Scalpel in hand, a former foreign secretary picks at the faultlines of Indian geopolitics

by Shivshankar Menon

Geopolitics is a fashionable term in commentaries on international affairs. In India and Asian Geopolitics, Shivshankar Menon rescues it from inaccurate connotations: geopolitics is politics, especially foreign policy, influenced by factors like geography, history, economics and demography. He focuses a wide-angle lens, across geographies and centuries, on trends and events that have shaped India’s geopolitics.

As a former foreign secretary and National Security Adviser, Menon knows how policy-makers see power equations around them, which (as he notes) is not as analysts and historians see them. He adds that geopolitical analysis also includes the subjective element of looking into the heads of decision-makers.

Asia is today the “cockpit of major power rivalry”. China dominates this cockpit, having progressively extended the boundaries of its influence well beyond the continent. It has converted the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, suppressing competing territorial claims. It has acquired Indian Ocean ports across Asia and ext­ending to the African coast. It is building its navy to eventually challenge US naval sup­remacy. A web of trade, finance, infrastructure, connectivity, and security arrangements consolidates its influence across continental Asia. Menon observes that no power, other than the United States, has sought such a dominance of the Eurasian heartland and Asian rimlands, as well as the oceans from Africa to the US. All this has been enabled by the growth of China’s comprehensive national strength, but also facilitated by inconstancy of American policies, Russia’s relative dec­line and Europe’s assessment that China’s rise suited its economic interests.

Menon says India is giving up its strategic autonomy by going “cap in hand” to the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy for a security alliance.

Asia is also experiencing a resurgence of national rivalries, territorial claims and military confrontations. Globalisation and technology have empowered regional powers, whetting their ambitions. China’s neighbours are hedging against its influence by partnering among themselves and with the US, Russia and regional powers like Iran and Turkey. Southeast Asian countries have accommodated China’s interests in the South China Sea, but ASEAN has also tried to simultaneously (in Menon’s words) “balance, hedge, baulk, and collaborate with China and the United States”. Japan is rejecting its constitutional restraints and concluding bilateral defence cooperation agreements. The unpredictability of recent US behaviour has increased the involvement of regional powers in issues like the South China and East China Seas, maritime and cyber security and Korean denuclearisation.

On India and China, the book makes the point that, despite trade and cultural interactions through history, their political and security calculus did not intersect before 1950, when they first acquired a common border. This explains the imperfect mutual understanding of perspectives. But a modus vivendi was formalised in 1993, encouraging bilateral cooperation, while maintaining a status quo in the border areas. It came under repeated strain from political differences and periodical incidents along the border, and finally broke down with the standoff in eastern Ladakh in 2020. There is no explanation of why China embarked on this confrontation, when it was already engaged in escalating tensions with the US. Since we cannot get into the heads of Chinese decision-makers, we have only Australian politician Kevin Rudd’s assessment (quoted by Menon) that President Xi is in a hurry to realise his China Dream.

India-China relations need a new strategic framework. Menon suggests that in the India-US-China triangle, India should strive to be closer to both China and the US than they are to each other. India is already close to the US and getting ever closer. The US’s China policy promises a blend of cooperation, competition and confrontation. Adjusting the length of the India-China axis accordingly would need concerted bilateral and multilateral effort (and, of course, Chinese buy-in).

Menon sees elements of an all­iance in the India-US partnership, but without the commitment to mutual defence that cements an alliance. Their convergence of interests inc­ludes economic complementarity, “shared disquiet” about China’s behaviour and intensive security and defence cooperation.

But the US influence in Eurasia is peripheral, because (according to Menon) it has conceded the continental order to China and Russia. India has to pursue its strategic interests in this landmass through engagement with China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, among others. This means retaining strategic autonomy, a policy that every Indian government has followed since 1947—whether they called it non-alignment, genuine non-alignment or strategic autonomy—and which was preserved, even during adverse balance of power and internal weakness.

India’s geopolitical realities are unique: in the mix of its history, geography and demography. It has to engage with enemies and friends at various levels and work in interests-based coalitions, to ensure peace in its near and extended periphery. India has the international leverage today to determine its own path. Its large market also increases its leverage.

Menon says India is surrendering its strategic autonomy by its participation in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy—meekly going “cap in hand” for a security alliance. Clearly, he does not take at face value our official protestations that India is not seeking an alliance and will retain autonomy of foreign policy.

India’s geopolitical realities are unique: in the mix of its history, geography, dem­ography. It has to engage with enemies and friends.

Russia has expressed the same suspicions of the Indo-Pacific, describing it as an American ploy to drag India into an alliance. Menon makes only tangential references to India-Russia relations; he has not examined the impact on India-Russia relations of current Asian geopolitics. Two adjacent triangles may be relevant here: US-Russia-China and India-Russia-China. If the US accepts the geopolitical logic of focussing on China as its main competitor, thereby moderating the hostility in US-Russia relations, it could increase Russia’s political space vis-à-vis China. This lengthening of the Russia-China arm would improve the configuration of the second triangle from India’s perspective.

For over two decades now, India’s inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has been the holy grail for successive governments. Menon downplays this ambition, suggesting that India should focus instead on areas where it can realistically influence global norm-setting, like renewable energy, rare earths, ICT and cyber security. However, these pursuits need not be diluted by the Security Council effort. India’s past contributions as a non-permanent member have enhanced its prestige, particularly among developing countries. It can do much more as a permanent member. Experienced diplomats (like former ambassador, now minister, Hardeep Singh Puri) have argued that this goal is realistically achievable, if India takes bold and imaginative initiatives.

Stabilising its immediate periphery is of paramount importance for India. The Chinese involvement with our neighbours complicates relations with them and with China. Economic int­egration and contributing to the security of our neighbours, would enable India to be seen as an agent of positive change. A credible neighbourhood policy should include a pragmatic app­roach to RCEP, because an economic underpinning is essential for an effective political and strategic presence. Menon says the changing face of India’s nationalism, withdrawal into domestic preoccupations and statements designed for image-building or political advantage at home have negatively impacted these obj­ectives, by undermining trust in our neighbourhood.

These issues are becoming universal. An aggressive nationalism pervades many democratic (and other) societies. Perception management (by whatever euphemism it is des­cribed) is a widely prevalent by-product of the social media everywhere, revising historical “memories” and manipulating social consciousness. That foreign policy decisions are taken with more than an eye on domestic audiences and electoral calculations is neither new, nor an Indian phenomenon.

This is not to underplay the importance of a debate on our nat­ional ideology, its departure from that of the past, its impact on our social fabric and implications for achieving our global ambitions. That debate needs free rein, focussing on substantive issues, nor personalities, and messages, not messengers.