Former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s new book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present, makes an unusual request of the reader—to look at India’s foreign policy choices through the lens of geography rather than history. From India’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement to being considered a counterweight to China, Menon examines how India has been viewed by global powers through the decades. Given his background as India’s former ambassador to China and a former foreign secretary, there is of course a detailed look at India’s responses to the rise of China besides other regional powers. The book makes a powerful case for India to be increasingly engaged in Asia and in global affairs for a more open, and inclusive world order. Excerpts from an interview with the author.
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In your book you focus on India’s geography rather than its history, which is a very different take from other authors and analysts. Why this emphasis on geography and not, say, geography and history together?
I do believe that geography is an important driver of foreign and security policy and that is why the book mentions it upfront. At the same time, I also believe that there are other long-term drivers that explain state behaviour, such as history and resource endowment. Over half the book is a contemporary history of independent India’s foreign policies and the Asian context that shaped them. As you may have noticed in the book, I argue that we have a complicated geographical inheritance, and that some of us seem to still believe the myths 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 much should India worry about the China-Pakistan nexus? Is it possible to separate the two and be tough on China while engaging with Pakistan? How will the nexus impact India in the future?
We should be aware of its changing dimensions and then deal with it rationally. Pakistan’s significance to China has been growing, not only because of India’s rise but also because of the strategic location of Gwadar, Pakistan’s contribution to China’s security interests in Xinjiang and Afghanistan, and other reasons. This does not mean that the ‘nexus’, as you call it, is unmanageable. There are many ways of dealing with this evolving situation. The real answer is a process of self-strengthening by India so as to reduce their temptation to do anything foolish by making any moves on their part counterproductive. Whether we deal separately with them, or work with others who may share our interests, or change their calculus in other ways, is a decision that the government of the day will have to make.
You say we need to engage Pakistan but with the two countries not talking to each other. The UAE seems to be playing interlocutor. Is that something you see as welcome given that the US was not successful in this, as you seem to say in your book?
The less agile your own diplomacy the more other countries will see opportunity to mediate or play a role. It is really up to us whether we choose to keep the initiative in our own hands, as we have done since the Simla Agreement of 1972, 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 leverage and capabilities, 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 moving forward? More friction or uneasy but stabilised coexistence? How will this impact Asian geopolitics at large?
What happened in 2020 was preceded by a steady build up of stress in the relationship. Now that China has indicated that she no longer respects her earlier commitments and has changed her behaviour, the relationship will be reset.
As far as I can see the political relationship will be more adversarial, but that does not mean there will be a decoupling economically, or that both China and India will not have to deal with each other on a host of issues as large neighbours have to. But the terms on which we do so are still to be determined since we are still in the midst of the crisis.
As for its effect on Asian geopolitics, this depends on whether we continue to be an active participant in Asia’s affairs or whether we choose to withdraw into ourselves. Walking away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), raising tariffs for four years running, and speaking of autarchic solutions could mean that we may not be a significant part of the reordering of Asian geopolitics and geoeconomics that is underway at present, as a result of the rise of China. I try in the book to suggest the way forward for India. The choice is ours to make.
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How will Asian geopolitics play out in Afghanistan after the US leaves?
I do not think that there will be clarity in Afghanistan for some time, until a new equilibrium within the country is created by the Afghans themselves. I hope that once the US withdraws her troops, the regional powers around Afghanistan begin to take responsibility for the situation that they have done so much to create.
You have argued in favour of India being part of trading arrangements such as the RCEP (a trade bloc of 15 countries that India opted out of). If India is looking inward, many other countries are also being protectionist. What do you see as the way forward for India and for global trade?
India is not the only country turning inward, economically and otherwise, and closing its mind, as it were. 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 best when she is most connected and engaged with the world. For me, the way forward is to engage, compete and increase our influence in the world, for we cannot do without the world if we want India to be prosperous and secure.