New Delhi: With much at stake in West Asia, India must rethink its strategy and extend military support for peace in that region, even as it cannot have a single firm policy on Pakistan, former national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has said.
“Our approach and behaviour should change in defence of our interests in West Asia,” Menon said in a lecture hosted by the Society for Policy Studies (SPS) at the India Habitat Centre Wednesday evening, listing the compelling reasons as its seven million citizens working there, the $35 billion inward remittances and large oil imports, among others.
“I’ve no doubt that sooner rather than later India will have to make real political and military contributions to stability and security in this region that’s so critical to our economy and security,” Menon said alluding to New Delhi’s present policy of participating in a military resolution only under a UN flag.
Menon, a former foreign secretary, said there was a huge change in the West Asian (Middle East) situation today with four key players – Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Israel – having their own unique positions. If these were to get together, the problem could theoretically be resolved. At the same time, one must not look at the old Western order anymore, he added.
Yet, he also saw a positive outcome from this. “To my mind this world is as much of a challenge as an opportunity for a country like India that wants to change the reality that we have inherited. I only hope that we once again show the wisdom to seize the day,” he said.
Menon said India faced a different situation from what it had got used to, benefiting from 20 years of average growth of over 6.5 percent.
“We can no longer assume that others will guarantee the safety of the sea lanes that carry our foreign trade and our energy supplies. Nor can we assume that a benign international order will keep the peace,” he said.
“We will have to decide how far we wish to assume new responsibilities, and how far we are willing to compromise on strategic autonomy and work with others on these security issues,” Menon said to a packed audience comprising diplomats, officials and members of the strategic community.
“At the same time, many more powers, facing the same uncertainty, are and will be willing to work with India in this effort, as we already see in maritime security and counter-terrorism,” Menon said.
Menon, who began his career with the Indian Foreign Service in 1972, was the country’s national security advisor between January 2010 and May 2014, and the foreign secretary between October 2006 and July 2009.
The 66-year-old, who played a key tole in forging the India-US nuclear deal, rubbished the notion that India’s policy on Pakistan was not working and maintained that it was not possible for New Delhi to have a one-size-fits-all approach with the neighbour.
“We can’t have one policy, dealing with many Pakistans,” he said, referring to multiple actors there, each with a different notion and agenda — civil society, the government, the army, Inter-Services Intelligence, religious groups and terror outfits.
“So you run multiple policies,” he said, adding it was in India’s interests to have good relations with Pakistan. They, in any case, have nothing to lose, unlike India. “They have no tourism to talk about and no investment to start with,” he added.
Menon, who has also been India’s envoy to four strategically-important countries, namely Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China and Israel, alluded it was also because of multiple actors in Pakistan that one faced peculiar situations.
Towards this, he took the example of how the surprise Lahore visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding was followed by an attack at Pathankot in Punjab. This, he said, was a pattern which had become commonplace.
“Despite this, the prospect is that the dialogue process will continue with several engagements foreseen in the coming months. It is still an open question whether the optics of India-Pakistan dialogue can be converted to substantive results,” he said.
“India has consistently sought to find a modus vivendi or to normalise relations with Pakistan in our own interest.”
Considered an expert on China and fluent in Mandarin, Menon also spoke at length on India’s emerging relations with its northern neighbour with which it shares a 4,000-km-plus border.
“We need to find a new equilibrium with China,” said the key aide of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was also his special representative to conduct border talks with China.
Menon said in recent years, India had managed to both compete and work with China, more so since there were some 11,000 Indians studying and working there, as also because of the Asian giant being India’s largest trading partner for merchandise goods.
“We have little to gain and much to lose if we treat our relationship with China as a zero-sum game. Since both countries have major internal reform and structural adjustment to undertake, the present pattern of cooperation with competition should continue for the foreseeable future, but there are new factors which suggest that India and China need to find a new equilibrium.” he said.
“As for the bilateral issues that divide us — like the boundary, trans-border rivers and China’s activities in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir — we have found ways to manage differences in the last 30 years while growing the relationship,” he added.