Nirupama Rao, who served as India’s ambassador to China between 2006 to 2009, spoke out after 20 Indian soldiers were beaten to death in fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the disputed Galwan Valley when a tense six-week stand-off erupted in violence. While India said both sides suffered casualties, China did not disclose how many of its soldiers died during the clash.
This is definitely a turning point in the bilateral relations
Ms Rao said: “This is definitely a turning point in the bilateral relations, but I wouldn’t call it a breaking point.”
She told CNBC there were indications both countries had a constructive discussion and attempted to disengage from the disputed areas.
But she warned the violence had cast a “long shadow” on the relationship.
Indian troops take up positions in the Galwan Valley
Beijing, which has adopted an increasingly aggressive position on foreign policy in recent years, insists India was to blame for the clashes.
A Chinese defence ministry spokesman said: “The responsibility for the China-Indian border conflict lies entirely with India.
“China hopes to maintain peace in the border areas.”
READ MORE: China denies 40 soldiers died in fierce Indian border clash
Indian troops guard the disputed Chinese border
Indian and Chinese troops have clashed in the disputed Galwan Valley
The border clashes sparked a wave of angry protests across India where Chinese flags and pictures of President Xi Jinping were set alight and Chinese-manufactured products were destroyed.
The protesters were spurred on by high-profile politicians calling for a boycott of Chinese products although experts said it would be difficult for New Delhi to suddenly cut trade and economic links with its neighbour.
Radhika Rao, an economist at Singapore’s DBS Group, who is not related to the ambassador, said: “India’s exposure to China is asymmetric in terms of trade and investments.
“China displaced the European Union to emerge as India’s biggest importing partner six years back.”
India imported more than £50 billion worth of goods from China between April 2019 to February this year, and exported only around £12.45 billion worth of products.
Most of India’s imports from China are manufactured items such as electronics and electrical equipment but there is also a big market for organic chemicals.
Ms Rao said China also had significant portfolio investments in India’s technology sector, with top start-ups like Paytm, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato all backed by Chinese investors.
She said: “As far as trade and economic and investment relations go, there is a very complex web of intermeshing now between the two countries.”
She predicted steps would be taken in New Delhi to curb Chinese presence in areas that affect India’s security, in fields such as telecommunications and critical infrastructure.
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Indian troops on patrol in Galwan
Global security analysts believe the border dispute is likely to push India closer to the US, Japan, Australia and Southeast Asian countries.
India’s foreign policy has mostly remained strategically autonomous, which means Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has to balance bilateral relations with the Washington, China and Russia.
Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, said: “If it strengthens India’s ties with Australia, with Japan, with the United States, with the Quad, then that ultimately is a risk for the Chinese out of what’s happened here at the border.”
India v China
Ms Rao said closer Indian ties with the US would cause concern in Beijing as “China tends to be insecure about these things”.
She said: “But India can only be expected to protect and safeguard its interests in what is emerging as a very sensitive situation in the bilateral relationship.
“Even as we promote and pursue strategic autonomy, we will have to review and reconsider how our relations with the rest of the world are configured.”
Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said: “Respecting international law, recognising the legitimate interests of partners, supporting multi-lateralism and promoting common good are the only way of building a durable world order.”