India should focus on outcomes with China
A comprehensive interview with Ex- National Security Adviser of India Shiv Shankar Menon who also served as the Foreign Sectetary in the Ministry of External Affairs. SAWM India member Smita Sharma talks with him on issues like Modi-XI 2nd informal summit, Kashmir, Pakistan, NFU, RCEP, BRI among others.
Hyderabad: India should focus on outcomes in relationship with China and not on tu-tu main-main or scoring debate points says former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon.
In an exclusive conversation with senior journalist Smita Sharma just days after the second informal summit between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping in Tamil Nadu, Menon feels that the message was to signal bilateral ties are back on track following a rough period involving Kashmir and Beijing’s enhanced ties with Islamabad. Menon said that the Modi government has re-hyphenated India with Pakistan by making terrorism its central plank on all international forums, whereas its key focus should be economy and growth. He argued that the Mumbai terror strikes of 2008 were not made into a campaign issue during the general elections that followed. Menon who served as former Indian envoy to China and foreign secretary also batted for India to not object to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) blankly but where it is a commercial enterprise India should use it if it suits its interest. The former diplomat made a case for India joining RCEP now and not letting one or two industries dictate its foreign trade policy.
Asked about the Pakistani threats of nuclear war, Menon said he does not see the risk of a nuclear escalation in the subcontinent. He added that the Indian nuclear no-first use policy is a doctrine that should evolve with different situations but must not be changed just for the sake of changing it.
Q: How do you view the second informal India-China summit meet?
Menon: The fact that the summit happened itself means both sides wanted to convey that relations are at least back on track after a relatively rough period for several reasons. Whether it was China’s renewed and extended commitment to Pakistan, or Chinese reaction to abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, raising it in the security council and whole host of other issues. So both sides wanted to show that the relationship is steady and after all both have other preoccupations. We had the elections, now we have domestic economy and other things at home. Chinese also have to worry about their economy at home, pressure of the US on tariffs and other issues. It served both side interests. Some of the reasons for Wuhan being a successful truce kept operating today, that’s what we saw in Mamallapuram. But the degree of mutuality of interest in keeping the relations smooth was a little less. So in terms of deliverables, outcomes, statements that you heard, Mamallapuram was much more low key. One deliverable was the high-level mechanism dialogue on trade and economic issues which we hope will at least try and address issues of trade deficit and how to see this relation move forward. I think both sides see the economic relationship as offering potential. It has evolved over time. The other parts on boundary, political issues that that divided us were very little. Foreign Secretary told us that Jammu and Kashmir was not even discussed. I find that a bit difficult [to believe]. Maybe it was not discussed officially.
Q: Foreign secretary Gokhale did say that Xi discussed Imran Khan’s visit to China. Could that have been discussed without mentioning Kashmir?
Menon: We don’t know what happened in the private conversation. They spent a long time together alone the two of them. The two leaders with their interpreters. Frankly, until we know many more details it is hard to say. But it is useful, they talked. They also wanted to convey the message that relations are back on track. But we have to watch carefully. Chinese have a saying ‘Listen to the words but watch the behaviour.’ It is not a bad rule to apply to India-China relations.
Q: Why do you assess a lesser degree of mutuality in keeping ties smooth? Was the Wuhan spirit more positive than Chennai?
Menon: The basic reason is a power gap between the two and the level of urgency. But secondly, since Wuhan we have effectively re-hyphenated ourselves with Pakistan. If you look at our getting back into arguments with Pakistan on J&K, Pakistan trying to internationalise it, LoC violations, cross border terrorism, these have all become central issues to what the government is today. We now sound like victims again by stressing on terrorism, by going out to the rest of the world. That makes us much easier to handle for the rest of the world. To that extent, we are diminished in our urgency and capacity to manage and run the international system.
Q- But PM Modi did not mention Pakistan at all in his UNGA speech. Are we reading more than required on hyphenation issues?
Menon: For us terrorism in Pakistan, it is synonymous. Much of this is driven by the conviction that this works in internal politics. Maybe you have a case here where internal politics is pulling in one direction whereas the needs of foreign policy are slightly different. That is a contradiction that the government has to resolve in some way.
Q: What is the fall out of making terrorism a center stage on the international forum because the argument is that terrorism is a key challenge today for India?
Menon: Is it really a key challenge. If you look at death by terrorism, if you look at our success in handling infiltration, terrorist incidents, all those are much better than before and we have learned. If you look at last two decades from Vajpayee government onwards, we have steadily learnt and managed to deal with it. What is the effect? If you look at people’s livelihood, well being, it is the economic issues that matter. You have huge decisions to take like whether you join RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) , on what terms, those issues will define your future not terrorism. Terrorists frankly get their power because we give them power and publicity. But in actual kinetic effect in terms of what happens or number of people who die it is miniscule. To say that terrorism is central to our lives makes us sound like whining bleating victims on the international stage and am not quite sure that it is justified.
Q: Just yesterday NSA Ajit Doval said that if media stops giving coverage to terrorism it reduces their oxygen. Does that then apply to government also constantly raking it up as a domestic issue?
Menon: I think it applies to everybody and anybody who has a loud voice in public. We shouldn’t make terrorists out to be more than they are.
Q: But terrorism was the central plank also in wake of Mumbai attacks in 2008. The government today argues that because of constant raising and flagging of terrorism on the international stage they have managed to isolate Pakistan on terrorism and have had success in getting a ban on Masood Azhar to greylisting of Pakistan at FATF (Financial Action Task Force). If you look at the Mumbai attacks, it happened six months before general elections. Did terrorism figure in that campaign?
Menon: The opposition tried raising it twice in January, both times the public push back was that why are you playing politics with a national tragedy. It was so strong that it was never mentioned again. It was remarkable that within six months of an event like the Mumbai attacks, you have a general election where terrorism doe not figure in the campaign. It was fought primarily on economic issues and whether people were better off or not. Secondly, Pakistan was isolated but its isolation is not a function of how well or badly it behaves. It is a function of how useful Pakistan is to the powers. If Pakistan is useful to China, US, Saudi she is not isolated. Today she is useful to US because America wants to get out of Afghanistan and Pakistan offers to be of use to broker a a deal with the Taliban. Pakistan is useful to China because she has offered her root to the Indian Ocean, Gwadar Port on the Indian Ocean along with the CPEC (China Pak Economic Corridor) and whole set of advantages of dealing with Muslim radicalisation in Xinjiang. So Pakistan makes herself useful. As long as the Saudis and Iranians argue with each other, Pakistan offers to mediate. Imran Khan just went to Iran. So Pakistan tries to find a role for herself and make herself useful. So Pakistan charges strategic rent. When the international situation allows her to do so she becomes less isolated. It has nothing to do with how badly or well she behaves. That we should be absolutely clear about. To claim the credit for that is a little disingenuous. These are larger forces we are dealing with.
Q: While Imran Khan was in Beijing, Chinese statement referred to Kashmir and UNSC resolutions which was not the case post Chennai summit between Modi-Xi. Can China be trusted on this issue?
Menon: You do not have to trust anybody in international relations. You can only trust countries to follow their self interests. In the recent past by re-hyphenating ourselves with Pakistan, we have in effect given everybody not just China, a card , a way into subcontinental politics, into our relationship with Pakistan, a chance to internationalise our internal issue of J&K, to meddle. So be it China or everyone else, they will see what they can get out of this. That is how great powers behave. They look at these situations, see which of their interests they can promote and what they can get out of it. So I trust people to follow their rational self interests but everybody’s interest is not identical. Passing one word or other, it can go back and forth. Sometimes you mention J&K or UN resolutions, sometimes you don’t. You have seen a much greater Chinese commitment to Pakistan since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad. The announcement of CPEC, 62 billion dollars, presence of Chinese workers in PoK, a committed net growing steadily with raising Kashmir in Security Council. Statements during Imran Khan’s visit saying that right and wrong are quite clear. All this suggesting without actually saying whose side they are on. It is an irritant. It is something that we have to reckon with and deal with . We have dealt with this successfully in the past. Nothing is going to happen to your position in J&K today. Question is how do you handle rest of the world. Look at the US position for instance. Last year on New Year’s Day Trump had very nasty things to say about Pakistan. Now he has revived Imran Khan in White House. He has offered mediation a number of times because Pakistan is useful.
Q: The nature of Trump’s mediation offer has changed with it now being conditional on approval of both parties.
Menon: As long as he says both parties you have an effective veto. So you don’t have to worry about. But why is he saying it because he expects Pakistan in return to do something for him. We need to be clear eyed about this that as long as Pakistan is useful to other people she will be less isolated. When she is not useful she will be isolated like she was when the third Afghan war ended with Soviet withdrawal and everyone stopped committing themselves to Pakistan.
Q: When it comes to China using Pakistan card, it is often asked as to why is India defensive in using Tibet card or Taiwan or raining ongoing protests in Hong Kong? Should India use these as leverages?
Menon: This is not about tu-tu main-main. The goal should be outcomes. What is our interest? Your interest is not that you won an argument or scored a debating point. It is wonderful for media to generate stories. Our goal as India in any of these relationships should be to create outcomes that work for us . With China what is your goal? Minimum is that bilateral relations do not stand way in of transforming India. You have bigger things to do of taking care of your own people, growing, peoples’ welfare. So if India-China relation can help it is good. If they cannot, you try and build an economic relationship which actually works for you. But you do not want it to create an obstacle to your other pursuits. So you do what is necessary for those outcomes, not to win an argument. You do that with a goal in view. But if that becomes the sole purpose in your life then frankly you have lost the plots.
Q: What was the Wuhan outcome?
Menon: It did produce an outcome. It did produce a truce and after Doklam it lowered temperatures and kept your relations steady for a while until your elections. Today again China has other pre-occupations like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, US is a big one, her economy, you have other preoccupations. So Mamallapuram has a line from Wuhan. But the level of interest and mutuality is less than Wuhan.
Q: Modi-Xi have met at least six times since Wuhan. But is the focus essentially on ensuring that the status quo does not worsen off rather than on outcomes that lead to breakthroughs?
Menon: So far it is managing the relationship that they have done. Whether this preoccupation with other things also enables you to do more I don’t know unless you try. Until you know what happened in private conversations does not make sense for us to speculate.
Q: CPEC has been projected as the crown project for BRI (Belt and Roads Initiative). With the increasing entrenchment of South Asian neighbours into BRI, where does that leave India? Xi traveled to Nepal and announced connectivity projects. Can India maintain its position on BRI?
Menon: I am not sure what that position is. It is clear that we oppose BRI or CPEC on Indian territory which is through Pak Occupied Kashmir. That impacts our territorial integrity, our sovereignty, so no question that we have to oppose that. But we have been relatively careful about our public commentary on BRI since Wuhan. I cannot speak for the government. My view is that some BRI projects are a fact of life. Where it works for your interest, use them. Where it does not, don’t. Where you see danger, for instance, if you see Gwadar being turned into a military base, then do everything possible to try and prevent that from happening. After all China already has a base in Djibouti. If she decides to start converting other port projects she has in the Indian Ocean Region like Gwadar or Hambantota, then you need to work to make sure that does not happen.
But there are other things that happened under BRI. Look at Colombo port. It was built by Chinese money and effort. 83 percent of what goes through that port is to and from India. You have the use of this. Port makes money and pays back the Chinese. It is a commercial enterprise, works as an economic enterprise fro us, for Sri Lankans, for the Chinese. If there are BRI projects that have internal rates of return, have commercial endeavour, we should just use it.
Q: Would such cherry picking not dilute India’s objections on grounds of breach of sovereignty?
Menon: Colombo Port does not affect your sovereignty. You might not like the dependence on Colombo Port, but until you build your own ports and make them as efficient at least you have the use of it. BRI is no one agreement. There is no one agreement you sign and say I have joined BRI. There is no body or place that says this is how a BRI project looks like, this is how it will be funded or implemented. It is a very Hague concept. It is China doing what she can where she can. Some projects they have already pulled back. Some are no longer designated as BRI whether the host country did it or China. China did a big financial review of many of these projects in the last two years. This is an evolving situation and you should not oppose it just because it is called BRI. You are for India’s interests. You should be out there following your interests rather than following some first principle that anything labelled as BRI you will dislike. Trouble is in a sense we are victims of the propaganda.
Q: Where do you see things on India signing up for RCEP and China’s role?
Menon: You have been negotiating for some time. You can negotiate the terms as hard as you want but you need to be in there otherwise you do not have any Act East Policy. You need to be in there right now. If you are not there in the beginning, you saw what happened with APEC. You said I will join later when it suits me, that never comes. You should use opportunities like RCEP, WTO the way Japan or China have used them. You use external pressure to make yourself competitive to do reforms you already know you have to do but are politically maybe not so easy to do. Just like you used 1991 crisis to do economic reforms which you had known for last six years as the kind of reform needed to grow your economy. But it was very difficult until you came to the crisis. Use foreign pressure, opportunity of an international negotiation to reform your economy, make yourself competitive and ready to handle the rest of the world. Unless you look at it like that, if you allow one or two industries who feel threatened by China to run India’s foreign trade policy you are missing the wood for the trees. It is more than just industries. It is also Indian consumers, Indian economy as a whole and its future. Already more than half your GDP is actually the external sector. You cannot go back. In 1991, around 15.3 percent of GDP was external merchandise trade. Do you want to go back to the 2-3 percent growth rate of 50-60s when you tried to do it all within yourself? That is not sustainable. You need to create 11 million jobs every year for young people joining the labour force. It is a larger strategic choice. Negotiate as hard as you want. Get the terms you can, delay whatever you want to, you have to but use that time. You have had now six years of negotiation and the question should be what have you done in those six years? Apart from just saying no and negotiating have you done something downstream to prepare yourself for this?
Q: You have often said that ‘Kutty’ is not a foreign policy. Pakistan has constantly ratcheted up rhetoric on Kashmir and threatened use of nuclear button. Rajnath Singh made a comment about India reviewing Nuclear NFU (No First Use) Policy, also referred to in your book Choices. Is there a real risk of nuclear escalation?
Menon: Today it seems to benefit both sides to maintain a controlled level of hostility. It suits their domestic agenda on both sides. You have a relatively weak government in Pakistan reliant on the army. You have a government in army that finds Pakistan as an enemy useful in their domestic agenda. It suits both. Is there a risk of escalation? I don’t think so. You saw how quickly both sides backed down after Balakot. I don’t think there is a real risk of escalation. Pakistanis are not very different from us. I don’t think we are foolish or stupid, neither are they. Both are rational. Therefore, I actually think that introduction of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent has stabilised the situation. So within a narrow bandwidth you can talk, not talk, maintain some levels of hostility, but beyond a point, I do not see this escalating.
Q: Does India need to review NFU?
Menon: I have always said and wrote in the book also, circumstances change, you review it. Today does it need to be changed, I do not think so. Maybe there are things happening out there that will require it to be reviewed. There are possible circumstances where it needs to be reviewed. Frankly, it is your doctrine and must always respond to the situation you face. You should keep reviewing it. NFU has been reviewed at least three times to my knowledge, probably four. I assume this government did this too because it came with a promise in the manifesto last time. It should be reviewed regularly but rationally. Do not change it not just for the sake of changing it. Only if there is a real reason to. So far I think it has served our interest.
Q: Will Kartarpur Corridor opening change anything about the India-Pak dynamic?
Menon: I do not see it as mattering very much.