India is on a consistent mission to chase growth, modernity and prosperity, but it has not been without a challenger -- China.
China’s rise is the foremost challenge that could derail India’s quest, and the more India rises, the more it must expect opposition from neighbouring giant.
Former bureaucrat Shivshankar Menon, who served as the National Security Advisor to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh between January 2010 and May 2014, has come up with some of these observations in ‘INDIA’S Foreign Affairs Strategy’ an impact series by Brookings India.
Menon says global realities are changing and internal problems are also not subsiding. In such a scenario, he vouches for strategic autonomy and leadership that is not populist or legitimises hyper-nationalism.
‘Doklam Emphasizes Strategic Autonomy’
“Why is strategic autonomy the best way forward for India?” asks Menon as he gives the example of the Doklam crisis that should tell Indian policymakers who they can fall back on in times of countering China.
“The Doklam crisis of 2017 is only the most recent example that shows that no one else is ready to deal with India’s greatest strategic challenge — China. It saw a tepid reaction from the rest of the world. To expect anything else is unreasonable,” he writes.
He says tepid reaction comes only because “other countries do not share India’s interest in the integrity or the rise of India. No other country shares India’s precise set of interests for the simple reason that no other country shares India’s history, geography, size, culture, and identity, and India’s domestic condition, all of which determine what it seeks from the international system.”
From the international system, India seeks an external environment that supports the country’s transformation that “enables it to build a modern, prosperous and secure country, eliminating poverty, illiteracy, disease and the other curses of underdevelopment from the lives of India’s people.” That is India’s core interest.
He recollects the period of Cold War when the world was divided into two hostile camps -- it obviously served India’s interest not to be dragged into external entanglements decided on by an ally or alliance.
“When the bipolar world ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it entered two decades of globalisation, of an open international trading and investment climate. Once again it was in India’s interest to pursue a multi-directional foreign policy, working with all the major powers in the pursuit of India’s transformation,” he writes.
How to Handle China?
The big question in creating external environment is, of course, is how to handle China. “One possibility is to engage China bilaterally to see whether the two countries can evolve a new modus vivendi, to replace the one that was formalised in the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visit, which successfully kept the peace and gave the relationship a strategic framework for almost thirty years.”
However, he feels that framework is no longer working and the signs of stress in the relationship are everywhere, from India’s membership application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to the Doklam stand-off (where Chinese behaviour differed from previous such instances but India’s did not).
“The more India rises, the more it must expect Chinese opposition, and it will have to also work with other powers to ensure that its interests are protected in the neighbourhood, the region and the world.”
In his opinion, the balance will to keep shifting between cooperation and competition with China “both of which characterise that relationship. The important thing is the need to rapidly accumulate usable and effective power, even while the macro balance will take time to right itself.”
‘Pakistan Strong Because of China’
Menon says Pakistan is not a strategic threat to India unless “India hands it victory by making it possible for Pakistan to exploit religious fissures in India’s society. India has done best in the years when Pakistan was most active making trouble in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere.”
He further says that “India’s Pakistan problem now is in large part a China problem, because it is China that enhances Pakistan’s capabilities, keeping it one step behind India at each stage of its nuclear progress, building up its defences, and committing to its long-term future in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” he said.
‘No Hyper nationalist Leadership’
As China seeks primacy in a world so far dominated by the United States, the world faces a destabilising power transition that may or may not be completed.
In the changing world, Menon says, “The immediate prospect, therefore, is for a low-growth world which is more riven by inter-state and intra-state conflict and violence. It is a hinge moment in the international system.”
As populist and authoritarian leadership mushrooms across the globe, Menon says such “nativist leaders are more mercantilist than their predecessors. It is an age of ultra-nationalism where politics precludes many sensible economic choices."
"The emergence of leaders who rely on a heightened sense of nationalism for their legitimacy, who present themselves as strong leaders, represents both an opportunity and a danger.”
He added, “As strong and decisive leaders they could take the decisions required to deal with difficult issues in the relationship. At the same time, a reliance on nationalism limits their ability to compromise and be flexible. It remains to be seen how this dynamic will work itself out.”
Risks Ahead of India
India risks missing the bus to becoming a developed country if it continues business and politics as usual, or tries to imitate China’s experience in the last 40 years, does not adapt, and does not manage its internal social and political churn better, Menon warns.
He says that avoiding war and attaining one’s goals is the highest form of strategy by any tradition or book — whether Kautilya, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli.
Transforming India requires the national security calculus to consider broader questions — “from technology issues, like atomic energy and cyber security, to resource issues like energy security, while building the strength to deal with traditional hard security issues.”
The most important improvement that India needs to make is regarding national security structures and their work — “introducing flexibility into India’s thinking and India’s structures.”