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Ambassador Shivshankar Menon talks about his latest brilliant creation ‘India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present’

Menon’s recent book has been hailed as a masterpiece, and is a must read for everyone across disciplines. It serves as an eye-opener for India’s geopolitical and geostrategic positioning as a leading superpower in Asia.

Office of PR & Communications

2 June, 2021 | 10m read

We are in conversation with Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser and a Visiting Professor of International Relations at Ashoka University, about his recently launched book India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present.  

Ambassador Menon is one of the distinguished diplomats in the world, and from him comes this remarkable piece that documents the shifts in India’s foreign policy in an ever-changing geopolitical situation in Asia. In a massive disruptive period, what should be India’s move in foreign policy, and India’s positioning in the modern world order? 

Could you talk about what went down in writing the book?  

Well, the book actually originated in Ashoka University, while I was teaching the course on India in Asian geopolitics. While teaching a course on Indian foreign policy, I realised that for almost all my students who were born in this century, this was actually ancient history! Yet, their enthusiasm and the fact that they were still so interested and engaged in discussions made me think ‘−if they are this interested, then surely the other people would be interested too.’ And that is how the idea of this book first originated. And I think it is quite visible in the book that it started as lectures rather than a book. I was really inspired to do this by the students who I taught in successive years.  

The second reason is that I am a bit concerned and nervous with what I have seen in the last few years of Indian foreign and security policy. I don’t hide my views, and I think there is a sort of closing of the Indian mind and we are shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. We walked out of the RECP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), we have been raising tariffs, but also we have become very conscious that we are somehow exclusive and different.  

I am convinced that the more connected, the more engaged India is with the rest of the world, the better India does. So it is really a plea for engagement with the world. I see two paths ahead for India — we have to choose between being open to democratic engagement or being close minded, crawling back towards some sort of self-sufficiency in every respect and being a much poorer, weaker, much more insecure society among ourselves. Today there is no distinction between internal and external. I think they are all a part of what kind of India we want to build. And that’s the other reason. So there is a serious motive behind writing this book.   

There’s a line in the synopsis which reads: From its leading role in the ‘nonaligned’ movement during the cold war to its current status as a perceived counterweight to China, India often has been an after-thought for global leaders – until they realise how much they needed it. What is your take on this and India’s positioning in Asian geopolitics?  

I think India’s positioning where we would like to be and how we would like to see the world depends on our definition of our own self-interest. Since independence, it has been to transform India into a modern, prosperous, secular state, a country where every Indian can achieve his or her potential. And if that is the national goal, then for me that is what the foreign policy should aim at.  

But, the unfortunate fact of international relations is that the rest of the world looks at it more instrumentally. For them, they see how India fits into their plans for the world. So for a long time, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought that nonalignment was “immoral”, because it didn’t fit into his scheme. And from our point of view, what we have been following — whether you call it nonalignment or genuine nonalignment (under the Janata government) or strategic autonomy — the policy is the same, to keep our freedom of maneuver so that we can enable the transformation of India. But from the outside, now that the US is engaged in a strategic rivalry with China, they look for counterweights, and suddenly India becomes useful because of several reasons including strained India-China bilateral relations.   

I think India-China relations are sui generis. But the fact is that for US, it is a useful opportunity to look for countervailing partners like India that they can work with to dealing with China’s powerful position in an ever-changing Asia and the world. For Russia, this poses a problem of insecurity because of Russia-China’s mutually beneficial bilateral relations. So the way the rest of the world looks at India is from the point of view of their goals at that particular time whereas for India there has been a steady continuity. The problem I feel is that in the last few years we have gotten a little confused about our goals. Is our goal the transformation of India or is it status, recognition in international geopolitics or are we truly worried about our image? And I think that is part of the confusion about what kind of India we want to build. So it is really an internal issue that India has to sort through. I hope the book helps that discussion.

“The Present” in your book not just talks about the effects of globalisation in Asian geopolitics but also asserts that while other powers in Asia are rising, China has already risen. Could you talk about the balance of power shift between India and China with recent events of Chinese army deployment at the LAC? On this, the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was quoted saying that India-China bilateral relation is going through “a very difficult phase”.  

As I wrote in the India and China chapter of my book, there is a long history of positive India-China interaction in the history. However, until the 20th century, China was peripheral to or absent from the security calculus of Indian politics, as was India to the Chinese, because of the absence of common border until 1950. Before the late 19th century wave of globalisation, Asia consisted of separate, or three multiverses – one in East Asia centered on China, another in the Indian Ocean region linked to India, and a third tied to Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt in western Asia. These multiverses were in economic, cultural, and technological contact with each other, exchanging goods, traders, pilgrims, ideas, ideology, and religion. But they were not part of each other’s political or security calculus.  

Fast forward to today, there is a definite shift in the broader balance of power. There are actually multiple shifts going on at the same time. Asia is now interlinked. Asia’s role in the international system has grown exponentially, and is now the centre of gravity. Economically more than 50% of world GDP comes out of Asia. Politically, this is where all the flash points are and the US is concerned with the rise of China. Asia has become important and within that China has risen dramatically and that has had huge implications for India-China relations. 

In 1980, India and China’s GDPs and technological levels were roughly the same. In fact, India probably was more integrated into the international order than China. But today China is a little more than four times bigger than Indian economy in terms of GDP, technologically more advanced, most global supply chains run through China one way or the other, she is much more integrated into the global economy and with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will be even more central to the world economy.  

But, China is not the only power rising in Asia, there are already established powers like Russia, Japan and then there are other rising powers like India, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Bangladesh – there is a whole host of powers. So the entire balance of power is shifting but there is no question that China is head and shoulders above everybody else by most metrics of power. 

In economic terms, it is quite clear that China is actually a global superpower, but not so in political terms because the country lacks the influence or the alliance system, and is not a contributor to global public goods even though it has a permanent seat at United Nations Security Council (P5). In military terms, China still cannot project power globally. The US is still the only power who can project military power anywhere on earth.  

However, China is trying to build an expeditionary military capability, and within Asia she is already militarily preponderant. She on her own is stronger than all other Asian powers. China Sea is contained by the first island chain in the East China and South China seas. At the same time she is pushing west into Central Asia and all the way to Europe, building railways, roads, et cetera. The country is also trying to exert influence in the Indian Ocean Region through maritime investments and agreements with the region’s 36 littoral states. Taiwan becomes very important to China because it is the key to breaking this encirclement. So China is already a pre-dominant power but she is in a crowded neighbourhood where many balances are shifting at the same time.  

Therefore when people talk about stability in Asia, from my point of view it is unlikely to happen. You can’t bring Helsinki or any other model to the region as nobody is going to listen to it. Everybody wants to be better off, wants to be more powerful and that is what is happening in Asia.  

So the thing India can do today in a time of such disruption is actually to manage change.  And that’s what I try to argue for in this situation. When there is disruptive change going on everywhere, you build resilience and manage change. And this is where I differ from the conventional wisdom. I don’t think we are today in a multipolar global system. Rather, we are between orders and this is why there is so much pushing and shoving and so much rivalry, and why all the flashpoints are hot again. So, I see this as a very unstable situation and likely to continue for a while. 

What is your take on China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, known as an initiative to bring peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, however, which will certainly increase China’s geostrategic position in the world? And, India’s dilemma in joining it? Could you also navigate the discussion on the change BRI will bring forth in the Indian Ocean, both from a geopolitical and a geo-economical point of view?  

It is still hard to say how much of BRI will actually be implemented because parts of it make economic sense, a lot of the connectivity projects make sense, but some parts of it don’t make economic sense. They might make strategic sense from the Chinese point of view. Things like the Gwadar port for instance is unlikely to ever make money, or be able to pay back debts but it makes strategic sense for China to be located at the top of the Arabian Sea, right near the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a lot of her oil comes.  

So there are two parts to this. I assume that the economic parts of BRI will go through one way or the other, depending on the economic factors. But the strategic part is much harder to say, and depends upon how much China is willing to pay when there is a pushback, because there is a huge cost involved. Even if only a small proportion of BRI is implemented, it would change the operating environment for all of us in very fundamental ways. The connectivity will be useful, but, I am nervous about saying what it will do to our geo-economics or politics because I really don’t know how this is going to be implemented.  

You look at some BRI projects like ports, if China puts in the money and builds up the facilities, if everybody gets to use it that is public good. Like Colombo Port, many of whose extensions were financed and built by China, but we use that port, 83% of what goes through Colombo is to and from India. And that is an economic proposition. As a result, Colombo port can pay back the Chinese government. It doesn’t have the problems that the Hambantota port has.  

So there is a big question mark there. If China treats these projects as exclusively Chinese, then there is going to be a whole different problem. But if she does it as part of a global open economy, then frankly the revenue they will generate when other people use them is a net addition to everybody’s prosperity so there is nothing wrong with it.  

India made its opposition to BRI quite vocal between 2015 and 2017, and didn’t attend either BRI summit – the only country to have been invited and stay away. But after the Doklam standoff, the Government of India has been relatively quiet about BRI. But I think India will not be participating in the initiative and the reason is clear. The biggest BRI project is the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) of 62 billion USD and it is on Indian territory which Pakistan occupies. So it creates a Chinese stake in the Pakistani occupation of Indian territory which presumably then China will try and maintain because otherwise they lose their stake. This is one of the causes for the crisis in India-China relations today, among others.  

I am glad you touched upon this point because my next question was how China has helped Pakistan economically and if I am to go ahead and say it, Pakistan is under huge debt because we understand how frail her economy is. Djibouti in Africa all of a sudden came into the international limelight a few years ago with both India and China having their military bases. And that makes their relationship even further complicated from a maritime aspect in Asia. What do you have to say about that?  

That’s absolutely true and the maritime is a good example of how complicated this relationship is because both India and China have common interest in the safety of the sea links that bring our energy and carry out trade. So at the most general level, India and China have common interest in making sure that cheap oil keeps flowing through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. I mean it is four of us today – India, China, Japan, and Korea who use the oil mostly, but the Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean which has been growing since 2014, her footprint in not just the base in Djibouti but the ports that they now control, and the possibility of building the Myanmar corridor (BCIM Economic Corridor) – all these naturally worry India.  

You can understand Chinese worries also. President Hu Jintao used to say China has a Hormuz Dilemma and a Malacca Dilemma while we talk about our own Hormuz Dilemma. So this is actually a classical security dilemma where each side is thinking what the other is doing is offensive but what they are doing is defensive and then you get into an escalatory spiral. And it’s not just with us, you look at China-Japan, China-Vietnam and it is across the whole of Asia. Basically it’s China’s rise and her changed behaviour.   

In the “Afterword: India’s Destiny” section asserts how “Our national confidence has been replaced by bravado and extravagant statements.” What must India do to move forward when the country and Indian economy have been completely devastated by COVID and political polarisation?  

I think we are in an era of massive disruption. China is only one of those disruptions, then there are COVID, AI and technology, and so on. And how do you cope with disruptions? You manage change and you build resilience in your system. This is not the time to go around boasting and claiming great victories because we don’t know what is coming tomorrow and a very good example is when we claimed victory over COVID in February, and within three months, we are in the midst of a deadly second wave.  We should stop worrying about image because image ultimately depends on reality. And the reason that this matters externally when it comes to foreign or security policy is because ultimately other people’s perception of you matters. The only thing a diplomat has is credibility. When you have credibility, people listen to you and you can work with other people.  

And the record I think is very clear. When we had credibility, we could do things like the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement or we were able to open up the economy and work with others. You need that credibility if you’re going to work with the world.   

When India was in her high-growth years, the rest of the world talked about BRICS, India didn’t devise BRICS, Goldman Sachs devised the term “BRICS” saying that India was an emerging economy and that’s what gives you credibility – what you actually do and not what you claim for yourself. And that is why I object to these grand statements. Now this might be useful for domestic politics, but after a certain point even that loses credibility. So at a time of disruption or such massive uncertainty, be careful, keep your head down and concentrate on the real things that matter.  

That’s my simple advice about how to move forward in times like these. And this is a time when you need your friends. You need to work with others, you need to engage with the rest of the world. Fix the reality, your image will fix itself.  

Yes, some years before COVID hit, India was the fastest growing major economy in the world. But we tend to forget about the achievements of our neighbouring country Bangladesh. Her growth was faster than us, and if you look at the average, in the last decade the country has consistently performed better than India. Bangladesh has now overtaken India in the per capita income and the human development indicators she had long ago overtaken India. But see, for me, that’s not the point. The point is – can you transform the lives of your citizens so that they live the lives of dignity and achieve their own potential. That’s why I keep saying, the transformation of India is our goal, and I keep bringing this back because it honestly worries me. We can’t keep forgetting our own people. 

US President Joe Biden has recently suggested creating an ‘Infrastructure Plan’ for the developing and the least developed countries, perhaps to counter BRI. Do you think India should join that instead? 

I have a very simple view here – we should be pursuing India’s interests. If there are alternate sources of funding the connectivity projects that are considered important from our point of view, then it is a good idea. Whether it’s the trilateral highway through Myanmar which will connect us with Southeast Asia and ASEAN or whether it’s the railways, the sea routes or the ports that we use. For instance, the Colombo port or Dubai or Singapore – all these are important to us, so whoever does it, as long as it’s open to us and we get the use of it, we should be happy!  

We should be going by what is in our best interest and not because it is some anti-China countervailing move by a superpower which is trying to be victorious in a strategic rivalry.  

Although there has been talk of alternatives, in fact, talk of a new silk route started with Hillary Clinton in 2011, there’s been a lot of talk with very little money. And even in that, debt is a very peculiar thing internationally. There is one school of thought which says if you owe the bank enough money, you own the bank. It’s the creditor’s problem if the debtor can’t pay. And the strategic projects involve a huge cost, and are very complicated calculations. You have to look at each case and see how it works. And for me, there’s only one criteria — does it help India or not?  

It’s basically very simple. China has her strengths and India has hers. Just because China is building a bridge in Bangladesh doesn’t mean that India has to build one as well. But what does India have? India has proximity, can open up the border which China can’t do, can integrate with Bangladesh’s economy, and by doing that India will be a source of prosperity for the people on both sides of the border. So the country needs to look for things that we are good at and that have served our interest but also serve other people’s interests, thereby making India a necessary and ultimately an essential partner to them. 

Would you like to talk about any of your current or future projects?  

I really don’t know what I will do next! I have ideas but I don’t yet quite know what I am going to do next. Right now I am relieved that this book is out and am catching my breath. And, I am surprised that so many people have read it, reviewed it and have been asking about it. So right now, I am just enjoying the moment!  

Critics have heaped praise on India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present. 

 “Shivshankar Menon is one of the most distinguished diplomats in the world. In his latest book, he has brilliantly laid out the stages of India from independence to the rise of Modi. When he looks to history, he focuses Asian geopolitics. But when he turns to the future, he opens the aperture to the global trend of illiberality. He believes India, with no existential outside threat and a vast diversity in its populace, can afford expansive rights of all its citizens.” — Strobe Talbott, distinguished fellow, the Brookings Institution; U.S. deputy secretary of state (1994–2001)  

“This book is a tour de force by one of today’s most perceptive strategic thinkers.  Menon deftly surveys how India has navigated its geopolitical environment in the past, while illuminating the international landscape and challenges it faces today.  Anyone interested in Asia’s future should read this book.” — M. Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, and Director, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology  

“In this brilliant examination of India’s recent past as an Asian power, the distinguished Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon gives us much to consider about its future, as well.  His evocation of India as central to Asia’s geopolitics and yet also set apart from it is a major contribution to our understanding of this great, rising power in this Asian Century.” — Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Under Secretary of State and Professor, Harvard University

“An important work that restores India into the Asian story, and a timely reminder that active engagement with Asia and the world will not just be a choice, but also a necessity for New Delhi.” — Tanvi Madan, Senior Fellow and Director of the India Project, the Brookings Institution  

“A magisterial tour d’horizon locating Indian foreign policy within the larger Asian geopolitical landscape. There could be no  raconteur of this fascinating but complex saga more qualified  than Shivshankar Menon, one of India’s finest diplomats and now a respected teacher of international relations. This is an immensely readable book that will stimulate young and curious minds even as it serves as an indispensable reference for scholars and general readers alike for years to come.”  — Shyam Saran, Former Foreign Secretary of India

Ambassador Shivshankar Menon in conversation with Shreya Chatterjee

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka