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Book Review: India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

20 Jul 2021

The rise of China as a revisionist power has also marked a return of geopolitics and great power politics in 21st century Asia. Active Indian participation is needed in the unfolding of Asian geopolitics.

Several Asian nations riding the wave of globalisation have turned into viable engines of global economic growth, only to translate economic gains into military buildup. Meanwhile, West Asia has been hobbled with religious extremism and oil-driven geopolitical rivalry. Former Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon’s latest book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present, attempts to capture modern India’s navigation of regional geopolitics to pursue its foreign policy goals.

Belonging to the establishment guard of Indian strategic elites, Menon sees the primary role of Indian foreign policy to be aiding India’s domestic transformation into a prosperous nation. Tracing its roots back to the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech, such an approach largely repudiates the more expansive foreign policy projection of India as a great power shaping the international order. Also apparent in the book is Menon’s preference for strategic autonomy and a multipolar world order, both of which are seen as the best instruments for India to maximise its choices.

Menon convincingly argues that the continuity in Indian foreign policy under different regimes should be seen as a response to the structural imperatives of geopolitics. These long-term geopolitical drivers include geography, demography, and economics. The partition in 1947 and the presence of an adversarial neighbour in the West, for instance, act as a constraining geographical roadblock in the Indian projection of power and influence in West Asia. The sinews of both economic and military power are contingent upon the availability of a large and capable workforce. As such, the narrative of India’s rise is in no less measure predicated on its demographic dividend. Similarly, as China’s rise shows, India cannot decisively shape the global order in its favor without significant economic clout. It was the post-liberalisation spurt in economic growth that made others take note of India’s growing importance.

Further, in Menon’s view, India’s geopolitical conduct after independence has also been shaped by the unfolding of international politics which constrained India’s manoeuvrability. The making of a bipolar order in the 1950s, for instance, allowed Nehru to play the role of peacemaker in Asia and between great powers. India’s choices, in turn, also had an impact on its international heft and foreign relations. A good example here would be its decision to support the Vietnamese puppet regime in Cambodia in the 1980s, which alienated India in Asia.

India’s Geopolitical Conduct: History and Present

The first half of the book covers the historical evolution of India’s engagement with Asia from independence to the 2000s. Arranged by decade, these chapters capture in a nuanced manner the interrelation between the changing geopolitical situation in Asia and calibrated Indian responses. Haunted by the specter of nuclear war and dedicated to the pursuit of a just international order, Indian foreign policy as steered by Nehru in the 1950s was primarily about building an area of peace. Indira Gandhi, in contrast, faced domestic crises in the 1960s and a challenging external environment in the 1970s. Her response came in the form of consolidating the Indian government’s hold in the subcontinent. What “Nehru the peacemaker and Indira Gandhi the security seeker” had in common was pursuing Indian interests while operating under structural geopolitical constraints.

In a similar vein, Rajiv Gandhi’s activist foreign policy was a response to the relative isolation and the difficult situation in the 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi was known for approaching erstwhile adversaries (China and the US), enabling partial economic openness, developing nuclear warheads, and armed interventions in the subcontinent. Menon, though, reserves high praise for PM Narasimha Rao, who fundamentally transformed Indian foreign policy away from Nehruvian roots and set the tone for India’s engagement with the world under a unipolar power and neoliberal economic order.

The second part of the book discusses the evolving geopolitical situation in the current context. Predictably, it devotes significant space to the impact of globalisation, China’s rise, the breakdown of the old order after the 2008 financial crisis, and India’s policy options in Asia marked by the return of great power politics. Menon recognises the benefits globalisation has brought to the Indian economy but is critical of neoliberal financial deregulation and the alienating impact of urbanisation. In his assessment of the current globalised world order, the intellectual influence of Pankaj Mishra is discernible.

Ushered in by globalisation, China’s economic rise means it can’t turn inward and this mutual dependence would make the current power transition different from the US-Soviet Cold War. Interestingly, Menon explains China’s recent bellicosity as a rising power in terms of structural constraints limiting the timeframe for China to wield power and exert influence. In his view, the preferable option for India in the coming order is to form coalitions of the willing on core issues affecting Indian interests and pursue the foreign policy goal of transforming India.

Some Considerations

In an otherwise refined and well-researched book, several arguments merit further discussion and scrutiny. To begin with, the author’s claim of globalisation leading to increased inequality between societies is not borne out by empirical research. As economist Branco Milanovic has shown, the extremely poor and middle-class Asians have been beneficiaries of the recent wave of globalisation so much so that inequality between nations has actually declined.

Further, his characterisation of Chinese acquiescence to the US hegemony from the 1970s to early 2000s as a realist practice seems troubling. While it’s sensible from a neorealist standpoint for China to cooperate with the US to balance against the nearby rival USSR during the Cold War, similar Chinese conduct in the days of US unipolarity does not exactly sound like a realist move. The Deng Xiaoping approach of hiding and bide, though, certainly was a case of prudent realpolitik at play.

In discussing the US-China rivalry, Menon seems to discount decoupling as an unlikely prospect. However, recent Chinese and US actions, including the crackdown on the Didi IPO, Xi’s Dual circulation strategy, and the US ban on Huawei 5G technology, make it clear that at least a partial economic decoupling between the US and China is in the offing.

Lastly, Menon is scornful of the Indian advocates of closer strategic alignment with the US in the form of the Quad to meet the China challenge. His preferred policy option involves India hedging between the US and China under the garb of strategic autonomy, much like the Cold War days of Indian non-alignment. However, such an approach belies the different reality of the China challenge. Unlike a distant USSR, China is a rising power in India’s backyard aiming for regional hegemony. Consequently, unlike the Cold War days, India ought to have a higher balance of threat perception and deeper strategic alignment with the distant superpower. Further, the advocates of Indo-US strategic cooperation are already outlining the specific contours of the relationship.

Menon’s long diplomatic career and his grasp over geopolitical and diplomatic history are well-reflected in his writing. India and Asian Geopolitics should be considered an essential read for anyone concerned with India’s role in the emerging world order.

Sanjeet Kashyap is a final year MA student in Politics and International Studies program at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Twitter: @sanjeet38.

This is a review of Shivshankar Menon, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present (Brookings Institution Press, 2021). ISBN: 9780815737230 (paperback) & 9780815737247 (eBook)

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.