Former national security adviser and author of the new book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, tells Sunday Times that China has made it clear that it doesn’t see India’s rise as being in its interest

You talk about geography as history and the importance of India looking at her history differently.

We have been so caught up in global politics and superpowers and non-alignment —India-US, India-Russia, India-China, that I think we’ve forgotten where we’re located and how it has made us. Geopolitics is a useful lens, including geography, history, resource endowment, demography, the broader factors. It is useful, at a time of such tremendous change, to look at the long term drivers.

You say that we need to relook at the way we wrote our history.

Not we. Some of us have swallowed wholesale the way the British Empire wrote our history in a way that worked for them. So it was a history of repeated foreign invasions. They divided you by religion, into a Hindu period, a Muslim period and a modern period, and sold you this pup that India was united only by the Raj. This ignores the history of large parts of India, the most advanced maritime parts of India, those most connected to the rest of the world, from Banga, down through the Coromandel coast, Malabar Coast all the way up to Gujarat. Until 1750, they produced about 1/3rd of the world’s manufacturing. The Cholas even imported an emperor from Southeast Asia, and they lasted 13 centuries. So actually, we need to look at our own history with our own eyes.

You say that the old modus vivendi between India and China is destroyed. What do we have now? And what do we replace it with?

Roughly since 2012, the basic understanding on which you maintained the border from 1988 onwards is no longer valid. You can see it in Chinese behaviour on the border. The balance of power has shifted. In 1988, the two economies were roughly the same size, at similar technological levels. Today, the Chinese economy is more than four times bigger than the Indian economy. But the relative balance on the border has not changed quite as much as the Chinese discovered when they tried to change the status quo.

We need to address some issues directly with the Chinese.

We need to restore deterrence on that border ourselves. This involves a fair amount of self-strengthening, which is going on. You have dependencies on China which were acceptable in the past but pose risks today. There are things where you will have to work with the Chinese. They are your neighbour, your largest trading partner. They need you too. You are a large destination for China’s project exports.

You need to address the larger political issues; China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) goes through Indian territory. I think your fundamental problem with China is that she has made it clear that she doesn’t see the rise of India as being in her interest, whether it’s UN Security Council or NSG membership. I don’t see how the Chinese can veto what you do with the US. So the Chinese have to make a choice. As of now, we’re still in the beginning of a negotiation, not just on the border, but on the relationship as a whole.

Are there limits to Chinese commitment to Pakistan? Which geopolitical developments would affect that?

In the past, there were clear limits on the extent of China’s commitment. China didn’t intervene when Pakistan was broken, China did not intervene in 1965. When Musharraf asked for intervention during Op Parakram, the Chinese didn’t move anybody on the border. The Pakistanis have tried to project that there are no limits. And they’ve misread the situation in the past. But recently, thanks to CPEC, Gwadar, China’s stakes in Pakistan are much higher. China’s oil comes past Gwadar, so it becomes very important, being the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Pakistan represents a way of dealing with her restive Uighur population in Xinjiang. Pakistan is a counterweight, or at least a stone tied to the ankle of India.

Since 2008, we have no longer assumed that the old limits on China’s commitment to Pakistan would apply. And now it’s out in the public discourse, about a two-front war. I think that’s the most extreme case. What you’re more worried about is the levels of collusion, which might affect your interests.

China may be a development power, but now its hyper nationalism is a fact. There are those who see elements of hyper nationalism in India too. How do you see it?

We think of nationalism and states in late 19th century European terms. Chinese nationalism has a longer history. In India too, the sense of the nation is much older than the state. It seems to me we are moving into a new situation. In China, nationalism was tied to the socialist ideology, then legitimacy shifted to economic progress, but since the global financial crisis, it’s been a harder situation. Then the recourse is nationalism, blame the outside. Go back to autarky, call it self-reliance.

In practice, neither India nor China can do that fully. We are more dependent on the world than ever. Those globalisation years were years when we did best.

And now you’ve elected leaders who are authoritarian centralisers, who have much less ability to actually do the give-and-take that diplomacy requires. And so the chances of negotiating your way out of crises becomes less. Look at the inability of the world to cooperate, say on vaccines. It tells you about the capacity of the global political system today, and the risks that hyper nationalism brings.