Nirupama Rao defines the future of Indo-Pacific relations

A Q&A with former Indian Ambassador to the United States during her Pacific Leadership Fellowship

Nov. 22, 2019 | By Rachel Hommel | GPS News

news_plf-nirupama-rao0.jpgHigh above the 15th floor, with the sunset illuminating the room, the Pacific Ocean offered the perfect backdrop for Nirupama Rao to deliver her public lecture on “India in the Indo-Pacific World.” She painted a picture for staff, faculty and community supporters at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) the current state of Indo-Pacific strategy in the 21st century.

“We hear ‘from the sea to the mountains’ - these seas are human seas, seas that were navigated and crisscrossed by human encounter,” said Rao. “Each wave of contact is refreshing and rejuvenating.” 

With most of her life spent in the trenches dealing with difficult relationships with borders, Rao retired as Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, the senior most position in the Foreign Service. Rao was only the second woman to occupy the post. She was also the first woman spokesperson of the Indian foreign office and she served as India's first female ambassador to Sri Lanka and to the People's Republic of China. 

“Ms. Rao is a person who has embodied transformation in her career, thinking thoughtfully about building the future of the region,” addressed Dean Peter Cowhey. “She is truly an example of how notions of the Pacific have, and will change, in our lifetime.”   

Embracing our terrestrial world, Rao explained how her country has been equally defined by the oceans that surround India, particularly with regards to strategic partnerships and border relations. Exploring the patterns of India’s strategic, economic and people-centered outreach, her talk dove into the complex relationship with China, their largest neighbor, and what has been termed an indispensable partnership with the U.S.

“You have to talk to your neighbors…you cannot turn your back on them,” warned Rao. “Redrawing borders and changing maps is out of the question in democracies such as ours.”  

Read below as Rao shares her impressions about her Pacific Leadership Fellowship (PLF) residency, including whether the U.S. has the long-term vision and resources to build on Indo-Pacific strategy.

news_plf-nirupama-rao1.jpg

Q: What led you to GPS as a PLF Fellow and what has been your overall impression so far?

NR: It was an invitation to be a fellow extended to me by Dean Peter Cowhey at a dinner meeting in Washington, D.C. last year that led me to GPS. I have been here now for close to a fortnight and it has been an intellectually enriching experience. My interactions with students and faculty here have been most interesting and fulfilling. It is a privilege to be here.

Q: During your residency, you will share your perspectives on Indian foreign policy. What do you hope to glean at GPS and across campus?

NR: The work being done at GPS and UC San Diego on the role of technology in determining the contours of global power and influence is fascinating, and I have greatly benefited from my meetings with faculty on the subject. I’ve also been able to engage with students about India’s neighborhood policy and our economic and commercial diplomacy interests.

Q: For your talk, you will discuss issues confronting the world’s largest democracy, India. As the former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, what are some of the most salient policy issues to address?

NR: India encapsulates so much diversity, and its pluralistic society is what makes the country so unique. Our democracy is stable, it is enduring and resilient. Rapid, inclusive and accelerated economic development is the chief priority of the government. In foreign policy, the government is committed to promoting India’s access to technology, foreign investment and capital for the country’s integration with global markets.

With our neighbors, we wish to promote closer connectivity and integration so that the full potential and talents of the people of South Asia can be fulfilled. We live today in a world that has moved beyond unipolarity. Multi-alignments define the structure of global affairs today. India is in many ways a balancing power, and our relations with countries like the U.S. and China and indeed, in the Indo-Pacific reflect this stabilizing influence.

Q: When looking at 21st Century Asia, what do you believe has spawned India’s emergence as an Indo-Pacific Power?

NR: I believe this trend is marked by our strong democratic credentials, our conduct as a responsible and mature power, our contributions to international peace and stability and the re-emergence of India as a front runner among global economies.

news_plf-nirupama-rao2.jpgQ: What’s been the most surprising visit or activity on the agenda so far during your stay?

I have been uniformly impressed by all the meetings I’ve had during my stay. In terms of the ideas articulated, the topics addressed and the stress on innovation and expanding knowledge frontiers has been a highlight. I particularly enjoyed my visits to meet Professor Ramesh Rao of the Qualcomm Institute and the World Trade Center’s Executive Director Nikia Clarke. It was also a treat to visit the San Diego Museum of Art and see some of the exquisite Indian miniature paintings from the world-renowned Binney collection.

Q: Serving as India's first female ambassador to Sri Lanka and to the People's Republic of China, what advice would you give to other females, as well as students in general, hoping to serve in foreign policy?

NR: A career in the foreign service is an excellent option for all those who are curious about and committed to understanding the world around us. The field is complex and increasingly specialized but the combination of public service, with the vast range of situations and environments you operate within, make this one of the most compelling and challenging careers you can have. 

View a photo gallery of Rao’s visit.

Additional PLF stories:

Gregory Lee looks at the future of digital health and technology

Aruna Sundararajan forecasts the future of Digital India

Luciano Rezende inspires data driven smart cities in Brazil

A marriage of policy and advocacy

News