“ The way forward for India is to commit ”: Shiv Shankar Menon
Former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s New Book, India and Asian geopolitics: the past, the present, makes an unusual request to the reader: to examine India’s foreign policy choices through the prism of geography rather than history. From India’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement to being seen as a counterweight to China, Menon examines how India has been viewed by world powers over the decades. Given his experience as a former Indian Ambassador to China and former Foreign Minister, there is of course a detailed look at India’s responses to China’s rise to power in addition to other regional powers. The book clearly shows that India is increasingly engaged in Asia and in world affairs for a more open and inclusive world order. Extracts from an interview with the author.
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In your book, you focus on the geography of India rather than its history, which is very different from that of other authors and analysts. Why this emphasis on geography and not, say, geography and history together?
I think geography is a big driver of foreign and security policy and that’s why the book mentions it from the start. At the same time, I also believe that there are other long-term factors that explain state behavior, such as history and resource endowment. More than half of the book is a contemporary history of independent India’s foreign policies and the Asian context that shaped them. As you may have noticed from the book, I contend that we have a complicated geographic heritage, and some of us still seem to believe in the myths that the British propagated about our history in order to subjugate us in the Raj .
You spend time on China and Pakistan in the book. How concerned should India be about the Sino-Pakistani link? Is it possible to separate the two and be tough on China while engaging with Pakistan? How will the link impact India in the future?
We need to be aware of its changing dimensions and deal with them rationally. Pakistan’s importance to China has increased, not only because of India’s rise to power, but also because of Gwadar’s strategic location, Pakistan’s contribution to China’s security interests in Xinjiang and Afghanistan, and other reasons. That’s not to say that the “link,” as you call it, is unmanageable. There are many ways to deal with this evolving situation. The real answer is a self-reinforcing process on India’s part to reduce its temptation to do anything foolish by making any counterproductive gesture on its part. Whether we deal with them separately, or work with others who may share our interests, or change their calculation in some other way, is a decision the government of the day will have to make.
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“ India and Asian geopolitics: the past, the present ”, Shiv Shankar Menon, Penguin India, ₹699.
You say we have to engage Pakistan but the two countries are not talking to each other. The UAE seems to be playing the interlocutor. Is this something that you consider to be welcome given that the United States has failed in this area, as you seem to say in your book?
The less agile your diplomacy, the more other countries will see the opportunity to mediate or play a role. It is really up to us to decide whether we choose to keep the initiative in our own hands, as we have done since the 1972 Simla Agreement, which committed Pakistan to deal bilaterally with India, or whether we choose to use or rely on others. My personal opinion is that we should have enough confidence in our own influence and abilities, but there may be other ideas and considerations at play here.
After the border friction of 2020, how do you see the India-China relationship evolving? No more friction or a worried but stabilized coexistence? What impact will this have on Asian geopolitics as a whole?
What happened in 2020 was preceded by a constant build-up of stress in the relationship. Now that China has indicated that it is no longer honoring its previous commitments and has changed its behavior, the relationship will be reset.
As far as I know, the political relationship will be more confrontational, but that does not mean that there will be economic decoupling, nor that China and India will not have to confront each other on a host of issues like the owe the great neighbors. . But the conditions under which we will do so remain to be determined because we are still in the midst of a crisis.
Shiv Shankar Menon is a former national security adviser
As to its effect on Asian geopolitics, it depends on whether we continue to be an active participant in Asian affairs or whether we choose to withdraw into ourselves. Moving away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), raising tariffs for four consecutive years and talking about autarchic solutions could mean that we may not be a major part of the reorganization of Asian geopolitics and geoeconomics that is currently underway, as a result of China’s rise to power. I try in the book to suggest the way forward for India. It’s up to us to choose.
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How will Asian geopolitics play out in Afghanistan after the US leaves?
I don’t think there will be any clarity in Afghanistan for some time, until a new balance within the country is created by the Afghans themselves. I hope that once the United States withdraws its troops, the regional powers around Afghanistan will begin to take responsibility for the situation they have done so much to create.
You argued for India to be part of trade deals such as RCEP (a trade bloc of 15 countries from which India has withdrawn). If India is looking inward, many other countries are also showing protectionism. What do you think is the way forward for India and for world trade?
India isn’t the only country to turn in on itself, economically and otherwise, and shut its mind, so to speak. But the overall result of protectionist and nativist policies, as we saw in the 1930s, is to impoverish everyone. Our history tells us that India has done the best when it is most connected and engaged with the world. For me, the way forward is to engage, compete and increase our influence in the world, because we cannot do without the world if we want India to be prosperous and secure.