Dan Banik and Shivshankar Menon discuss India’s place in a new world order and the extent to which the country is currently diversifying its foreign policy, how globalization changed Asian geopolitics, the strained relationship between India and China, the role of personalities in foreign policy, and the impact of the idea of India as a “Vishwaguru”.
As India’s stature across the globe increases, there is considerable interest in better understanding how its foreign policy is likely to evolve. In a new book – India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present – Shivshankar Menon examines India’s foreign and security policy choices through history, with a particular focus on India’s responses to the rise of China and other regional powers.
Shivshankar Menon served as the Foreign Secretary from 2006 to 2009 and as the National Security Adviser to the prime minister of India from 2010 to 2014. He has previously authored Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy and is current a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University. Twitter: @ShivshankaMenon
Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik @GlobalDevPod
Banik: It’s great to see you Shankar, welcome to the show.
Menon: Thank you for having me.
Banik: Let’s begin by discussing something you actually write about towards the end of this really exciting book that you've written, and that has to do with the vision of India. Now, many outside India have been noticing a somewhat more assertive India in recent years, some even claim that there’s a clearer projection of India as a big and important foreign policy player. How do you see India’s place in this new world order that is evolving, particularly in a post-pandemic world? Where do you see India heading, and what kind of a role do you see India playing in world affairs?
Menon: It seems to me that there’s at least three aspects in which today there’s much more debate within India on India’s place in the world. One I think is the balance between how engaged India should be with the world. And in my preference, I think is clear in the book, I think that India has done best when she is most engaged with the world, when she is most connected with the world. And that it's in fact those bits of India which have been most connected with the world which have done best by our own people in terms of welfare and so on, and economic development. That’s one, I think. The other is the whole idea of Indian exceptionalism and particularism and how unique India is, and I argue that our geography is interesting. We’re the only subcontinent in the world, which tells you something that we are a subcontinent, we're connected to the world, but we're also not connected. If you look at our geography, traditionally it was closed only in the north, both east, west and through the ocean we were very connected to the world and to our neighbors to the rest of Asia. But over time I think increasingly, partly, I think it’s a version of history that we've been telling ourselves, but I think that general that idea of how connected India is to the world and of how exceptional or unique or different India is from everyone else, I think that idea has been strengthened over time. I’m not sure that's a very good way to proceed for our future but, that's again, it's a spectrum, and you’ll find Indians at various points. The third one is the India that we want to build ourselves. I think that, I mean, the fundamental social contract that we have among ourselves, social, political, and I think that's under renegotiation again. That’s not a bad thing because I think every country should go through this process of introspection, renegotiation, seeing where we are, how do we deal with it. But I think I have an image of an India that is plural, that is diverse, and that therefore works for a plural and diverse world around it in which to flourish. And I think that's actually in India's interest. There are others who have a much more restricted idea of India over much more, let's say ethno-nationalist India. And I think these are the three sort of vectors along which one needs to sort of situate the vision of India. For me these three things are very important.
Banik: In the book you identify two major alternatives, two distinct projections of India. One is of course the fear of conflict, and the other is an image of an assertive confident India. Obviously one of the big challenges in this huge and diverse country is that it is often very difficult to speak with a unified voice, and there are so many different opinions on every societal issue. So, do you see this vision of self-confidence, tolerance and the values you believe many in India cherish, what are the chances that this vision will win over the one that fears conflict? What can the world expect? One side of the story, of course, is foreign policy playing to a domestic audience, but there’s also another side, one that India is communicating to the rest of the world.
Menon: Foreign policy cannot be different from domestic politics. I mean, it’s a product of domestic politics anyway, and therefore if you, for me, if you look at India's interests in terms of building a prosperous secure modern India, I think it's clear that the choice has to be engagement, the choice has to be much more confident outgoing engaged India, and not this particularistic withdrawing into ourselves, and certainly not a divided India. But you know, let's be honest, I mean ever since independence and before, there have been different visions of the kind of India that we want, and therefore differences on foreign policy. I think China policy was never ever noncontroversial, except when the Chinese made it so by attacking us in 1962, then suddenly everybody was united. This is true of all major policy. You look at policy to the US, there have always been arguments domestically about where we should be. But that's in the nature of a democratic process, and I think there's nothing wrong with that, with having this discussion. My preferences are clear. Do I think my preferences will come about? Yes, I'm an optimist. I actually think that, given the choice most Indians would actually choose it. Might not work itself out today, tomorrow, but it might take time, but ultimately I think there has been this tremendous continuity in Indian foreign policy, no matter who's in power. And that is because they respond to what they see to what they have, to the means available and to the situation around them. In most of these cases I think the choices have been clear, this drive to strategic autonomy, this drive to build up national capabilities, and this drive to work with others to reshape the international system to serve our interests. We can't do it ourselves, we can't withdraw from the system, so we work with others.
Banik: In the book you identify three broad historical periods for the evolution of Indian foreign policy. You have 1946-47 to 1960, then the 1960s, and finally the period from 1989 when India began integrating with the rest of the world economy. In addition, you also write that now India is perhaps embarking on a new phase, perhaps a fourth phase. How would you characterize this fourth phase? Sections of the literature conclude of course that Indian foreign policy is largely characterized by continuity, and yet it appears to me that this fourth phase, or this new transition phase, is somewhat different in terms of continuity than the previous three phases.
Menon: It seems to me that we have a problem, or today, of a world between orders. We had a bipolar world called Cold War world, we then had a slightly more complicated Asia with the sign of Soviet split. Then we had the unipolar moment of when the end of the Cold War Soviet Union collapsed, the US as a sole superpower. And now we have actually a world between orders, a world adrift, as it were. India still seeks the same things, to transform India and to use the external environment in the world to help that transformation, that's our goal. But we’ll have to change the way we go about it, and in today's world I think that actually this is a world where you need to get out there and be much more active and much more, I mean Africa is a good example, West Asia is another example, where I think we will have to proactively start defending our interests and looking after what we need. I mean in the past, for instance, we've relied on maritime security for the sea lanes from West Asia which carry our oil to us. The US fifth fleet in Bahrain has really taken care of this for all of us. But today the US is a net exporter of oil. We are among the biggest, you look at the four biggest importers of oil are all Asian, India, China, Japan South Korea. How long will the US provide that security? So, we need to adjust our tactics to the new situation. I think that in a world between orders where the multilateral system clearly is not delivering, you saw what happened with COVID, and what did the world order do for us? So, we need to step up as India and be much more active and engaged in the world.
Banik: So, are we then thinking about a world order where you have India doing a bit of what China is doing, cultivating not just the traditional political support of countries on the African continent, but also perhaps reaching out actively to other parts of the world? I notice that Latin America, for example, is not necessarily prioritized in Indian foreign policy. There is, however, historical and contemporary focus on the neighborhood, right. Managing China is also important as well as managing the new relationship with the quad, with the EU and of course, the United States. Is India, in your view, actively moving, perhaps, from cultivating a political relationship that it was doing previously with other countries to perhaps cultivating much more of an economic relationship with countries? I also of course understand that security cooperation is increasingly assuming importance, including defence cooperation with certain African countries on the eastern seaboard. So, is India diversifying its foreign policy more in this fourth phase than was the case in earlier periods?
Menon: I think yes, certainly, I think it has to. My own sort of mantra for this is issue-based coalitions of the willing and able. Find partners on issues that matter to us. And they won't necessarily be the same on all issues. And depending on what we can work together with them, whatever we find partners who will work with, those we share our interests with. So this could mean working with the US, with the quad for maritime security for instance, but when it comes to continental issues working with Iran with Russia in Asia, when it comes to issues, as you said of defence of security cooperation, we have to cast our net much wider working with countries in Africa, countries in West Asia, Southeast Asia becomes very important on economic issues depending on the issues. So yes, it would be a sort of variable geometry that you're operating. It will be much more complicated and it won't be easy, but I think that's what the situation demands.
Banik: The book is structured according to the past and the present, and the present in many ways starts with globalization, and you place quite a lot of emphasis on what globalization has done to Asian geopolitics. In most narratives of globalization, India and China are often highlighted as being the biggest beneficiaries, right? Perhaps China more so than India? And so, could you highlight for my listeners, Shankar, how globalization according to you, actually changed Asian geopolitics? Obviously, globalization brought development, but you also highlight the fact that, and I think this is very important, that globalization also fostered greater inequalities in certain respects.
Menon: Yeah, we’re in the world created by globalization, there's no question. It's the single greatest influence on the world we see today, and India and China were huge beneficiaries. But I think it changed geopolitics in four ways. One, it shifted the balance of power because some countries grew much faster, China I think, was the most spectacular. But others, India, you know Korea, other countries also did well in this period, other emerging economies around the world. So it shifted the balance of power, and I think you see the consequence immediately. And today the major fault line in the world is the US pushing back against the rise of China, and this is a direct consequence of the shifts in the balance of power, but there have been other shifts as well. The second I think is the rise of authoritarian leaders, populist who depend on charisma, partly because globalization also represented a threat to identities. In societies which were transformed by globalization, the world is now urban, more people live in cities than in villages for the first time in human history, and this has happened very rapidly in the last three decades, this transformation. And you've uprooted people from their traditional plan village family into urban anonymity and suddenly expose them through the smartphone in their hands to what's happening around the world. That sort of threat to identity leads people to go back to nativist ideas. There's a religion, suddenly, or at least piety, suddenly very evident. You see, the politics of emotion, of mass emotion and mobilization, and what everybody calls populism, and you see the rise of new authoritarians across the globe. So that’s the second big shift. It's changed the politics within ourselves, within our countries. Thirdly technology, and that has really opened up new domains for contention, whether it’s cyberspace, and you've seen the new uses of space, military uses of space. Even matter time, the global commons now is contested, at least in the Indo Pacific. But it's also, I think, threatening people’s futures in a way that's interesting because, I mean, the thought of digital manufacturing of what AI could do. You know, all this complicates people calculation. And the last thing is I think, we have a whole new agenda of security issues which we didn't have before globalization, before the world was one geopolitical unit created by globalization. Climate change, pandemic, I mean, the way COVID spread, this can only happen in a globalized world, the rapidity and the way in which it did, you look at, I said, maritime security, cyber security. So you have a whole new security agenda which basically is beyond the capacity of anyone, small group of countries to solve, whether it's NATO or whatever. These are transnational threats which need transnational solutions, and yet, thanks to the first two things, the shifts in the balance of power and the rise of the new authoritarians, you're much less capable of producing any transnational solutions. When was the last time you did anything meaningful on the climate, on climate change?
Banik: Well, some in the international media claiming that it was a couple of weeks ago in Glasgow.
Menon: Well, I would say it was Rio, frankly if you ask me.
Menon: That’s a long time ago, 1992, anyway. As a result, we're in a world of paradox. Today more people are living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than ever before in human history, and yet, if you ask people, they probably feel more insecure than they've ever felt before, across the world. That's not a stable, good condition to be in. For me, that's the way I see geopolitics having changed.
Banik: Let's talk about India and China, two big economies, neighboring countries. Both have had huge success in terms of economic growth during certain periods, they've achieved impressive poverty reduction, perhaps more so in China than in India, but nonetheless, India also had several success stories. But these two countries, India and China, are still developing, and development even though one has had rapid economic growth there's also been increased income inequalities. One would think that with rapid economic development, with prosperity, and even though there is rising inequality, that there would be greater dialogue, that there would be greater cooperation between these two Asian giants. I've been speaking with several influential policymakers and scholars on this trip to India, including your former colleague and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. According to several of these individuals, although globalization may have benefited China and India economically, globalization wasn’t able to foster better communication between these two culturally rich societies. Indeed, it seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the relationship between India and China appears to be as strained as it has ever been. I actually get a sense that China is viewed by many within the establishment here in India as the biggest threat. What are your thoughts on the role that globalization played in fostering closer ties between India and China?
Menon: I don’t think I write that China is a threat. I write that China is the biggest challenge, and the challenge is exactly what you said. Why haven't we learned to live with each other when we did manage to live together peacefully with each other for about 30 years, for almost 3 decades? We did work out a modus vivendi in the 80s, and it did hold until 2020 spring when the Chinese change the situation. Now my explanation is fairly simple, and again it’s a consequence of globalization. Globalization, increase inequality, not just within societies but between states and countries. And in 1980 when we worked out the modus vivendi with China, both countries were roughly the same size in terms of GDP, roughly the same technological levels, and India was probably more integrated into the world economy than China was. Today, China is almost five times in their size in terms of GDP, certainly more advanced technologically and much, much more integrated into the world economy. So there has been a growing gap in power, in material power, both in economic terms but also in other terms. So, given that I think it is that imbalance, that rapid shift in the balance of power, that I think explains a lot of the tension in the relationship today, and yet it's a very complicated relationship. 2020 was a year when you had the first deaths in 45 years on the border, and relations to my mind have been in crisis ever since. Yet that's also the year when China overtook the US to become our biggest trading partner, and in 2021 by October, we've done over $100 billion worth of trade, which we've never done in history before. Pre-COVID— never, and we're setting records. This is a much more complicated relation, very difficult to just characterize as purely antagonistic, purely hostile, or as cooperative, certainly. But there are elements of both in this relationship, and I think we are, again, if the world is between orders, India and China have to find a new framework for this relationship as well, a new way of managing it, a new way of thinking about it, and need to actually sit and have a proper strategic dialogue which enables them to see a way through in the future. Because I think a lot of what we're seeing today is jockeying for position between the two, and as you said, opinion in both countries seems to have turned very negative about the other. If you judge by social media you judge by the so-called strategic community and what they are saying. Public opinion, I'm not so sure how far it actually will go. Let's see. But certainly over 80% of Indians believe that India was betrayed by China in 2020, the polls show. That's not a very healthy basis for policy going forward in a democracy like India, because public opinion does affect policy. We've seen that before with China in the 50s, late 50s.
Banik: So, Shankar, the way in which I see it at the moment is that India is, if I may use the word, obsessed with China. India appears to compare itself with China on all sorts of indicators. But when I interact with scholars, think tanks and Chinese policymakers, the impression I get is that China is not obsessed with India, China is obsessed with the United States. Why do you think that is the case? Is it because there's a lack of understanding of China in India, perhaps language issues? Or is it perhaps that some people in China say that they don't like how Indian democracy works in practice, that it is chaotic, that the Chinese have somewhat lost respect for the Indian political system? Still others would say it is the 1962 war that created this rift between the two countries that is yet to heal. Is there adequate expertise in India, say at MEA, in academia, in the think tanks to understand China? Should there be a greater emphasis, perhaps, on encouraging people here in Delhi, elsewhere in India, to look at China through different lenses? And viewed from China, is there in your view, adequate interest in understanding of Indian society and politics? And if not, why?
Menon: Well, I think certainly we need more China studies in India. We need much more broad-based studies. If there is expertise on China, a lot of it is in the MEA, actually, in the official system, much more so than most other official systems. I think the record shows that we've been relatively accurate in our assessments of China for a very long time. We were among the first to see the Sino-Soviet split when the US thought it was devious communist plot to fool us all. And at each stage, I mean whether it was Tiananmen, after that, whether it was reform and what it was doing to China and what China was doing with the rest of the world, and that is why I think we were able to achieve that modus vivendi in the 80s and then keep the peace along the border and maintain it as it was. So I don't think there's a lack of knowledge or capability within the government. I think what's missing is a broad-based academic understanding of China. Because in both India, and this is true of China as well, I think for globalization meant an overwhelming concentration on studying from the West, and on studying from the US, which was one, the sole superpower, which had done very well. The Chinese attitude to India, it's interesting, they've always wanted to project that oh, we don't think about India, India we is not our concern, and yet if they didn't care about India, why would they put so much effort into actually dealing with India? Both in the subcontinent and this huge investment in a relationship with Pakistan ever since the late 1950s. You look at the effort they've put into other, on the border for instance, in Tibet. You look at the effort that they've put into in dealing with the rest of the subcontinent, our smaller neighbors. You look at the investment that they've put into the economic relationship with India. I mean in something like seven years they put almost $30 billion of investment in Indian startups, and that's quite a bit. So, I don’t think it’s quite true that China disregards India, but India studies in China have certainly declined over time. And exactly the same phenomenon that you see in India where most scholars and academics have very good links in the West, read western journals, publications and so on, it’s the same with China. For almost two generations they’ve been obsessed with the West. I think this is what Xi Jinping and many others are now trying to turn around by talking of historical nihilism, bourgeois liberalism, et cetera. And well, from Document Number Nine I think in 2013 certainly there’s been a conscious attempt to get back what they called discourse power, but also to tell Chinas own story themselves, not to be influenced by, and not to allow the power of either Western example or western academic knowledge production to prevail within their own society, and you see that, and you see the same kind of reaction actually to a much smaller extent in India, also, where in a sense, and that's an interesting phenomenon to study, I mean, where is knowledge produced and who’s producing it? And of course, the role of the state, the party, the party state in China, and that is so much greater than in India. So it's easier to locate where they put the emphasis, what they study. In India you can't. You can get all kinds of opinions in India at the same time.
Banik: One of the things I notice that is somewhat different in China than in, say, India, and maybe it’s because I haven’t spent enough time in India of late, is that at Chinese universities there's an obsession with publications in prestigious, and highly ranked academic journals. My colleagues, for example, are really reluctant to publish in good, but less prestigious job. There's also considerable attention on climbing up the University rankings and I think Chinese universities are doing really well in that regard, so that for me sticks out. I don't see a similar trend in India at the moment.
Menon: I think you’re right. But the university system in India, I think, is undergoing change. Ashoka is an example of that change. Ashoka in a sense is an outlier because it is an attempt to create a world class where liberal arts university to start with and now science as well, and it's very new, but it is pretty high in the rankings considering how new it is. It's not doing badly. So it seems to me that, I think in India the situation is changing. But in India I think we still have so many other issues to deal with in education before you get to top quality higher education. I don’t think you see the same kind of pressure for publications, for instance, or for rankings in the public universities. There is an attempt under the new education policy to try and introduce some of that, to try and bring in an element of competition, but I'm not sure how successful that will be. In China as well I think there is a risk actually, that quantity overcomes quality in these situations, you know how hard it is, you're an academic yourself, and let's see, let's see where this this goes.
Banik: I agree. It shouldn’t just be about the rankings, because we all know that those rankings can be very deceptive. But the reality is that whenever I co-author a piece with a Chinese colleague, they’re very careful to select journals that would be acceptable at their universities, because there's a ranking system that rewards scholars, which in turn is important for academic career.
Menon: I think it’s a broader thing. It’s also numbers, number one, number three, gang of four. There is, I think a sort of an emphasis on hierarchy, on ranking, on numbers, which is cultural to a much greater extent than perhaps in India.
Banik: I wanted to ask you about the role of personalities. To what extent do you see individuals, individual personalities playing a key role in foreign policymaking? I'm particularly interested in better understanding, say, the personal chemistry between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi. Both have visited each other, met on numerous occasions, there have been all of these hugs at seaside resorts, and one would have thought that such embraces, such long conversations, would lead to some sort of a gradual improvement in China-India relations. For me it seems a bit odd that despite this kind of investment in cultivating a personal relationship, things really haven’t improved, have they? Is this perhaps because of the foreign policy mandarins in these two countries that do not approve of a warmer relationship? Is it MEA here in Delhi or the Foreign Ministry in Beijing that is holding back more friendly relationships between India and China?
Menon: You know they met 18 times before what happened in spring, which is really something actually if you think of it, so I think there's no question they both tried. But I think from the results at least it didn't work. It didn't produce a whole new relationship, a whole new framework for the relationship to proceed. But I think more than that, I think there's no question personalities matter. And I think diplomacy is the one, maybe the last area of state enterprise where the sovereign actually matters, so it's still a sovereign function which is performed by a small group of people. We keep denying it, we could saying it's democratic and so on, but the fact is it's a people business. It's about people, individuals actually sitting down and working out where their interests can coincide, and where they can work together, and that's the essence of negotiation of diplomacy. Ultimately, the people involved do matter, I think there's no getting away from it. The problem is I think that there are two kinds of mismatches. One is, the Chinese Foreign Office does not have the same role in the Chinese establishment as the Indian Foreign Office does. It doesn't have the same saying in making foreign policy as, say, MEA does in the Indian system. The other thing is, I think, that the way the Chinese system works, they like to have things prepared for their leaders to put their stamp on it, announce it, do whatever. Our system is in some way, strangely enough, more used to personal intervention at the top, always has been in foreign policy, from Nehru’s time onwards, Indira Gandhi, you think of all of them. And so, you have this sort of a double mismatch of who negotiates and at which level, and how much power they actually carry in their own system. And these are things that I think you need to be aware of when at least in India, China negotiations among yourselves, your both sides need to be aware of and to compensate. And I think that's one of the things I would think make a difference. But I think clearly it’s possible, we have done it before, we've had strategic dialogues with the Chinese and we've actually learned how to manage the relationship, manage very difficult issues. I don't see why we can't do that again, and I think we will. I think between us we have enough experience of statecraft to know our business.
Banik: During the period you were Foreign Secretary and the National Security Adviser, but also at this current moment of time, when you think about world personalities during these years, can you identify some people, some national leaders you believed that reshaped foreign policy by the power of their personalities, people you were truly impressed with during these two stints that you had at the helm of Indian foreign policy?
Menon: In our foreign policy, certainly I would list Manmohan Singh, Narasimha Rao as people who actually shifted policy and changed the emphasis and actually led us forward in India. It's interesting, I think the kinds of people who actually use their personality most successfully to change foreign policy are not necessarily the ones you would think of as the loudest or the most evident ones. I think Merkel, for instance, doesn't get enough credit for what she did in, not just Europe, but Europe's place in the world through a really difficult time after the global financial crisis, the Euro crisis, et cetera, to keep Europe at the table. So, there are examples. I certainly think Xi Jinping's personality makes a difference to what China is doing. I think his quest for his legacy and his place in the Chinese pantheon of leaders, I think that certainly affects some of the decisions that are being taken and the much more assertive Chinese policy that we see. Not that I think that will, necessarily, that's entirely because of his personality, no, I think there are other reasons for it as well, but they happen to go together. So, yes, I do think personalities make a difference. But you know, I’ll tell you a problem. When I was Foreign Secretary, NSA and you use it in a G20 meeting, and the problem is it's full of alpha males, and you wonder how can, and with one maybe female or two, and you wonder how can so many alpha males in a room actually produce a good outcome? A good diplomatic outcome, right? So, the process of internal politics actually affects you and affects our diplomatic prospects in very strange ways.
Banik: I'm sure my listeners are familiar with that iconic picture of President Bush giving Angela Merkel a back rub. And you’re right that Merkel perhaps doesn't get the credit she deserves, and is only now perhaps being credited for being this influential personality, because now you know her period is over, and so there's a lot of good things that are being written about her of late. But I also remember a very different example that of Nicolas Sarkozy when he became president. I think it was his first three months in office, during that time he was everywhere. He was inserting himself into every problem in the world, and the impression created then was this guy, he was going to be the key for most important foreign policy decisions. But then of course it later turned out that slow and steady, and perhaps even boring, that some people claim Merkel won the race. So, maybe there is a strong case to be made for quiet, and perhaps a bit boring personalities, having more influence.
Menon: But clever, please add intelligent. Understanding the situation. I think that is the most important, because they had a very good sense of where the world was and where it could be going and how to actually nudge it along in that direction. So, yes, maybe boring on the outside, but certainly not boring on the inside.
Banik: I’ve read several accounts of people reflecting over their time in Washington, and writing about leaders that visited Washington and the type of reception they received in the United States. I think Manmohan Singh was one of those people who, even when he was the Finance Minister, not just when he was Prime Minister, but when he was a Finance Minister he got a lot of attention from politicians in the US, as well as from the major CEOs, and the kind of reception that many other leaders of major powers who later visited DC did not get. So, academic standing and intelligence are indeed important. But returning to India's place in the world, Shankar, there’s now quite a lot of emphasis in Indian foreign policy circles about India being the Vishwa Guru, the teacher to the world. There is, as I noticed, quite a lot of emphasis on promoting Indian culture, traditional medicines, yoga, building on traditional soft power, but doing something more, perhaps a desire to refer to the rich history and civilization of India. To what extent do you see this attempt at projecting India as the Vishwa Guru, the teacher to the world? To what extent is this going to be key for India going forward?
Menon: I think it’s a little premature. When we’re not really a net exporter of knowledge or even a great producer of knowledge today. We may have been in history, but I think if you look in terms of scientific invention, innovation, in terms of other forms of knowledge it is still primarily being produced in the industrialized countries today. So, when we say we’re going to teach the world, but I think that tradition, that thought has a long tradition, it goes all the way back to Swami Vivekananda who said when India becomes a European society with Hindu religion then we will be able to contribute to world peace, and help, in other words, in solving the world's problems. And I think there’s, that thread has been consistent. But you know, this might be a noble goal if it prompts us to actually invest in RND, in science and technology, and up our game in education and in various respects. But it is a soft power goal, and frankly, without the hard power, without, not just, I don’t mean just the military, but the economic power, the military ability to at least to defend yourself, to secure yourself, frankly, the other goals will come and go. For me, I measure any of these in terms of how far will it help us to transform India? How far will it help us to improve the lives of ordinary Indians? That has to be the ultimate measure of any of these policies, these targets, these goals that we set ourselves. I'm not so sure that Vishwa Guru is the one that I would put very high in that list.
Banik: If one were to identify the signature foreign policy initiative from China, it would be the Belt and Road Initiative. If it was the EU people would be talking about perhaps the Global Gateway Project. The US is talking about Building Back Better World. The US Foreign Secretary is now visiting Africa, he's promoting closer ties with former Soviet Republics. China has in many ways a head start on the African continent, it has this further strengthen the relationships it has been cultivating for decades with very visible infrastructure projects that many African leaders say they want. In India as I understand it, there's some sort of a consensus that India can’t match China's deep pockets, at least in terms of big infrastructure projects. And so India has been promoting, apart from this Vishwa Guru narrative, other international initiatives that may or may not be getting the kind of international traction, such as the International Solar Alliance. New Delhi is also keen to project itself as playing an important role in climate change negotiations. So going forward, what is the grand strategy for India?
Menon: Well, I don’t think we should measure Indian foreign policy by how does it match up to what China is doing, how does it match up to what the US is doing. We're not playing football here, we're not doing man to man marking. Our job is very simple. It's to create enough security and create an enabling environment to the extent that we can for India’s transformation. So that's the measure that we need to use, not: oh, the Chinese have so many projects in Africa why don't you have as many? Or: the Americans are doing this and why aren’t we? We need to pick and choose those things that actually matter to our people lives and enable us to try. We have far too many people who are still poor, who are still hungry, and we have a long way to go before we start thinking of other goals other than transforming India. I wouldn't bother too much about all this, do we have this. Right now we need to concentrate on as I said, creating an enabling environment, using whatever we can externally to help the transformation of India and securing it, making sure it's secure enough so that we can transform India. I don’t think we've done badly over the last 75 years. If you look at the record it’s better than we've ever done in history. We've done better than most countries in the world, with the exception of China, which in the last 30 years is done phenomenally. But we haven't done badly either. I would use that criteria rather than how do we measure against what somebody else is doing or how they're doing. And I wouldn't waste my effort on chasing them or trying to do what they do, because we are different. Our geography is different, our history is different and our needs are different, and we shouldn't be in here trying to be like China or like US or like anybody else.
Banik: But would that mean focusing on the neighborhood?
Menon: I think it does, today it does, because there is no world order. When there was a world order, a multilateral system that worked we were very active in it. I mean, many of our initial causes, big causes, decolonization, anti-apartheid for instance, disarmament. All these we promoted, and they promoted our security, by the way. But we did that internationally, we had a major hand in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance. Why? Because it was a way of building an order which enabled us to transform India. But today there is no order, as I said, we’re between orders. We’re in a different world and today, therefore, concentrate on your immediate periphery, on the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region, concentrate on Asia, and go outside that when you need to for other things. But you will have to work with all the major parts, whether it’s the US, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s China. And the other thing is, I don’t think we should obsess about China. China is still a regional power. Let’s be quite clear. She's a global economic power, she's an economic superpower, but in political military other terms, there’s only one country which can actually project military power across the world wherever she wants, whenever she wants, and that’s the US. So China is, and China has certain other limitations. She's in a crowded neighborhood, her demography is against her. So let's not say, oh, we're going to be like China. We can’t be, we're not China. We're coming from a different place, we’re in a different place today. I would concentrate, as I said, I keep going back to the transformation of India as my criteria, and that is the one that I would apply to Indian foreign policy. Otherwise it's a perpetual exercise in envy.
Banik: Shankar, it was really nice chatting with you today. Thank you so much for coming on my show.
Menon: Thank you, thank you for having me.