Compulsions that drove foreign policy

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on July 27, 2021

Title: India And Asian Geopolitics, The Past, PresentAuthor: Shivshankar MenonPublisher: Penguin India Pages: 406Price: ₹699

The book throws light on the policy tweaks that helped India ride out epochal events over the years

In India and Asian Geopolitics, The Past, Present, by one of our country’s distinguished diplomats, Shivshanker Menon, we have an authoritative book on the evolution of India’s foreign policy and the geopolitical considerations driving it.

For his book, Menon has drawn on insights gained through multiple postings to China, including as ambassador there, and tenures as our envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Menon’s career in the Indian Foreign Service concluded as Foreign Secretary, followed by a longish period as National Security Advisor.

The book itself emerged from teaching Indian foreign policy at Ashoka University. This probably explains the faintly pedagogical air it exudes.

The ‘geopolitics’ in the book’s title, refers, Menon states, to the ‘long term drivers of a state’s quest for power, such as geography, history, economics and demography.’

For India, as he explains, this meant that it had to ‘always support a relatively large population on a limited arable land mass, requiring it to trade and engage with the rest of the world.

Reflecting Nehru’s views

Menon’s view is not different from that of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed that the country’s geographical location made it a meeting point of Western and Northern and South-East Asia.

Because of this, the history of India is a long history of its relations with the other countries of Asia. Thus began a frenetic Indian engagement in Asia in the first decade of our freedom. India was everywhere in the continent with little to show for it.

Menon does not discuss whether such extensive engagement was required when the country’s foreign relations establishment was woefully short on expertise and struggling to cope with the fallout from our conflict with Pakistan and an emerging border dispute with Communist China.

Happily, the other and more substantive and enduring part of Nehru’s foreign policy, Non-Alignment, has proved to be relevant to this day. It has kept India out of alliances that have devastated the rest of Asia and killed millions since the Second World War.

Most importantly, non-alignment gave Nehru breathing space to start on state-building in a country traumatised by Partition and blighted by poverty, sickness and illiteracy.

In Nehru, India had a true champion of global outreach. The institutions that we continue to be proud of today, among them the IITs and IIMs, our atomic energy and space programmes, as well as our major dams and steel mills, came up with the support of countries and institutions from both sides of the Cold War divide.

By the time he died in 1964, Nehru had overseen the integration of Indian princely states into the Union, seen off a Pakistani attempt to take over Kashmir and survived a morale-shattering war with China.

Menon’s book doubles up as a thoughtful defence of India’s foreign policy as it evolved under Nehru and continued, according to Menon, right up to the start of the Modi era in 2014.

The policy was constantly tweaked to suit a rapidly changing world, enabling India to ride out the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, the advent of fierce globalisation, an epic global financial crisis in 2008, and terrorism.

India even managed to come out of its own ‘nuclear winter' of sanctions, by signing the Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2006. India’s conflicts with Pakistan and China are well-covered in Menon’s book. He even touches upon a rare missed opportunity which might have led to an enduring peace with Pakistan.

He is clear-sighted about the value geographically strategic Pakistan holds for major powers, especially the US and its newfound best friend, China.

Dealing with China

On our conflict with China, Menon is forthright. As he states, India and China’s ‘interests and positions on the boundary and in Tibet were among the first issues the new states had to address. This they failed to do.

The consequences of that failure were the border conflict of 1962 and the long freeze in Indo-China relations that followed.

It didn’t help that when the Dalai Lama fled to India, the government, instead of letting him in quietly, chose to give a royal welcome for him, something that rankled the Chinese greatly. But to the credit of India and China, trade has flourished between them and, Galwan notwithstanding, an armed conflict has not occurred.

It is common knowledge that in the lead up to the 1962 debacle, India had several opportunities to settle its border dispute with China

. That it did not, is one of Nehru’s few failures, leaving India with two powerful enemies, and that too in alliance, on our borders. How and where did we fail?

Menon, perhaps constrained by the positions he has held, gives us no answers. Nor does he explain why, knowing Pakistan was aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, we failed to stymie it before signing the Simla Agreement.

Misgivings over RCEP

Menon’s unhappiness at India staying out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) comes out strongly in the book and there is more than a hint in it that the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) India shunned, could be made to work to its advantage.

He is not happy with India joining the US, Australia and Japan in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and feels that ‘India’s future security has to be based on much more than such a weak and indeterminate reed.’ He is all for a much greater Indian engagement with the rest of the world as experience has shown that it serves India’s interests best.

Menon is deeply troubled by Prime Minister Modi’s mix of strident nationalism and Hindutva. Together, according to Menon, these are ruining our relations with our neighbours, some of whom are Muslim-dominated countries and more importantly, harming India most.

Menon’s book is repetitive in parts and it deserves a more detailed index. But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise excellent work on India and the geopolitical compulsions that determine its foreign policy.

The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru. Views are personal

Published on July 27, 2021

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