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‘India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present’ review: India in a changing world

Independent India’s foreign policy, according to Shivshankar Menon, has gone through three geopolitical phases and their transitions. From 1947 to the 1960s, a bipolar Cold War world; from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, rapid changes in its neighbourhood such as China falling out with the Soviets and moving to the U.S. side; and the post-Cold War world when the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower in a unipolar world order. Menon, who was the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary, is exploring these phases in their historical context to tell the story of how India weathered the many geopolitical storms of the past in his latest book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present.

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‘Prisoner of beliefs’

The conventional wisdom about Jawaharlal Nehru’s conduct of foreign policy is that he was too idealistic to understand the changes in geopolitics. Francine Frankel, for example, portrays a Nehru who was a prisoner of his beliefs in her book, When Nehru Looked East. In The India Way, S. Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister, blames “legacy issues” for India’s current China problem. Another argument by foreign policy writers is that Nehru did nothing when China took Tibet, bringing Chinese forces to the Indian border for the first time in history.

Menon has taken a different approach to history. He underscores the seriousness of China taking Tibet in 1950, which, according to him, was a pivotal moment in India-China relations, but challenges the argument that India failed to stop the Chinese invasion. The Tibetans themselves did not want to antagonise China by seeking Indian help. By the time they sought help, it was too late. General Cariappa told Nehru in October 1950, the Tibetans had no military capacity to withstand the battle-hardened People’s Liberation Army. “In effect, India had no real military options in Tibet,” writes Menon. But both states failed to deal with this fact (of coming face to face on the border for the first time) and reconcile their interests and positions on the boundary, he writes. “The consequences of that failure were the border conflict of 1962.”

Different allies

While both China and India pursued Asian solidarity, they did it differently. When India chose non-alignment, China chose to ally with the Soviet Union (and later partner with the United States). Menon questions the reports that China’s UN Security Council seat was offered to India. “If China retained a seat on the UNSC through the Cold War, whether occupied by the Republic of China [Taiwan] or the People’s Republic of China, it was because it was allied to one or other superpower.” But for India, non-alignment worked well, given the strategic realities of the 1950s and its own weaknesses. “Non-alignment did achieve most of its early goals in the 1950s such as decolonisation, the partial test ban treaty and international boycotts of apartheid South Africa... it was also a useful buffer and channel between the superpowers,” Menon writes.

Transforming ties

Indian foreign policy has largely been flexible, readapting itself to the changes in geopolitics. If in 1955, Nehru opposed Zhou Enlai’s proposal for a permanent Afro-Asian Secretariat saying it would create yet another bloc, in 1961 — after CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) were formed as part of the Cold War alliance building — non-alignment became the Non-Alignment Movement under the same Nehru’s watch. When ties between China and Pakistan deepened and China moved to the U.S. side, India chose to tighten ties with the Soviet Union. And after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India opted for integration with the global economy and transforming ties with the United States. Currently, India is facing another major transition. China has already risen as a major power. Other countries in Asia, including India, are rising.

The more India rises, the more relations between India and China will shift away from cooperation to competition. If in terms of economic and military resources both countries were at par in the late 1970s, now China is far ahead. And India-China relations have slid into a crisis with the 2020 Galwan clashes. “India’s biggest strategic challenge today is managing its relationship with China and dealing with the consequences of China’s rise. The former has to be done with China, the latter must include other powers that share India’s interests,” he writes.

This is an important book for both students and practitioners of Indian foreign policy.

Menon builds a credible, chronological narrative of the transformation of India’s foreign policy and maps its present-day challenges with prescriptions for its tasks in an impassioned way. While doing so, he emphatically emphasises the idea of a plural India — the country’s key strength — and warns against prejudices masquerading as ideas as well as fear and polarisation. “This is not a time for drama, showy events, and the pursuit of status... Influence, like power, is a means to an end.”

And what’s the end? “India should make it possible for every Indian to live a safe, prosperous, and dignified life.”

India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present; Shivshankar Menon, Allen Lane/ PRH, ₹699.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 3:52:34 PM |

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