Shivshankar Menon has served as India’s national security advisor and foreign secretary. He was also India’s ambassador to China and high commissioner to Pakistan. Currently, a visiting professor of International Relations at Ashoka University, Menon is also chairman of the advisory board of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. In an interview with The Kathmandu Post‘s Dinesh Kafle and Kantipur Daily‘s Jagdishor Panday, Menon spoke about the changing power dynamics in South Asia, India’s political turmoil, and SAARC.
If you just look at the political trouble, we have had five new governments in the last year and a half in South Asia. Not all those transitions were normal and smooth. There is an economic crisis; three are already having a debt crisis. Others could have some of them. So, yes, if you look at it objectively, you could say it is a terrible situation. But it also gives an opportunity to break out of your old bad habits which have brought you here. After all, why are you in this mess? That is because of the choices you made before. This is your chance to change those choices—to look at South Asia as a whole. Because, you have a common interest here—both on the economic side and the political side, where bringing stability is important. Without stability, you will never be able to improve the welfare of your people. That was the point I was trying to make—yes, there is a crisis, but you have to look at it as an opportunity as well.
For instance, India in 1991 went through a terrible economic and payment crisis. But we chose to use it to break out of the licence permit raj and open up the economy. The world was also changing, with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on. So it’s the same thing. For me, this is a moment where you have the option of changing many things fundamentally. And people will understand, because they can see the economic crisis. They can see that jobs are scarce, international tourism is down, and sources of income are drying up. So people will accept the idea that you need to change things, that we should not end up in the same mess by doing the same thing. That, I think, is important. Politically, you have a moment of opportunity. And if you look at Asia as a whole, this is where all the action is. And unlike in the Cold War or the previous periods, we are not a geopolitical backwater anymore.
So, we should leverage that for our own advantage in South Asia. But again, you have to think of South Asia. If you start thinking that you lose if your neighbour wins, then you are back to where you were. And you will go through more crises.
They’ve always said “neighbourhood first”, but I think it’s a process of learning also. India is much more active in the neighbourhood today. When the Sri Lanka crisis happened, India spent $3.8 billion in fuel, food, and credit support to Sri Lanka to keep them afloat. If you look at the relationship with Bangladesh, it’s been transformed over the last 15 years because we focused on politics and security, and economic connectivity and so on. For me, this is an opportunity for all of South Asia to do something similar—where you see your security as interlinked, you deal with it together; and once you do that, you are a source of stability for each other. It makes sense for you then to work on economic integration, connectivity and so on because it works for you.
The point I made at the Kantipur Conclave (Sept 10-11) was that, unlike in the past, you can’t rely on some international order or multilateral organisations the way that you might have relied on before. Because we saw their reaction to the pandemic, to the debt of developing countries. It has been building for years. Everyone has known for years that it’s coming. But what have they done? It’s pathetic, if you look at it. So, it creates an opportunity today if you look at it differently rather than saying “Oh, look how bad it is.” Now, the problem is that we are all trained to look for the bad. There’s no story in “Dog bites man”; “Man bites dog” is the story. So that’s the problem, and we need to look at it differently. I really think this is a movement where you can make a difference.
I think every country has legitimate interests in developing its relationship with China. When it comes to Nepal-China relationship, that’s between Nepal and China. India will tell Nepal how it feels if Indian interests are affected. Just like if what India is doing with China affects Nepal’s interests, Nepal will tell us. And then we will have to work out something among ourselves so that we don’t hurt each other’s interests. For instance, nobody in India objects to Nepal’s economic relations with China. They build projects, which are for the benefit of Nepal. That is good. But when you look at the military dimensions of the relationship, then it’s a whole different calculus. When China sends a submarine to a Sri Lankan port, for instance, then India will react differently. So, I think it’s a question of being sensitive to each other’s interests. That’s why I say, “Do the politics and the security”. Make sure that you are a source of stability for each other, that you are not posing difficulty or threats to each other. You need to do that as the basis on which you build the rest of it. You can’t expect to only do economics or only politics. In today’s world, you have to do both.