Interview with Ambassador (Dr) Mohan Kumar, Chairman of Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS)
Interviewer: The Chinese juggernaut is moving in a way that is making small countries of the Indo-Pacific increasingly dependent on China by falling into debt traps. Do you think India should take a position on this unprecedented phenomenon or it should quietly ignore such a development?
Dr Kumar: In my view, India should not take a position on this issue. If smaller countries like Sri Lanka and other African countries are expressing opposition to it, India should let things take its own course. Given the fact that India does not have abundant resources currently to offer a real alternative to BRI, it should not get too involved.
In my opinion, partnership is the way forward. This might not have been my view three years ago. However, now running into some opposition, even the Chinese are trying to tweak the BRI. They themselves are undergoing a serious introspection of where they went wrong. When I was in China, a couple of months ago, Chinese interlocutors commented that the BRI project should have been limited to Asia, and that they should not have taken it to Europe. Therefore, I think they have also gotten into a situation where they have over extended strategically. Frankly, I think I would not be too worried about it, yes monitor it and decide where your interest are. Otherwise, I do not think we should do anything.
Interviewer: About 60 countries in the world have embraced China’s BRI. India refused to participate in the Beijing conference, while many countries critical of BRI, including the United States, sent their representatives. On the hindsight, was it an appropriate Indian response?
Dr Kumar: I am no longer in the Foreign Service but if I were the Foreign Secretary, then maybe I would have sent a junior official from the Embassy. While our position was correct, sending a junior official is something that we could have done. You see, when we decide not to send, then many voices in India start telling us you are going to be isolated but that is not the case now. The problem with sending an official representation is that it would send the message that India is also participating. I think we want to send a clear signal that would indicate distance between the BRI and us. I think you must appreciate that the opposition to BRI has come from a very substantive point, in terms of passage through disputed territory that is an issue on which we should not compromise because it goes to the heart of the territorial integrity of India. Therefore, in my view, as long as that is not lifted, you do not want to give the slightest hint that your position is weakening.
Interviewer: Don’t you think that India joining the BRI could bring economic benefits to our country? What would be the opportunity cost of India staying away from China’s BRI?
Dr Kumar: I think I will take off from where I had answered my second question. No prices are too high when it comes to territorial integrity. You have a country that is claiming Arunachal Pradesh. To such a country, you do not want to give such a signal that you are okay with any compromise whatsoever on your country’s territorial integrity. Today it will be territorial integrity in the BRI, tomorrow it will be something else and I do not think the opportunity cost frankly is too much. You know, it is true, connectivity is an issue and we need to obviously get our act together. However, I do not think this is too much of the price for the kind of issue that I am talking about. I think it is an existential issue.
I mean, you had the 1962 experience with this country. You cannot wish it away today. By repeatedly protesting any official visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese have been sending a clear signal regarding the non-negotiability of their sense of territorial integrity. This is a language they understand and so, we should not give out any signal of compromise on our territorial integrity.
Interviewer: Do you think there is any scope for India to reap some benefits from the US-China trade disputes, competition and confrontation.
Dr Kumar: That’s a very good question, and I know something about that issue. I think, “We would be mistaken in thinking that we can fish in troubled waters.” This is a bilateral issue between the US and China. It is something that has to be solved between the two, and in which India need not get involved. Even if there was an opportunity for India in the US-China trade war, our private sector are not in a position to grab it. For instance, there was an opportunity to sell soyabeans to China. However, by the time our private sector gets its act together, it becomes late. Moreover, in my view, exploiting the US-China trade war is not going to be worth it, in terms of the outcome for us.
Interviewer: Has the US lost its war against Huawei? What would be its implications for India?
Dr Kumar: So, I do not think the US has lost its battle or war with Huawei. The race for 5G is on and the verdict is still very much out. So far, my assessment is that both the US and EU are in an agreement that there are some sensitivity regarding access to Huawei. As far as India’s position is concerned, I would keep my options open.
About Ambassador (Dr) Mohan Kumar
Ambassador Mohan Kumar is the Chairman of Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) since June 2018. He has had an outstanding career in the Indian Foreign Service lasting 36 years. Ambassador Kumar’s specialization includes diplomatic practice & foreign policy, strategic partnerships with India’s neighbours, multilateral negotiations especially trade negotiations, climate change and globalization, defense, space, nuclear & solar energy, smart cities and investment etc He has enormous expertise in the area of international trade- he was India’s lead negotiator first at the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and then at the WTO (World Trade Organization) in crucial areas such as Intellectual Property Rights, Services, Dispute Settlement, Rules and Technical Barriers to Trade. He also teaches at the Jindal School of Internationl Affairs and is Vice-Dean & Professor of Diplomatic Practice. He is the author of a book entitled “Negotiation Dynamics of the WTO: An Insider’s Account”, published by Palgrave Macmillan.