in a way that defends our interests. It is not that we are going to resile from our basic positions and that our security will be hampered in the process.

Interviewer: To what extent is the popular appreciation of the relationship with China hampered by a lingering trauma or complex from 1962? To what extent is that holding India back?

Foreign Secretary: You know Karan, I have thought about this and I know there is a generation of Indians that still thinks of 1962 and in many ways our opinions and images of China, the scratches on our minds as it were - to use a term from Harold Isaacs - very much defined by the trauma of 1962. But there is a whole new generation of Indians and Chinese that has grown up after that. I would say issues like stapled visas, or this whole hype and debate that has surrounded the possibility of China building dams on the Brahmaputra, or the reports that surface from time to time about how the Chinese look at the border, these are issues that are affecting the public psychology on China today, even much more than 1962 I think.

Interviewer: In which case let me put this to you, some people say that India and China are wary rivals who will perhaps cooperate when their interests converge but will be suspicious of each other when they do not. Would you accept that as an interesting way of viewing the relationship?

Foreign Secretary: I think there will be competition in this relationship and there will be collaboration also. There will be areas of collaboration, areas of cooperation. And I think the challenge is to find the right balance and maintain a kind of steady equilibrium in taking the relationship, the dialogue particularly with China forward so that we are able to articulate our concerns, we are able to tell the Chinese where we stand on issues of absolutely fundamental interest to us, and at the same time trying to build greater mutual confidence in this relationship.

Interviewer: So, the keynote is to strike the right balance.

Foreign Secretary: Exactly.

Interviewer: A pleasure talking to you, Foreign Secretary.

Foreign Secretary: Thank you, Karan.

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