Nirupama Menon Rao, former Indian foreign secretary and former ambassador of India to the United States and China, leads the conversation on India and great-power rivalry.
CASA: Welcome to the first session of the Fall 2023 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you all for joining us.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Nirupama Menon Rao with us to discuss India and great-power rivalry. Ambassador Rao’s diplomatic career spans four decades during which she served as India’s ambassador to the United States, as India’s foreign secretary, as the first Indian woman ambassador to China, as the first woman high commissioner from India to Sri Lanka, and as India’s first woman spokesperson in the ministry of external affairs. Since retiring from the Indian Foreign Service, Ambassador Rao has held positions at Brown University, Columbia University, the New School, the Wilson Center, the Bellagio Center in Italy, and the University of California, San Diego. She has received numerous awards recognizing her contributions in public service, and Ambassador Rao is the author of The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-1962, published by India Penguin in 2022.
Welcome, Ambassador Rao.
RAO: Thank you. Thank you, Maria.
CASA: Thank you for speaking with us today. Can we begin with an overview from you of India’s rise and relationship with great powers like the United States, China, and Russia?
RAO: Thank you once again.
I thought I would begin my remarks by flagging the recently concluded G20 summit in New Delhi, which in many ways has been described as India’s moment in the sun, a very successful summit, and a New Delhi leaders declaration that embodied a spirit of consensus that we see very rarely in global geopolitics today.
So I believe India had every reason to be very pleased with the outcomes of the summit, especially because a lot of doubts have been expressed over the last few months and weeks whether we would be able to achieve that kind of consensus, especially when it came to referring to the developments in Ukraine and the war there.
As you know, the Russians and the Chinese had kind of stalled any movement towards that kind of consensus during the long string of G20 meetings that had been held over the year, and, therefore, the fact that we were able to achieve that consensus at the concluding—during the summit I think came as a wonderful development and, as you can well imagine, the whole of India, regardless of which political side you belong to, was very thrilled with that outcome.
Now, if you describe what the government in New Delhi is trying to say when it explains its foreign policy outlook today is speaking of a diplomacy that is more democratic, more dispersed, more of the people, by the people, and for the people, literally, and the signature theme for the G20 summit was one world, one family, one future, and that in many ways describes the approach that the Indian nation as a whole really took to the summit.
In many senses, I think, to borrow the words of President Biden when he spoke of the Quad, the partnership between our four democracies—India, United States, Japan, and Australia—he spoke of bending the arc of history to the global good and I think that is something we need to keep in mind, especially when we live in such troubled times.
Now, India defines itself in many ways as a civilizational state. It, as you know, is the world’s largest democracy. Prime Minister Modi likes to refer to it as the mother of democracy, and there was a wonderful booklet that the Indian government put out during the G20 summit which explains it all and I highly recommend that you should take a look at it. It’s online.
And this ethos sees Indian democracy as the product of the Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, not something that we have borrowed from the West, and I think that is something important that we should keep in mind, especially when there are tendencies—the default approach, especially in the West, has been to apply the democratic—the definitions of democracy as they apply in the Western tradition to India as a whole.
I’m not saying that those principles don’t apply but one has to see it in the Indian context, in the context of Indian history, in the context of India’s evolution as a democratic nation from the time of independence.
Today’s India, I think, is very aspirational and ambitious about its role and its position in the world. We have laid a great deal of stress on multi-polarity. Some people refer to our approach as multi-alignment. I’d like to steer clear of such definitions and to say that India, obviously, acts in its interest and the kind of alignments it seeks with various of our friends and partners is, obviously, designed to buttress our own interest and that question has arisen particularly in the context of the approach that we have taken to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine, if one may call it thus.
And that—some do refer to India’s position as a studied neutrality. I would like to describe it as defined by India’s interests, as defined by our geography, by our position in Asia, by our Eurasian interests, by our long-standing partnership with Russia, which, as you know, is important for us because of the defense relationship that we have had with Russia over many years.
Much of the equipment, which is required by our three defense forces, has traditionally come from Russia. In the case of our navy, I would say it amounts to almost 80 percent, in the case of the army and the air force to some lesser extent. But the connections are still very strong. And in terms of our food and energy security also the connections with Russia are important.
This is not to say that we have in any way condoned Russia’s military actions, its—in many senses, you would call aggression in Ukraine. We have stood for the principles of national sovereignty, of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and we have spoken out very vehemently against any threat of the use of nuclear weapons and, in fact, the Delhi Declaration—the leadership declaration—even if it doesn’t condemn Russia explicitly, I think you have to read between the lines.
I’m not being defensive but I’m saying you need to read between the lines because you see reflected therein this very strong advocacy of the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty and the fact that borders once defined and once sanctified should not be violated.
Now, India, as you know, lives in a troubled neighborhood and I say that because our relationship with China particularly, our largest neighbor—we share a border with China that is over—almost four thousand kilometers long, and it is a troubled border. It’s an unresolved border, and our differences with China go beyond that, go beyond just the problems that we have territorially with China.
I think it also centers on each country’s conception of the other—the rivalry, the competition. We are both civilizational states and we are competitors in that sense, at least from India’s point of view. We see ourselves as competitors of China, rivals of China, and we feel we are getting there.
I know the Chinese today there is an asymmetry of power between India and China in terms of our GDP, in terms of military capability, in terms of our access to the currency of power, may I say, if I can put it in those words.
But I see the track and the road that India is taking as it moves forward and the enormous potential that is inherent in India’s rise and I believe the gap with China will narrow over time. And I believe the United States has taken out a bet on India, literally. The kind of progress you’ve seen in the relationship between India and the United States is truly a comprehensive global strategic partnership today which embraces everything from the seas to the stars, literally, every field of human endeavor, and the closeness that is manifest between our two democracies is seen in so many fields.
Of course, there is the defense. We have shared values. I would put that as number one. But we have our defense and security relationship. We have an economic relationship that’s defined by trade, by investment, by technology. Very, very important. A prime mover today when it comes to India’s development.
We have the people-to-people ties and in many senses defined by the strong presence of an Indian-American diaspora here in the United States. Their numbers are increasing by the decade or by the year as we speak, close to 4 million they say, today, besides a large number of Indian nationals who live and work in the United States.
As you know, there’s a large component of technically qualified professionals who live and work in the United States. And the contributions that they make through the service sector, through the IT and the digital space to America’s development—creating jobs here, providing their own contributions, literally, to the growth of India’s—to the growth of America’s GDP—is something we cannot—we, obviously, cannot discount.
There’s another area that I’d like to speak of, which is the Indo-Pacific. Now, this is a term that has acquired increasing currency over the last decade—I would say at least in the last seven years or so—and the definition of the Indo-Pacific and the strategy that the United States has outlined as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned from the eastern shores of Africa to the western shores of the American continent encompass India, in many senses, in a core position.
The Indo in the Indo-Pacific really pertains to India and the Indian Ocean and, as you know, the reactions from Russia and China to the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific have not exactly been friendly, to put it diplomatically.
But as far as India is concerned—and I think this illustrates the scope and the stretch and the wide spectrum of India’s interests today, even as we transact a relationship with Russia because of our position on the continental landmass of Asia and the issues and the complexities that we face in our relationship with China and the balance that we need to maintain with Russia in order to kind of ensure that the Chinese don’t monopolize that space when it comes to the politics or the geopolitics of the future in our neighborhood and in the region in which we belong.
But as far as the United States is concerned, particularly as the defense and security relationship goes, you will notice there is a very clear observation that you can make that it is very much centered at the core with what we see unfolding in the Indo-Pacific—the rise of China, the muscularity, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness that China has deployed not only on its land borders with India but also when it comes to the maritime environment that surrounds us, the island disputes that it has with a number of nations in Southeast Asia and East Asia, and the need for the United States to develop and to intensify its partnerships with democracies such as ours.
So what I’m trying to explain at this moment is this very complex scenario in which India—which India inhabits today and which concern Indian policymakers in New Delhi as they seek to defend India’s national interests and to build new relationships, to intensify these relationships, and in order to ensure that the openness with which India views the world as it seeks more development, as it seeks to improve the lives of our people.
You know, the vast majority of Indians today are at the median age of twenty-seven. It’s a very young country and the challenges before us are to provide the development that can enhance their well-being, that help, you know, the vast majority of Indian women, for instance. Gender-centered development is also extremely important to us, a fact that the Delhi Declaration, the leadership—the leaders declaration of the G20 also gave a great deal of emphasis to.
India’s connectivity—I think one aspect—another aspect to which we provide a great deal of importance is the connectivity that we want to build—the integration, the integrative processes, the intersectionalities that we wish to develop with other nations of the world—and one of other key items of the G20 summit in Delhi was the announcement of the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor.
So I just spoke of the Indo-Pacific but I also want to emphasize that India in many ways, being such an omni-directional country, you know, facing north and south, east and west, the way we are positioned in the world, is also looking at the West. It’s looking at our relations with the Gulf countries, with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia, with Israel.
And then, of course, I mentioned Africa. The African Union has become a member of G20 during the summit, largely, as the result of the initiatives and the impetus that India provided to working with the other G20 members to ensure that the African Union was admitted into the conclave and the grouping of the G20.
So the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, I think, is going to be very important and I think the focus, I hope, will be of India working together with countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Israel and the European countries beyond, and it was an American initiative also. One has to acknowledge that and underline that, and this really provides, I believe, in many ways an expression, a definition, a formulation, and an alternative, really, to the kind of ideology and the economics, if you can call it that, that impelled or that propelled the Chinese BRI—the Belt and Road Initiative—and the kind of complications that we’ve seen surrounding the deployment of the BRI, especially when it comes to indebtedness of many of the BRI countries, the loans that China provided, the lack of transparency, and the repayment issues that have come up in the context of the debt that has been incurred by a number of countries.
We saw that in Sri Lanka. A number of the recipient countries, of course, do not really want to speak about it. You know, I guess there are sensitivities involved. But we all know that they have labored under the burden of debt as a result of the project that had been announced as a world-altering development and it didn’t really turn out that way.
So I think what countries like India and democratic partners in strong collaboration with the United States are trying to do now is to offer an alternative to our developing country partners across the world in terms of ensuring that development is delivered to them on much more accommodating and much more transparent and rule-based terms, which I think is so important.
India has been—one of the developments that I think are of note in this year of the G20 is the manner in which India tried to articulate the voice of the Global South. I know the Global South is not a term that everybody uses but I think it’s a better term than Third World, which I think was much in currency a few decades ago.
So the voice of the Global South when it comes to climate finance, when it comes to debt restructuring, when it comes to how we manage pandemics, how we deliver vaccines, how we deal with disasters, how we deal with gender-centered development, I think needs to be placed much more front and center in multilateral dealings between all our countries today, and I think India endeavored very, very much to do that during the G20 starting with the conclave of Global South countries that Prime Minister Modi convened earlier this year and then through the number of meetings—I think 220 meetings in all—that were held in different venues all across India during this year of the G20 and, of course, during the summit itself.
So this is another aspect that I need to emphasize in the context of the war in Ukraine. A lot of focus in the West particularly has been—I mean, literally, this divide between Russia and the Western countries, NATO and the U.S. particularly, and the impact of the war on the rest of the world, perhaps, has not received as much focus.
I think Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was asked about this on her trip home to the U.S. from Delhi. She told the Financial Times—she, of course, refuted this belief that all the emphasis was being placed on the war in Ukraine and the rest of the world was not receiving attention.
But I think the G20 and India’s endeavors during the G20 have kind of awakened, literally, the conscience of the world as to the impact of the war on countries such as us and countries that are far less privileged than India and that is why issues like food security, energy security, and, debt restructuring, the state of the economies of the rest of the world, I think, need also to be kept very much in mind and all that—I’d like to stop here by saying we’d like a reform of the multilateral institutions. We’d like much more emphasis on meaningful multilateralism and addressing the needs of the vast majority of the populations of the world.
CASA: Thank you, Ambassador Rao, for that introduction. There’s a lot to talk about.
Let’s open it up to questions. Please click the raise hand icon on your screen to request to ask a question. On an iPad or tablet, click the more button to access the raise hand feature. When you are called on accept the unmute prompt and please state your name and affiliation followed by your question. You may also submit a written question via the Q&A icon or vote for other questions you would like to hear answered in your Zoom window at any time.
So we have a raised hand. Let’s start with Viney Aneja from North Carolina State University. Would you unmute yourself?
Hello. Viney, could you please unmute yourself? There we go.
Q: OK. Thank you.
Q: OK. Good afternoon, Madam Ambassador. Thank you very much for these very constructive, inciting, and insightful remarks.
My question to you is really two parts. You spoke about the great rivalry between the two countries, China and India, and we all have witnessed since 1960 the hostilities that exist between the two countries. My question to you is: Do you see a day when the two countries might in fact come together? And how might they come together in more of a partnership and developmental engagement?
RAO: Well, thank you for that question.
I’m not really a fortune teller but my instincts, and I feel it in my bones, literally, that the prospects of reconciliation between India and China appear very dim today and I think I’ve tried to put it in context in my opening remarks.
The problems between us are very, very intense and very complex today and it will take nothing short of a miracle, I think, to resolve them. It’s not just the question of the border. Territorial problems have been resolved in the past between countries and India and China should be no exception to that.
But it’s the whole mind space we inhabit, I think, in many ways, the way our two countries perceive each other and the fact that as India grows and we become much more of a weight against China I think the hostility from the Chinese is only going to intensify, as it will from India.
I think it’s a healthy rivalry. I think we would like to be better than China at some stage and we have always prided ourselves on the path to development that we took from the time of our independence—the path of democracy, the path of elections, the path of respecting diversity, the fact that we treasure our constitutional values. All that makes us so different from China.
So it’s not just the rivalry. It’s not just the competition. It’s also the basic difference between our two countries.
CASA: Our next question comes from Clemente Abrokwaa, who is an associate teaching professor in the African studies program at Penn State University. Clemente?
Q: Thank you so much, Ambassador Rao. Very interesting.
I have two questions. One is, in the midst of all these tensions between India and China are there any trade relations going on—any trade agreements, and if so what’s involved in that? And my second one is you didn’t mention about India’s involvement in getting the African Union into G-20. I’m not sure the extent of India’s involvement but how was the—how did China respond to that?
RAO: Thank you.
As far as trade between India and China goes, it’s huge. So when I talk of rivalry and when I talk of hostility and when I talk of tensions between India and China, obviously, I’m not ignoring the fact that we are—the two countries are connected in so many ways, particularly because over the last three decades or so we built quite a big relationship with China in terms of trade, in terms of travel, in terms of leadership level interaction.
So the trade between India and China today is huge and it’s—China, in fact, is our largest trading partner in goods. So we have a very substantive relationship in terms of trade with China and a very imbalanced relationship as do many countries who trade with China.
We import a great deal from China. We don’t export that much to China, and we’ve had to face a lot of nontrade-related barriers when we’ve sought to increase our exports with China. Today, as the relationship has deteriorated I think the challenge that we face, the policymakers and the government and the trading institutions face, is how to de-risk and to create supply chains that make us less reliant on China and this is a debate, I think, that is common both to—we see it in the United States. We see it in Europe today. We see it in India.
You have to de-risk, though some, of course, use the term decouple. Decoupling is not as easy as—it’s much easier to talk about it than to actually do it. But de-risking certainly, and all these concepts of friendshoring and just becoming more self-reliant in terms of essential goods and services.
We saw during the pandemic how critical the difficulties all of us faced were in some of these areas. For instance, when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the whole definition of how we can become more self-reliant when it comes to the production of advanced pharmaceutical ingredients—the raw materials that go into production of our vital medicines and drugs—has become a big issue because much of it comes from China, and for a country like India with a very strong pharmaceutical industry you can well understand the kind of challenges we’ve faced over the last three years.
And the government is focused very much when it talks of a Make in India program, increasing our capabilities and our strategic strengths in these sectors. The same applies to energies, the solar—renewable energy industry, the solar panels that you import from China—all of us do—and electronics and, of course, you have now the whole debate that is—we see worldwide on this chip industry, the semiconductors that we need for our advanced technological development. So I’m just trying to give you an idea that, yes, we do trade with China but we are looking at so many different scenarios today in order to lessen that dependence on China.
As far as the admission of the African Union into the G-20 is concerned, of course, there was a consensus all around and China could have ill afforded, I believe, to have opposed the admission of the African Union. I think diplomatically it would have resulted very badly for China if it had taken any other approach.
CASA: Next, we’ll take a written question from Michael Strmiska from Orange County Community College. He writes: I believe that India’s image in the world as a great democracy has been damaged by the treatment of Muslims in India by both the actions and the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism. It sometimes seems that India is a great democracy for Hindus but not others. Can you please provide more perspective on this?
RAO: You know, I live in India. I mean, I’m at the moment in the United States on a brief visit but I live in India. I breathe the Indian air, literally, and I can tell you life in India—normal life, day-to-day life, life as ordinary citizens—is extremely peaceful.
We all have friends from the minorities, Muslim friends and people we interact with, and I can assure you that the approach that most of us in India take to the treatment of minorities and to coexistence with the minorities is one of tolerance and one of accommodation and one of dialogue if—to resolve any differences that we may have.
And I think there’s a great deal of premium placed among Indians as a country, as a nation, as a people, on peace and it’s very much a part of our philosophy of religion. You know, religions like Buddhism particularly which grew in India, which came out of Indian soil, have always emphasized that and, of course, India is the land of Gandhi.
So I really wouldn’t—you know, no democracy—I can tell you that no democracy is completely flawless. You know, the nature of democracies is such that because we allow so much scope for expression from different sides, from different angles of the spectrum, you are bound to see aberrations. You’re bound to see flare ups. You’re bound to see incidents that may not reflect well on the spirit and the definition of who you are or what you are as a democracy.
But I can tell you that as an Indian, as somebody who lives in India, that don’t completely take at face value the kind of media reportage that sometimes comes out of India. Come to India. Live among the people. Talk to us and understand the nature of this ancient country in a much more deep and profound fashion.
CASA: Our next question comes from Michael Raisinghani. Michael?
Q: Thank you. Yeah. Texas Women’s University, a faculty member in management information systems.
Dr. Rao, thank you for your insightful remarks, and very well synthesized given the present situation. Historically, I believe India’s expected rise has been elusive, to say the least. Going forward, I believe things might be different and my sense is that both companies and countries such as India would need to prioritize collaboration and transformation over disruption and conflict.
You’ve touched upon China and that’s, certainly, a priority. But if you were just to imagine a meeting with Prime Minister Modi and you were to prioritize the number-one issue that would be important to address what would that be?
RAO: Well, the number-one issue that I would address would be to focus on India’s modernization and on India’s development—all-around development and the need to be open, to be an open society, to continue to be an open society and to avoid any closing of the Indian mind.
Q: OK. Thank you. Thank you very much.
CASA: Our next question is a written one. It comes from Tanisha Fazal, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, who writes: What do you see as the broader implications of the current territorial conflict between India and China for contemporary geopolitics, especially vis-à-vis norms around territorial integrity?
RAO: Well, the India-China border dispute is one of the most long-standing land border disputes anywhere in the world and the extent of territorial difference or the claims—territorial claims, the differences between our two countries are very, very large.
As you know, China lays claim to large tracts of our territory, particularly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the northeast of the country, and we dispute China’s claims over what we see as Indian territory in the region we all call Ladakh, which is where the recent tensions have centered. The tragedy in the Galwan Valley of June 2020 occurred in the region of Ladakh.
Now, what are the implications for Asian geopolitics or the future of the Indo-Pacific and the region in which we all live? I think this has serious implications, particularly because China today, a China that has risen, a China that has become so powerful only second to the United States, a China that is clearly engaged in overreach and overstretch and seems to think this is a legitimate form of functioning, this kind of approach is bound to create reverberations in the region, reverberations that are not to our benefit and not to our welfare and will not suit our progress as—for the region as a whole.
So when you have military tensions of the sort that you see between India and China, when you see both sides harming each other, when you see the increase in deployments along the Himalayan border, you are looking at a scenario where tensions are clearly rising and a great deal of perspicacity and of forethought and of leadership is required from both sides in order to ensure that things do not go from bad to worse and we do not see a situation of conflict.
The same questions are raised in the context of Taiwan today and you clearly see the kind of approach that the China of Xi Jinping takes to Taiwan, the rising, narrowness of approach and especially on issues concerning sovereignty and the so-called fulfillment of historical aims, as it were, when it comes to a territory like Taiwan.
So we are all dealing with a China that is causing problems all around the region. It’s not just vis-à-vis India but I think—I believe a lot of countries in the Indo-Pacific face similar situations, and the whole architecture of the Indo-Pacific as it is developing and evolving today has to take into account the central factor of Chinese assertiveness and the inexplicable manner in which they have gone about pursuing their territorial ambitions with no consideration of the impact and the repercussions that it will have for peace and wellbeing and, indeed, economic development all across this region.
China talks of itself as a member of the Global South but in many ways I believe its approach has been not to consolidate but in many senses to overturn peace and stability and, in a sense, to upturn the global order as we see it today.
CASA: Our next question will come from Moses Tesi, who is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Moses?
Q: Perfect. Good afternoon, Ambassador.
RAO: Good afternoon.
The area I want to focus on is India’s relations with Africa. As you are well aware, China and India are more or less competing in Africa for markets as well as exports and imports. Now, could you more or less explain how India would probably avoid some of the pitfalls that China—Chinese businesses have been engaged in in Africa across the continent? And as you know, India or Indians have a much longer relationship with Africa both in the business as well as in the political and, say, religious domains. Could you please elaborate on how the Indian—India is going to go about things a little bit differently?
RAO: Yes. I believe our own approach—India’s own approach to Africa is people-centered. It is based on a rule-based international order. It is based on our common historical experiences, as you rightly pointed out.
We were both victims of colonialism. India’s had a long involvement in the struggle against apartheid, for instance, in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi, in many senses—the whole life story of Gandhi’s struggle against oppression and against foreign domination began in South Africa.
So there is a historical matrix to how we have approached Africa and the kind of empathy and the kind of solidarity that we have—we feel for the African people regardless of whatever country or region they come from.
I think the approach that we have taken from China’s is very different. Of course, China goes into Africa armed with its financial and monetary resources and—but in terms of the impact of what China has done, of course, they’ve done some very huge projects in Africa, but I do believe that if you are to take the temperature or you apply the barometer on the impact of all that China has done in Africa, I think the residual impression that still remains is that the Chinese come from a different world.
Their systems are different, the approaches are different, and the questions often arise about the sense of, perhaps, domination that they intrinsically seem to somehow radiate even if they will deny ever having such a feeling when it comes to dealing with their foreign partners.
There are these questions that constantly come. So with great power, as they say, comes great responsibility and I don’t believe the Chinese clearly live up to that principle, in my opinion. Where India is concerned, I think the future is still opening up for India in Africa in terms of what more we can do for the Africans. We’re already, of course, involved very much over the years in the field of development, in the field of training, in the field of education.
Think of the numerous Indian teachers in Africa, the generations of young Africans who have been exposed to educators from India. I’m not talking about the African students in India but I’m talking of the Indian educators in Africa and the training programs that we’ve had since Indian independence for Africans, how many African leaders have come out of that process, men and women who have studied in India and have gone back and will still retain very strong connections with India.
I believe the lessons we can learn from the Chinese is that we have to engage much more closely in the field of development for the Africans in Africa, execute bigger projects, execute them in a time-bound fashion, create technological tie ups with Africa and avoid at all costs something I think the Chinese have constantly been—I mean, at least the finger has been pointed to China in this area, this aspect, that we should on no account ever stray into an arena where this relationship becomes exploited.
CASA: Our next question will come from Fordham’s international political economy and development program. Fordham?
Q: Hello. Thank you for being with us today, Ambassador Rao. I’m Genevieve in the master’s program for international political economy and development at Fordham.
My question is, given the war in Ukraine right now there have been these what-if talks within intellectual and political circles about whether China would assert higher influence or control over Taiwan. In the case of this happening, where U.S. and China relations would then intensify, how do you expect that India would respond?
RAO: You know, I really don’t know whether China is gearing itself up for military action in Taiwan, especially given the nature in which things have unraveled in Ukraine and the manner in which Russia has got so deeply embroiled in operations in Ukraine.
So I think what the Ukraine experience demonstrates to any country is that the military mode of resolving unresolved issues is not going to work so easily. And I believe that China will think many times over before it contemplates that kind of action in Taiwan.
There’s also the aspect of the manner in which the Taiwanese economy and Taiwanese technological productivity is tied up with the rest of the world, not just with China but all our economies, particularly with the United States.
So I think what the Ukraine experience teaches all of us is to move with caution, to tread carefully, and to try and avoid situations where actions which are taken without forethought and without proper calculation end up in conclusions or eventualities that then become difficult to manage.
As far as the position that India would take in the event, God forbid, of a war concerning Taiwan I think it’s very difficult to say. We have, of course, a hostile relationship with China today. But do we want those tensions to boil over into a scenario where we will have to get embroiled in a conflict involving Taiwan?
If you ask any policymaker or any strategic or military specialist in India today they will, I think, unanimously tell you that we would like to move cautiously on these issues because wars—first of all, this is no time for war, as our prime minister has said time and time again.
But the point is where does it all lead? What is the end of the road for all of us? And I think the example of the war in Ukraine should tell us that there’s all the more reason for us to be very careful in managing problems like Taiwan and understanding that the complications and the consequences of a war in Taiwan would be even greater than what we have—much greater than what we are facing today where Ukraine is concerned.
But I think the partnership between India and the United States being what it is and the military strategic relationship that is growing—the defense partnership—even if we’re not allies we are very, very close strategic partners today, and I think in terms of how we are there for the United States as these situations develop is—I think the directions are also being defined much more clearly today with much more—with much higher resolution today in terms of the exercises we do together—the naval and military exercises we do today, the deployment of the United States Navy in our neighborhood, in our region, and the manner in which India regards such deployments, the foundational agreements that India and the United States have signed over the last few years when it comes to logistics, when it comes to interoperability.
There are a lot of structures that are today in place which were not there before. So but that brings me back again to my central point, that on issues of war and conflicts of the nature that people visualize concerning Taiwan, I, as an inhabitant of the region of the Indo-Pacific, would strongly counsel the need for caution and circumspection.
CASA: Our next question is a written one. It comes from Animesh Ghoshal, who is a professor of economics at DePaul University: My question is about the proposed corridor to the Middle East and Europe. Will this pass through Pakistan and, if so, what is the position of the government of Pakistan?
RAO: No, it will not pass through Pakistan. At least from what I see from the cartographic alignment of this corridor it does not pass through Pakistan.
CASA: Next, we will take a question from John Francis, research professor of political science at the University of Utah. John?
Q: Thank you, and thank you very much for that very persuasive presentation.
So my question goes back to one of the observations you made in your talk and that is the American-Indian community. I note that the British prime minister has almost closer attachments to that community than to many people in his own country. Do you see, particularly in areas of trade and possibly in strategic technology, a growing voice or role for the American-Indian community?
RAO: Yeah. I think you mean the Indian-American community.
Yes, of course, the Indian-American community is a very important bridge between our two nations, India and the United States, and the manner in which the Indian-American community has been mainstreamed into the life of the United States, whether it’s political, whether it’s legislative, whether it’s business or the economy, whether it’s education, whether it’s university life, whether it’s even show business, I think it’s very clear that the Indian-American community and the imprint that it’s making on American life today is extremely—is very substantive.
And the same applies—as you know, travel and connectivity has improved and the way in which technology has enabled closer interaction between this migrant community and their families and their connections in India has enabled those connections to continue to be so live and so vibrant and so operative I think has kind of cemented the close relations between India and the United States.
And in the field of technology particularly I think it’s going to be very important because the India-U.S. critical and emerging technologies initiative, which is one of the core areas of the relationship today, is I’m sure going to be catalyzed in many ways by the contributions also of Indian Americans who work in so many sectors in this country and can really contribute to development back home.
So I believe, you know, the future is very bright for that connection—for those connections and in terms of the contributions that they can make to the greater good of both democracies.
CASA: Our next question is written. It comes from Jonas, a student from the University of Minnesota.
Hello, Ambassador Rao. My question is can you please speak to the argument for and against changing the name of India to Bharat?
RAO: Oh, India to Bharat. Well, the preamble to our constitution says “India, that is Bharat,” and in fact, the two names are used quite freely. I mean, in English we use India. In all the Indian languages—Hindi and the regional languages—we use the word Bharat. So, coming as I do from India, from Bharat, as an Indian, I’m comfortable with both names and I believe that is the opinion that would be voiced by any Indian that you speak to.
India, of course, is the name that the rest of the world has known my country by for millennia. It actually comes from the river Indus—the Indus River, which many foreigners had to cross as they approached India. So India was seen as the land of the Indus and the word India comes from that.
So it also has a very strong connection to the soil of our region, there’s no doubt about it, and Bharat, of course, is the name that is very prevalent and is widely used in our literature—in the ancient literature of our country and the history that was built and that happened that occurred around it.
So both names, I think, have a lot of weight to them and I believe they will continue to be current. Both names will continue to be current. But I think it’s—as nations grow and as they grow in strength and their image becomes more—what shall I say, larger—becomes larger in the world I think these questions often arise.
There is the people of the country, I think, see it as a manifestation of their pride and their heritage to be able to use names that are intrinsic to the traditions of the country and that is how I believe this debate about Bharat versus India has happened.
It still—I mean, we still haven’t seen how this will be addressed as we move forward. But I’m comfortable with both names, really.
CASA: We are coming to the end of the hour so we have to close now.
Ambassador Rao, thank you so much for this very informative session and to all of you for your questions and comments. You can follow Ambassador Rao on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @nmenonrao.
Our next Academic Webinar will take place on Wednesday, September 27, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Elizabeth Willetts, planetary health policy director at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will lead a conversation on health risks of climate change.
In the meantime, I encourage you to follow at @CFR_Academic on X and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
Thank you again for joining us today and we look forward to you tuning in again on September 27.