Shivshankar Menon’s ‘Choices’ Is Frank But Falls Short Of Being Forthright On China And 26/11
Several questions can be raised on Menon’s arguments and rationale about the muted response by India to the 26/11 attacks.
Shivshankar Menon. Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy. Allen Lane. 2016.
Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2010-2014); former Foreign Secretary (2006-2009); Ambassador/High Commissioner to Pakistan (2003-2006), China (2000-2003), Sri Lanka (1997-2000) and Israel (1995-1997) has written an eminently readable and informative book. He has selected five instances over the last quarter of a century in which he himself was personally involved in decision-making and crafting the formulation and conduct of India’s foreign policy. Menon has over the last 20 years occupied some of the most significant positions in the Indian foreign policy hierarchy. This lends greater credibility and heft to his assertions and statements as the same analysis coming from another practitioner or academic would have suffered from the fact that it could be mere speculation.
Menon has selected those issues which have been at the forefront and have defined India’s external relations over this period. The opportunity that Menon provides to take a peep into the deliberations in the hallowed chambers of policy making on vital and critical areas dealing with relations with USA, China, Pakistan and others is indeed refreshing and unique. Not very often have we been treated to an insider’s account with such honesty, candour and frankness. While Menon was personally involved in decision making on all the five subjects ranging from the India-US civil nuclear agreement, response to the 26/11 attack, ensuring peace on the India-China border, Sri Lankan annihilation of the LTTE, and India’s no-first-use doctrine of nuclear weapons, he does not take all credit for the positive decisions that were adopted. On the other hand, he has assumed the role of an informed and involved raconteur who takes the reader through all the nuances and subtle twists and turns of policy formulation.
Of course, in an account of this nature, it is to be expected that there will not be full agreement on the rationale for certain decisions.
China appears quite extensively in the book. A full reading of all the case histories recounted by Menon gives the impression that he has been less than forthright in providing a balanced perspective on bilateral ties with China. For instance, while extolling the fact that China is India’s largest trading partner in goods, not once has it been suggested, let alone mentioned, that India suffers from an unsustainable trade deficit with China which reached a level of $53 billion out of the total trade turnover of $70 billion in 2015! This could worsen further in 2016. Today China accounts for more than 62 per cent of the total trade deficit that India has with the world. Menon says that “mechanisms are in place to deal with issues such as transborder rivers and the trade deficit”. But it is a well known fact that on both these issues—water and trade, the attitude and response of China have been dismissive and less than helpful. These issues have been discussed over many years and China has always made the right noises. But it has failed to take corrective action and the situation on both these fronts has progressively deteriorated.
In the chapter on the India-US civil nuclear agreement, Menon states that the major opposition to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) approval came from the “mini six” of Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands. Opposition by China has been dealt with in a cursory manner in one short paragraph. The general impression and the narrative in media and amongst informed circles was that it was China which had instigated the smaller countries to raise objections and questions. Even after these six countries were persuaded by the arguments of Indian and US diplomats and advised by USA to withdraw their objections, it was China which continued to create obstacles. It was only a last minute call by President George W. Bush to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to withdraw its objection that finally made China relent. There is no reference to this episode in the book.
Menon suggests that “we are in a moment of opportunity for India-China relations as a result of ..what we have achieved bilaterally”.Peace on the border appears to be one of the few positive aspects of bilateral ties. However, in addition to the huge trade imbalance and differences on water sharing, there are several other issues like stapled visas, visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh, a quantum leap in all-round support to Pakistan inter alia through the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, opposition to India’s membership of NSG, objection to proscribing Masood Azhar by the United Nations etc which have surfaced in recent years and which have made Sino-Indian ties even more stressed. It is imperative to focus on these pitfalls while at the same time trying to take maximum advantage of whatever potential and opportunities exist to improve ties.
Menon’s contention that China has drawn closer to Pakistan because of the India-US nuclear deal does not appear to reflect the whole story. China has been supportive of Pakistan against India from the late 1960s onwards. China has provided nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan to make it rise as a threat to India. The answer to China’s undiluted support to Pakistan can possibly be due to two factors—the rapid unprecedented rise of China over the last decade, and the global economic crisis which has made the gap between China’s growth and the West’s decline appear more pronounced. The role played by increasing India-US cooperation cannot be said to have been decisive but just one of the many factors, several geopolitical ones being much more important.
Menon has mentioned that Chinese incursions occurred “in unprecedented numbers” during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China in May 2015. This needs to be verified and confirmed because media reports speak only about a minor intrusion in March 2015, which was settled quickly and was not in the same league as the incursions that happened in 2014 during Xi Jinping’s visit and in 2013 during Li Keqiang’s visit. There has been satisfaction in India that the stern message to President Xi during his visit in September 2014 that tranquility on the border should be maintained, has been heard, and is being largely adhered to.
Several questions can be raised on Menon’s arguments and rationale about the muted response by India to the 26/11 attacks. He appears to suggest that there was no other military option available between inaction and waging an all-out war. Yet, in the last chapter of his book, Menon himself concedes that “there are several responses short of war available to a state like India”, but does not explore these opportunities in the chapter dealing with the Mumbai carnage.
As is clear, there is a range of actions which could have been taken to keep the threshold well below a full-blown war which could present the danger of a nuclear conflagration. The surgical strikes launched by the Indian army on 29 September 2016 are only one of them. One of the unintended and unanticipated fallouts of the surgical strikes was the dissenting voices in the media and by intellectuals and civil society in Pakistan against the army’s policy of promoting terrorism by the likes of Hafeez Sayeed and Masood Azhar. Menon also appears to compare any military action taken by us at that stage with the results of our approach to the United Nations in 1947 when Pakistani army regulars invaded Jammu and Kashmir dressed as “tribal raiders”. It would be evident that actions proposed in the two cases were quite different. In 1947, we went to the UN forsaking the option of pushing out the “raiders” from our territory. In the case of 26/11, what was being suggested was peremptory action against terrorist hideouts in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The whole international community was in support of the Indian position in 2008 and would not have objected to the Indian action, as indeed it did not after the surgical strikes.
In the chapter on Sri Lanka, Menon states that the two aims were “to defend our interest in keeping Sri Lanka free of antagonistic influences while also trying to prevent the growth of Tamil extremism”. While we might have been successful in achieving the second objective, it is a moot point as to how successful we have been in limiting and restraining the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.
There are some repetitions in the book which could be removed to make the text even more taut and tight. There are also some inadvertent typos which could be set right in future editions. For instance, it is mentioned that Prime Minister Modi travelled to China in April 2015. This date should read May 2015. Moreover, on page 158, the date of the nuclear test by India is mentioned as 1988, while it should read as 1998.
Notwithstanding the above, Menon’s book is a welcome and significant contribution to the literature available on India’s foreign policy. It will be read and studied with great interest and benefit by multitudes of scholars, practitioners of the art of diplomacy, researchers and students in India and abroad to get a better understanding of India’s strategic culture as its influence and outreach continue to expand in the coming years.
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