Updated: May 24, 2021 7:07:21 am
Shivshankar Menon says India can’t lay claim to “vishwa guru” status yet; explains that vis-à-vis China, the government shouldn’t be “defending a narrative”, but “actual position on the ground”; and believes that the country cannot rely only on atmanirbharta. The session was moderated by Dy Chief of Bureau Shubhajit Roy.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: What made you write India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present?
I am convinced that India does best when she is most engaged and connected with the outside world. Unfortunately, what I see happening in the last few years is that we are turning inwards — a sort of closing of the Indian mind, cutting off from the outside world. We are very convinced that we are unique, we are exceptional, which we might be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need the world. So (the book) is really a plea for engagement with the rest of the world, particularly with our home, Asia.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think the realities of India is commensurate with the ‘vishwa guru’ image that the government is trying to project?
I don’t think we are right yet to claim to be vishwa guru. We are not a great generator of knowledge or great innovators. We are actually an importer of knowledge, of technology, of ideas. Of course, this can change but not today. Secondly, being vishwa guru doesn’t necessarily mean that Indians lead better, more prosperous, safer, secure lives, which is our fundamental job, and not to change the world, get revenge, gain status or to get other people to say how great we are. What’s happened in the last few years is that foreign policy is being used for domestic political purposes… It is part of domestic image projection and is used for those purposes… All this projection of India being a great rising power, a global power and so on is essentially us. The world is much more realistic. The world measures your material power, hard power, your economy, your military strength, and your ability to run your own affairs well. Then they look at the softer dimensions… Today, I’m afraid that what’s happened recently has hit our soft power as well…
SHUBHAJIT ROY: So, what kind of power is India right now?
I think India is a different kind of power. What India has always understood is that we are still a developing country and we have a long way to go. But, we have weight, we have influence and we had the brains to use other people’s political weight — a form of political jujutsu. In 2008, when we didn’t get clearance from the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), we were able to work with enough friends and with the sole superpower of the day to get that. Similarly, when Bangladesh (was carved out) in 1971, and the political geography of the subcontinent changed, it was against the opposition of our largest neighbour… We still used the Cold War… The support that we got from the Soviet Union to create enough space to get our way… That was an achievement… So there is a large element of skill here which involves understanding the situation, using it to achieve Indian interests…
SHUBHAJIT ROY: From 2014 to now, what has changed about China?
It’s clear that Chinese behaviour has become more assertive. I wouldn’t date it only to Xi Jinping and 2012, I would actually take it back to 2008, when after the global financial crisis China probably felt her moment had come… I see much more Chinese assertive behaviour across the board for two reasons. One is they see an opportunity… But, they might also be seeing a closing window, that this is a temporary moment of strategic opportunity… One report last year for the first time said that China’s population has actually diminished. By 2040, most projections say that China will have the age structure that Japan has today. Secondly, their economy is reverting to mean. Like all the other miracle Asian economies, there is no way that you can sustain 10% growth beyond 30-35 years. For the last few years, they have been showing 6% (growth), while some outside observers think it is as low as 2%…
SHUBHAJIT ROY: How do you see our response to China?
You see it depends on what your aim is… In 2017, in Doklam, we had a face-off for 72 days over a territory, which we think is Bhutanese and the Chinese say is theirs. After 72 days, we negotiated a withdrawal. They vacated the spot and so did we. But we then declared victory. We said we faced them down… Then, what did the Chinese do? They came back and occupied the rest of the plateau… Once you are trapped into this narrative of I won, then they can play that to create outcomes. That is the risk that we face.
Today, for instance, we have a problem as the Chinese change the status quo along the LAC in the western sector at several spots. We are talking of disengagement, not of restoring the status quo. But at the same time, the initial tendency was to say nothing has happened. If nothing has happened, what are you discussing? And the Chinese then would be justified in saying what are you asking us to withdraw from?… My advice would be, it’s best to be honest with your own people right from the start. Otherwise, you get into a very complicated web of trying to explain… Unfortunately, I don’t expect transparency from the Chinese. They have never displayed it in the past and that is why Chinese versions are very seldom believed around the world. In fact, less and less so today with the wolf-warrior diplomacy. But we have also been quite sparing with the truth, since spring 2020. For me, that’s a problem because you shouldn’t be defending a narrative, you should be defending your actual position on the ground.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: In resolving the current standoff, was India right in giving up its leverage in Kailash Range for limited disengagement?
We don’t know what is actually said in the negotiation, what’s been offered, what’s not. There’s a lot of speculation. There are inspired leaks, which make me very nervous… What we did on August 29 onwards was right, occupying the heights, and it paid its dividends in the sense that at least the situation around Pangong Tso is relatively back to what it was before.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: The government has been insisting that since 2013 we have not been able to approach our patrolling limits…
The Indian Army knows what they are doing on the border… SSN (Sub-sector North), Depsang have been sensitive areas for a long time. We have known about it, we know the problem. The last time we went to our patrol points was in January 2020. Now both sides are preventing the other from doing what they used to do. So perhaps the status quo has been changed for both of us and that is why you have to be clear about what happens on the ground… Don’t make excuses saying we haven’t been (to our patrolling points) since 2013, which is not true. Don’t found your stance on a lie. Say there’s a new status quo that’s been created and it’s acceptable to us and that we don’t think it hurts our interest. Accept it and move on. But to do this (to say that we have not been to our patrolling points since 2013) is a form of appeasement. Once you appease, you only whet their appetite. They then feel that they can try and do this in other places. Our job now is to restore deterrence on that line which has broken down, because if it hadn’t been broken down, they (China) would not have tried to change the status quo in so many spots at the same time and on such a scale.
ANANT GOENKA: Given Jack Ma’s run-in with Chinese regulators, should Indian entrepreneurs be cautious about taking funding from China or from Chinese companies?
Money is fungible. If you take the money and give them power on your board management etc, then that is a whole different calculus. But if it’s just investment for the sake of investment, take their money, build your industries and make it your own… It depends on how you structure the deals. I think the figures that the Chinese just put out for the first quarter of this year show a record increase of 42% in Indian-China trade, over the same period last year… This can’t just be push from the Chinese side, it is also pull on our side… I think we have to accept that some of this is in our interest also. After all, cheap Chinese goods are good for the Indian consumer as well. We need to look at how we can build this into a relationship where the dependencies are minimised and the benefit is maximised. That’s possible but it will take a fair amount of fine-tuning work.
ANANT GOENKA: Suppose there is Chinese investment in Ola, which has a very ambitious plan of dominating the electric vehicle sector. Now if a Chinese company got even a 25% stake in it, a fair amount of control comes in. Is it then realistic to expect that it is just money given for return of investment?
Therefore, I think what you would do is you would lay down limits on how much controlling interest they get. Chinese money is all across the world. It’s more a question of how do you structure these things to make sure that you retain control, that you are not creating dependencies which can later hurt you. Frankly, you can’t label any investment as a nationality anymore.
ANANT GOENKA: What do you think of Pakistan’s offer to export oxygen to India?
The best way to play these things is in an absolutely straight way. Act as if it’s a genuine offer, say thank you and take it. But don’t suddenly say everything has changed, our relationship is wonderful, all of us start speaking Punjabi… No, no.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Trade deficits with China have increased over a period of time. Is trade an area where we are looking at creating interdependencies with China? Also, how real is the paranoia about Chi- nese investment?
We used to run a surplus (trade) with China… It was only around 2004-2005, that the deficit really started growing, and after that it ballooned… What has happened in the last few years is that we have followed a sort of passive-aggressive foreign economic policy… We walked out of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) after eight years of negotiation. We are now the only major economy which is not part of any regional trading arrangement. We have been raising tariffs for the last four years. So we are actually turning inwards. Yet, 40% of our GDP comes from the external sector. Can we do without the world? Can we only rely on atmanirbharta? We can’t. Nearly 80% of our imports are maintenance imports — fertilizer, energy. We are not going to survive without the world. And how are you going to pay for this if you are not exporting? The world economy is much slower, it is fragmented, but it is still globalised. It is fragmented into very large trading blocs. Asia is one, where we are outside both the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and RCEP… If you choose to cut yourself off from the rest, for me it represents a real risk of a much more impoverished future for India, and that is the argument I make in the book. You have to get out there and get engaged. Yes, it’s a tougher world. But because it’s a tougher world, you have to do more. You should do much more in the subcontinent, much more in the Indian Ocean region. You can make yourself a source of prosperity for your smaller neighbours… You account for about 8% of the world’s GDP, you do have certain weight and influence. You are not leveraging that to actually further your economic influence whereas the Chinese are actually institutionalising their influence through AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) etc. That is the difference. There are a thousand ways of doing it, but for me the biggest worry is that we are actually heading in the opposite direction.
… Part of the problem between India and China is that we each project on the other, and expect the other one to behave as we would in those circumstances. And we don’t. We don’t understand each other, we don’t even study each other properly… In 1988, when we did modus vivendi and basically agreed to not bother each other, both economies were roughly the same size and at a similar level technologically. In fact, we were more integrated into the world economy than they were. But now, they are more than four times bigger than us in terms of economy and you can see the levels of integration and the influence that they exercise in the world. The result is really a tremendous sense of envy in India. A lot of the reactions, like throwing Chinese TVs out of the window, how and whom does it help? You just lost a TV, that’s all. There is no rational discussion of these things and it is not even possible… That for me is tragic.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Was walking out of RCEP a mistake?
Yes, I think so. You had eight years to negotiate what you wanted. Then you have a 20-year adjustment period in RCEP for it to actually begin fully. So what are you saying when you walk away? You are saying I am not competitive today and I don’t think I will be competitive in 20 years. That’s what you are saying to the rest of the world. You have opted out. I’m sure you made your adversaries happy.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Does India’s closeness with the US or the Quad (Quadrilateral Dialogue) partnership square with our desire for strategic autonomy?
I don’t think strategic autonomy means I won’t work with other people… I think strategic autonomy means that you make up your own mind. Secondly, you are only useful to other people, if you are willing to actually work with them. You need the world to help you with issues such as maritime security… 93% of your trade goes by sea, and 38% of it through South China Sea. Are you going to defend it everywhere? You rely on international norms, other partners.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: In case of an all-out hostility with China, what can we expect from the Quad?
Nobody else is going to fight for you. And you don’t want anybody else to fight for you either. Even in 1962, nobody did… Secondly, intelligence is something where your friends can help you. As your interests grow, as you become more entangled with the world, you are also more dependent on it. China is as dependent on the world as you are; laws of politics apply to them too.
AAKASH JOSHI: To what extent do you think domestic political decisions affect India’s soft power abroad?
Today, India as a model in the subcontinent is probably less so than before for two or three reasons. One is that the subcontinent is composed of old nations but new states. They are all building up their nationalism and so on and in the last 30 or 40 years they feel less threatened. But when Sri Lanka was trying to negotiate with Tamils in Jaffna, where did the Sri Lankan government look for example? Indian federalism. Why is the Nepali Congress called the Congress? Where do they come when they have to run away from the monarchy? Those political links at a human level have atrophied, partly on our side as we become more insular, but also in their case, as they have developed in their own way. So it’s not only what we have done in the last few years internally, but also about the sharper nationalist rhetoric that we are now using in projecting ourselves.
But the biggest shift that has come is that (the subcontinent) was basically a sideshow during the Cold War… But today all the pressure and flashpoints are in the Asia Pacific… Today, you have a level of outside interest in the subcontinent which didn’t exist before. And they will use the leverage this gives them, just as you (India) used the leverage the Cold War gave you between the US and the Soviets. They will use your tensions with China. So it’s a much more complicated situation today than before.
LIZ MATHEW: What would be India’s position in a new post-Covid world?
…The way we handle the second wave is going to affect our image. But basically, if you look at the geopolitics of it, Covid has accelerated existing trends rather than shift them… We are still in the middle of this crisis, and I am very reluctant to say that at the end of this crisis, India is going to come out better or worse than other people. We will come out diminished. And unfortunately, everybody is going to come out diminished. And in a much slower world economy, where everybody is doing much worse, it’s going to be a much harder world because there will be a natural tendency to… be much more protectionist. You are entering a world which is much more Hobbesian as it were… The best way is to handle our problems competently, that will be the beginning (of recovery). But if you are going to do image management, I’m sorry.
RAVISH TIWARI: Does the international community understand the world order that China is trying to fashion?
…My own sense is that China knows it is the greatest beneficiary of the present order… What they are saying is that China is ready to take centre stage. She (China) is not saying let’s build a different order but she defines the existing order differently… She is talking about a division of the world between the great powers. And she keeps saying anything outside that is dangerous. Now, what does that imply? To me, it implies that she is open to a negotiation. She wants to improve the present order but she’s a beneficiary of it. So she doesn’t want to destroy it… China has never taken the responsibilities that the US did after World War-II… While she’s an economic superpower, she’s not yet a political or military superpower.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think back-channel talks between India and Pakistan will work?
Back channels are useful and have worked… But they have failed too… because domestic politics in both nations does not support it. Today, we are in a different situation where it seems that those who have power in both countries have an interest in a controlled level of hostility. They don’t want it to go out of hand as neither can risk a defeat… It seems to serve domestic political purposes on both sides to have some hostility.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Your prognosis in the book doesn’t paint a very happy picture about where India is headed.
I’m optimistic about India. India is bigger than any politician, government or bureaucrat. I see hard times ahead and a lot depends on what we think and what we do.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.