India and U.S. – the long view

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Interview with Shivshankar Menon, who served as India’s National Security Adviser under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He previously served as Foreign Secretary, the top diplomatic post in India. He was the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan and Sri Lanka and Ambassador to Israel and China. Shivshankar Menon is currently a Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Distinguished Fellow, Brookings Institution. The following interview was conducted by Rani D. Mullen on 9 October 2018 in Singapore.


U.S. President Trump announced a new South Asia Policy in August 2017. What do you think are the main elements of this policy and what has been their impact?

Every administration since Clinton has invested heavily in transforming the U.S.-South Asia relationship. And this equally true on the Indian side. India-U.S. relations have progressed so much largely because of the continuous bipartisan effort in both countries. For instance, India managed to conclude the civil nuclear agreement, which many had predicted to be impossible. Hence, I’m not sure that the Trump administration’s South Asia policy represents a fundamental change in approach. Every administration in democratic countries, including India, wants to say ‘I’m new and better’, but that’s part of the process of democratic differentiation that leaders have to present.

It is still a little too early to interpret what Trump’s South Asia policy actually means. It expresses a tremendous U.S. commitment to South Asia, particularly India, in regards to the maritime and security aspects. There is a willingness to work much more closely on defence security, particularly on intelligence sharing. There is also a relatively stronger emphasis on reciprocity and transactions in the economic and trade side of the relationship. Perhaps some of it is due to their political and strategic congruence, as dynamics in the international arena are changing for both sides. Nonetheless, we still have to see how that policy actually plays out in practice and how much the U.S. is willing to commit in terms of funding to implement the policy.

The current American administration is very keen on pursuing bilateral free trade agreements and is moving away from the multilateral system of the World Trade Organization. I think India is ready to discuss such a free trade agreement with the U.S., but the devil is in the details since the terms of that arrangement might not be a very easy negotiation. We are at an interesting stage of transformation. We had thought that the politics and the strategic parts of the relationship would be difficult given the obvious economic congruence and complementarity. If one looks at the two economies and their levels of development – the U.S. has technology, capital and all the things that India lacks whereas India has people, developing skills and the market. So there are obvious complementarities between the two countries and both would stand to gain from closer economic cooperation. However, it is actually the economic issues that are proving much more contentious and require greater attention than the politics and the strategic part of the bilateral relationship.


Bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and India on security issues has undoubtedly increased over the past few years. Where do you see this relationship heading in terms of traditional security issues?

Well, the direct bilateral defence relationship is booming. Two of the foundation agreements were signed recently: the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which enables India to receive advanced U.S. military hardware. Logistic support and communications interoperability are in now in place for forces to talk to each other and work together. Defence sales from the U.S. to India have also grown considerably. India’s status as a defence partner is now equal to that of significant U.S. allies.

On the Indo-Pacific: In a nod to India, the U.S. has renamed its Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command. And while the Indian Navy and the Indo-Pacific Command have had a structure for interacting, the Indian Armed Forces and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which covers the Arabian Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia, in other words, the western part of the Indian Ocean, are now exchanging and cross-posting officers.

I think what needs more work perhaps is a larger sense of how the strategic congruence that we see in the Indo-Pacific is actually going to play out in terms of security approaches. It’s clear that there is strategic congruence at a high level. There’s also a lot of bilateral comfort because we have experience of working together. However, what goes in between is still unclear and I’m not sure we’ve worked that out for ourselves. Part of it is because of the rapidly changing conditions and situations. This is a complicated region. The Indo-Pacific extends all the way from the East Coast of Africa to the West Coast of America. We have to observe which central powers are rising. If you look at the accretion of hard power, the acquisition of weapons in the region and the growth in defence budgets – it is quite impressive. It is not just China – it is also South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and India who have increased their hard power over the past few years. These are maritime powers. For the first time in history, China is trying to make a transition and they are rubbing up against each other. You see this in the South China Sea in various ways. As the currents are changing fast, it is not good enough to say strategic stability is our goal because the situation is unstable.

I think we need much closer consultations and understanding of all the strategic situations among many more states than just the U.S. Nonetheless, India-U.S. relations can be the seed which actually starts something bigger in the region . I’m not saying ‘build a huge security architecture’ because an architecture is rigid. You need to put in place the habits of cooperation and working together to deal with these issues and in managing crises.

We have over the last two decades developed considerable experience of working together, not just bilaterally with the U.S., but with other countries as well. This includes the elimination of piracy in the Straits of Malacca where Singapore played a huge role in coordinating efforts and ensuring that we continue that work together. I think that is where we need to go to make sure that India, the U.S. and also Singapore, Indonesia and other countries along this body of water share an interest in actually working together to ensure security in this area. And not just in terms of working together on traditional, hard security issues, but also humanitarian disaster relief such as the recent tsunami in Sulawesi.

How do we respond to these events? A more important question for major trading nations like us is: how do we ensure that there is freedom of navigation on the high seas and that it stays secure? There are other new security agenda issues, which we also need to start thinking about seriously such as cyber security. And we need to find some ways of dealing with these new security issues.

On Pakistan: There’s much less patience or willingness both in the U.S. and in India to allow Pakistan to continue doing what it has been regarding cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan. While patience has run dry for the U.S. and India, the same is not necessarily true of everybody else in the region. Pakistan is looking for other sources of support. Even though Pakistan has been put on the Financial Action Task Force grey list, I do not see Pakistan changing her ways yet. For instance, it refused to list Masood Azhar, who is the head of the Pakistan based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed and is said to be behind several terrorist attacks against India. Pakistani Ministers have appeared with Hafiz Saeed, the head of another Pakistan based terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Also, if you look at the 2018 elections in Pakistan, some radical groups dressed as political parties did very well. The new ruling party also contains several people who can be considered to have ‘ambiguous persuasions’ when it comes to renouncing terrorism.

On cooperation on Afghanistan: What we do in Afghanistan is determined by the Afghan government. That’s in India’s interest. We have cooperated with the Afghans in ways that they are comfortable with – whether it is training their armed forces and their security personnel or working together on their development needs. We have committed close to three billion dollars if you add it up over time since 2001 – which makes India the largest regional development partner in Afghanistan. There is also the question of Afghan capacity issue; it’s not as though one can just walk in with three billion dollars without a plan. When the present U.S. administration says India should do more, I’m not sure whether they mean India should get involved in Afghan politics – which we’ve always tried hard not to. We don’t think that’s our function. We think it is for the Afghans to decide where they go with their own politics. There is also a question mark about where the U.S. intends to go in Afghanistan. I think it is still fluid. There is a so-called peace process with Taliban which we are never quite sure of.

On non-traditional security: The current U.S. administration has pulled back from various multilateral ways of dealing with non-traditional threats. They have abandoned the Paris Accords. On cyber security, there were attempts under the previous U.S. administration to try and see whether we could work out codes of behaviour or at least rules of the road internationally. There were obviously states like Russia and China who had very different views, who sought to impose national sovereignty in what is a completely open cyber space. Now, the U.S. seems to be pulling back from these issues. This is a loss because the U.S. has tremendous soft power, especially in areas like this. She has technological leadership and can show the way.

About India’s role in peacekeeping operations: One could argue that India should get more involved in international peacekeeping operations. India would and has in the past participated in peacekeeping missions at the request of the legitimate governments and as an international effort. But there has to be a peace to keep. There is no point sending in troops to do what is primarily a political and social problem.

The problem with today’s world is that we have overmilitarized security. When one has a hammer, I suppose every problem looks like a nail. I do not see issues as being amenable to military solutions if they are primarily political or are about internal order or the distribution of power. Syria is a good example of there not being a military solution. The basic principle that can be followed is to get involved at the request of governments which have international legitimacy and sanction.

We also have to look at the nature of the problem. In West Asia, security is a major issue. And India has huge interests there. We have seven million Indians who live and work there. We get remittances, and about 63 billion tons of crude oil from there. What we have done is try to work with all key players in the region – whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel or Egypt. We are probably the only power to do that consistently for 70 years. This was possible because India stayed out of their internal affairs. It drew a very clear line between security and involvement in any of the regime’s stability operations of any kind.

On the Rohingya issue, I think we should be much more involved politically because it’s primarily a political problem between two countries who are friends of India and are very important to our security. I think we should help them to try and solve their problem in a humanitarian way, in a political way.


India is often referred to as a ‘rising power’. How does the U.S.-India relationship impact India’s rise?

I think there has to be a clear hierarchy of interest. We in India might want all kinds of things, but not everything is going to be possible at the same time. We need to decide what’s more important to us at a particular time.

Today, it might be very good for our ego to hear that India is rising and needs to play a bigger role. It’s flattering but it’s irrelevant to our real needs. We still have far too many domestic concerns such as illiteracy and hunger which need to be eradicated first, much like the U.S. did right through the 19th century until she was dragged into two world wars and into building a world order. As Averell Harriman, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, said after World War II, all that Americans wanted was to settle everything with the Russians and to go back to drinking coke and watching movies.

Others might keep accusing us of not being a responsible power, exactly as the U.S. was accused right through the late 19th to early 20th. So the temptations are always there, but we have to keep our eye on what’s important – transforming India. What does not help the transformation of India is peripheral and irrelevant. Membership in the Security Council and the rest of these multilateral organizations will come when India is transformed into a prosperous, modern, powerful country where every citizen can achieve his or her full potential. But that is secondary and it is much lower in India’s order of business. As Gandhi said his life’s mission was ‘to wipe every tear from every eye’ of the poorest Indians. That is much more important.


Some analysts have said that the U.S. is building an anti-China coalition and that India is a big part of that effort. What are your thoughts on this?

Both India and the U.S. have very important relationships with China. China and the U.S. are the world’s largest trading nations. India’s relationship with China involves both competition and cooperation. They are our biggest trading partner in goods. There are things we do together though we have a huge dispute over our boundary. Nevertheless, it is also the most peaceful border we have. And that is because we work together at it. We have a common interest there.

We have other common interests as well. There are plenty of paranoia about the U.S. building an anti-China coalition, but I do not see it happening. There is a fundamental difference between U.S.-China and U.S.-Soviet relations, which is economic interdependence. This is also why the U.S. and China can fight a tariff war. These are two economies whose prosperity depends on each other and neither of them can afford to drive the other to the knees. So there is a tariff war, but both have been careful to keep it limited to tariffs. It has not passed on to the rest of trade, finance or the other economic aspects of the relationship. So I would not immediately jump to the conclusion that we are in a new U.S.-China Cold War and that the U.S. is going to organize the equivalent of NATO or other pacts in the Indo-Pacific.

The rhetoric about an anti-China coalition and containing China misses the much more complex reality that we face. It is going to be difficult because every once in a while, there will be a rumpus or a raucous. What we are seeing now in the trade war is serious – it has consequences for the international system as a whole. The system itself is being reset. If you look at the growth of regional free trade agreements – RCP is being negotiated; the U.S. might have pulled out of TPP but the others are trying to go ahead with it. One is actually watching a process of de-globalization. People are onshoring production – the proportion of value added on in China on the various global production chains has gone up. The amount of production that’s being shored back to the U.S. has also gone up in the last few years. There is also a regional fragmentation.

So you are getting two kinds of de-globalization going on at the same time. But that is not the whole story. We still have a global economy and for countries like India or the U.S., that is important. Even though the U.S. might not be happy with the way it was, we saw how U.S., Canada and Mexico renegotiated NAFTA and gave it a new name. Essentially, we all need that global economy. As such, there cannot be a U.S.-China Cold War or U.S. containment of China. Countries such as China and India are too big to be contained. It has been tried before and failed, at much lower levels of power.


The bilateral India-U.S. relationship has been through its fair share of ups and downs. What is your long view on the enduring aspects of the relationship?

I am a long-term optimist about this relationship, not because of the political congruence or even the economic complementarity, but more because both countries are actually founded on very similar values. We are plural, open and democratic countries. We believe in things which we have not necessarily achieved. There is a natural chemistry between the people, which works. I think it is the openness of mind and set of values which ultimately will see the relationship through.

So, when Vajpayee said we are natural allies, he actually touched a chord somewhere. If you look at the Indian-American community for instance, as a link between the two, they have served a huge purpose in the transformation of the bilateral relationship, as we saw when we did the civil nuclear agreement. India and the U.S. can differ and argue. But because we build our societies on the idea of dissent being legitimate, we can cope with differences, and not only survive these differences well, but come out stronger for it. Of course, we are at very different levels of development, located very differently geographically, and there are things that matter to us which might not matter to the U.S. For instance, the continental order in Eurasia or events and issues in Central Asia perhaps matter much more to us than they do to the U.S.

Yet despite our difference, we have fundamental similarities. If you look at the Indian constitution, Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, drew a lot of inspiration from the U.S. constitution, like the idea of checks and balances, an independent judiciary, the Bill of Rights and so forth. So, if you ask me, that is what will see this relationship through. If we lose that, if either of us stops being tolerant of dissent, unable to actually argue our case reasonably and logically, and if we stop cutting each other some slacken, then the relationship will be in trouble. But I think we are a long way away from that. Both India and the U.S. are fundamentally tolerant and open societies and that I think will see us through.