When you name individuals termites, you may’t actually anticipate them to love you: Shivshankar Menon


Shivshankar Menon’s much-anticipated book, India and Asian Geopolitics: Past, Present, is a thought-provoking master class for understanding India’s foreign policy, commitment to the neighborhood, and the way forward. Menon, who had been India’s national security advisor, foreign minister and ambassador to China, has written openly about India’s interactions in Asia, a region that is likely to determine the future of the world. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Menon says that creating a China-centered Asia will be difficult and that India and China will have to both work together and compete.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Question: You said India is looking inward, which is worrying, citing as an example that India has withdrawn from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

A / It seems to me that three things happened. We are much less committed to multilateralism, and that has happened over time. As we have become more realistic, I think this is a reasonable answer to what is happening around us. Multilateralism delivers much less than it did in the 1950s. Our commitment to the global system has also decreased.

Second, in response to globalization, people tend to feel that their identities are under threat. The whole world is on your smartphone. Hence, you are returning to a nativist system. You see this in the US, China, India and even Europe – so-called traditional values, conservative politics of the right, identity and a return to a mythical past. Globalization has the intellectual and political effect opposite of what it should have had – making you a global citizen. What I see is the closing of the mind.

I don’t think we in India realize how dependent we are on the world. The foreign sector accounts for almost 50 percent of our GDP. We import our energy. We need the world for markets, for technology. We can say we are the world’s pharmacy, but we are the world’s pharmacy when connected to the world. The best way for us is to deal with the world. Unfortunately, I’m afraid we went the other way. The RCEP is the best known example where you negotiate for eight years and then step out of the contract. They are now the only major economy that is not part of a regional trade agreement.

[Finally]atmanirbharta makes sense. We have to be self-sufficient. But if it starts to shade in self-sufficiency then you have a problem. And that can easily happen when tied to an ideology that tells you that you are unique, that you built airplanes 3,000 years ago. When you get into this mood, dealing with the world becomes much more difficult.

Q / You talked about domestic compulsions. Do you think the rise of the Hindutva has affected our relationships with the neighborhood?

A / Our neighbors are troubled in public because they see an India different from the open, pluralistic, secular and tolerant India to which they were used. There was a time when our neighbors were looking for models of governance. When the Sri Lankans negotiated with the Tamils ​​and various other groups, they used Indian federalism as an example. That is no longer the case. For me it’s a big loss because this affinity was very important. From a very practical point of view, [take, for instance,] Bangladesh: When you call people termites, you really can’t expect them to like you and not answer you.

It seems to me that we … are still negotiating what kind of republic we want to be. We have many internal arguments about this. But it can’t affect our standing outside because people see what we’re doing. I worry that we shouldn’t move our internal confusion into more important relationships that really need to be carefully nurtured.

Q / You say you don’t see Asia aligned with China.

The geopolitical position of A / China is very different from that of previous global hegemons such as Great Britain or the USA. China is in a crowded neighborhood. It is not the only country that is rising. She has two great established forces right next to her. On land she has the biggest argument with us, and [in] the sea area through the middle of the South China Sea, [there are] Flashpoints.

China always sees it as contained, restricted and threatened. It spends more on internal security than on national defense. That tells me something about what the leadership thinks of the stability of their society. They have perhaps built the most effective surveillance state in the world, which leads me to believe that their priority is internal control, stability and regime security. Everything else, including the rest of the world, is dealt with as it affects you. This complicates the idea of ​​creating a China-centered Asia.

Q / How do you see the relationship between India and China?

A / If you look at the last 10 to 20 years, India, Japan, Australia, Indonesia – we all work more together on defense, security and intelligence. It is an ongoing process. Many of us share concerns about China, but we don’t expect others to solve our problems with China. When we had a problem on the border with China last year, we didn’t contact them. What we share with them is the desire for certain positive outcomes. We want the freedom of navigation and the safety of our seals in the Indo-Pacific. [We are not] in a purely antagonistic relationship with China. We could compete with China. But we also cooperate with it.

Despite the events at the border, trade between India and China grew 42 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year. We have a very complicated relationship with China. On the one hand we have the biggest border dispute with China, [and its] Commitment to Pakistan has grown exponentially since 2015, however [on the other hand]China is our largest trading partner. Second, China is present in our neighborhood and in the world we work with, work against, or have to deal with. But China is an actor that we cannot ignore. There are things we need to work together and compete with each other [on]. We’re going to have that kind of relationship.

Q / Can we talk about Pakistan, a controversial relationship? Every government has fought with Pakistan, but this government has fought a lot more.

A / Every Indian government has tried to shape relations with Pakistan in such a way that they do not distract us from the many more important things we need to do – transforming India and India [also our] other relationships. Hence, Indian governments tend to return to the table. However, Pakistan has always been hampered by its domestic politics and army, which has an institutional interest in some degree of controlled hostility towards India.

Our own domestic policies also lead some rulers today to believe that a measure of hostility towards Pakistan domestically is useful. You actually have a match here. The Pakistanis come to the table under two circumstances: They do it when they have no choice – how [former president Pervez] Musharraf did it in 2003, or when they think India is under pressure. I don’t know if Pakistani politics can support a normal relationship with India or if Indian politics can support a major initiative with Pakistan at this point.

Question: Do you think it is better to manage the relationship with Pakistan than to have no relationship at all?

My argument has always been to include those parts of Pakistan that are not hostile to you. Why are we uniting all of Pakistan behind those who are hostile to us? We have no problem with the ordinary Pakistani or Pakistani business people for whom doing business with India will be profitable, or even with most of the civilian politicians. So it doesn’t make sense for me to put them all together and follow one guideline.

Question: Do you think the way we dealt with the Covid-19 crisis has affected our international standing?

A / I think the contrast between winning in 2020 and now is very strong. But the pandemic has narrowed them all down. Nobody came out well. Those who made great claims were exposed and probably more diminished. As I’ve always said, soft power is only good when it reflects an actual harsh reality. It’s not just about creating a picture and spreading a narrative. I have no idea why the MEA handled what happened to the Philippine embassy this way. I just saw what happened on Twitter. I don’t think Twitter is a good place to judge … Of course, it damaged our image. But it has also damaged the image of others.


By Shivshankar Menon

Published by

Penguin Random House India

Pages 420; Price Rs699