The book “India and Asian Geopolitics” by Shivshankar Menon documents the changes in India’s foreign policy: from Independence to the Modi era.
Shivshankar Menon is a former Foreign Secretary of India and was National Security Advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh.
The book makes a powerful geopolitical case for an India increasingly and positively engaged in Asia and the broader world in pursuit of a pluralistic, open, and inclusive world order.
Read an excerpt from Shivshankar Menon’s book “India and Asian Geopolitics” below.
Could India and China evolve a new framework for their relations? Theoretically it would include respect for each other’s core interests; new areas of cooperation like counterterrorism and maritime security and crisis management; a clearer understanding of each other’s sensitivities; settling or at least managing differences; and, a strategic dialogue about actions on the international stage. New security issues, like maritime security which is increasingly important to both India and China, can be positive sum issues, if not looked at territorially. Both have an interest in keeping the sea-lanes open and secure for their trade and energy flows and should be discussing them and cooperating. The hardest part will be coming to a common understanding of each other’s core interests, which, for India would include its security in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.
India too will need to adjust to new economic realities. For example, the rise of China and its economic strength make the extent of India’s engagement in RCEP a matter of debate in India, at a time when trade in goods accounts for almost half of India’s GDP. Equally, India now has an interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, since US$66 billion worth of its exports and about 33 percent of its trade passes through that waterway; the nature and manner of safeguarding that interest are still an issue in India. If India stays away from the RCEP, it is much less likely to achieve its own economic goals.
Today, China-U.S. contention—which I think is structural and therefore likely to continue for some time—opens up opportunities and space for other powers. Initially, both China and the United States looked to put other conflicts and tensions on the back burner while they deal with their primary concern, each other. We saw this effect in the April 2018 Wuhan informal meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi and the apparent truce and dialing back of rhetoric by both India and China, even though this did not extend to a new strategic framework or understanding or to a settlement of outstanding issues. Their second informal summit in December 2019 at Mahabalipuram suggested that the truce would continue. These hopes have been belied in 2020.
Therefore, the Chinese attempts in spring 2020 to change the situation on the border by occupying areas on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control and prevent Indian troops from patrolling where they had before marked a significant change in China’s behavior. It came when India and the world were preoccupied by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crash it produced. India’s reaction has naturally been to resist the changes and to increase the deployment of forces on the border. Today, both sides are in a tense military standoff involving several divisions. While both sides seek disengagement, several rounds of talks have so far not resulted in any relaxation. The India-China border is alive again, after many years. Risks are heightened by the fact that both sides are claiming victory in the military confrontation.
More significantly, the political relationship, after several years of sliding toward increasing confrontation, is being reset in a more adversarial frame. Public opinion in India is overwhelmingly critical of China. Though calls to boycott Chinese goods in India have so far not led to economic decoupling, the Indian government has announced a turn to self-reliance, is working to lessen dependencies on China, and is building more secure and resilient supply chains along with Japan and Australia. India is now far more willing to be seen working closely with the United States in the region. The shift from pure balancing between China and the United States to a more aligned posture will not, according to the external affairs minister, extend to an alliance. Neither the United States nor India wishes to enter into the mutual defense commitments that are at the heart of an alliance. Short of an alliance, a further strengthening of India-U.S. defense, security, and intelligence links is now a certainty, thanks to recent Chinese actions.
The international situation and correlation of forces also give India a chance to strengthen its own capacity, to build coalitions of the willing to shape China’s behavior, and to work with other Asians to achieve desired outcomes in India’s issues. These become even more important as a new modus vivendi with China will be even harder to achieve if the power gap between India and China continues to grow.
Will reason prevail in India-China relations and can the two countries manage their bilateral relations successfully after the crisis of 2020? In the midst of the crisis it is hard to see India and China finding a way forward that is better than their recent past. That requires a degree of pragmatism and a strategy of simultaneously balancing and actively engaging with China that enables India to get on with what is really important, creating outcomes that transform India and improve the well-being of its people. It was done once before between 1986 and 1988. But then there was a balance of economic, political, and military power between India and China. That is no longer true. Whether or not India and China are successful will affect not just India’s future prospects, but also the course of Asian geopolitics in years to come.