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Dealing With China

No Alliance Will Deal With India’s China Problem: Former NSA

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi 11 December 2018

There are no external existential threats to India, says Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser during the UPA years, but he warned that “we need a new strategy to deal with China as the understanding reached in the 1980s after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing, is under stress”.

Menon was speaking on India’s global aspirations as an emerging regional power at the United Service Institution in New Delhi, an army think tank. In his view, China is more committed than ever before to Pakistan, investing in areas like infrastructure (besides of course the Pak military) which has facilitated Islamabad’s role as a “strategic distraction” for security planners in India. Cross-LoC terror attacks are a manifestation of this, keeping the pot simmering all the time while ensuring violence remains at a low threshold.

In Menon’s view, it underscores the need for India to “consolidate its periphery to ensure it cannot be used against us”. India must work with other powers to keep its region “multipolar”, this could also encourage the Chinese to behave in a responsible manner.

The problem here, he acknowledged, is Beijing’s “thinking in continental terms” of ocean territories, which is reflected in its actions in the South China Sea where it has set up military outposts on reclaimed land. Such actions are relatively easy to do in the South China Sea which is an enclosed body of water. This is hardly the case in the Indian Ocean, a vast open body of water that has been the traders’ ocean for centuries.

But China’s “zero sum” approach to maritime issues rejects the freedom of navigation tradition of not just the Indian Ocean but of every other Global Commons. India’s own “sea blindness” has not helped, with the country taking 40 years to overcome its continental obsession.

So what are India’s options? Menon is clear that India must avoid alliances since “no alliance will deal with our problem”. He was sceptical of the Indo-Pacific formulation, also of the Quad which he believes could alienate India from countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.

In his view, “India should look inward, build capacity, build internal cohesion, avoid all external entanglements. All rising powers have kept their heads down,” he argued. “The goal is sufficient security to transform India, not absolute security which does not exist.”

Once transformed, he said, India would be in a position to acquire hard power and emerge as an independent pole in the international system.

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