Power balance shifted against us following China’s economic growth: Menon on Sino-India relations

PTI, Oct 10, 2021, 8:22 AM IST

Former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon on Saturday said the power balance in the India-China relations has “shifted against us” following China’s economic growth and emphasised that New Delhi will have to be “pretty nimble” over the next few years amid this changing scenario.

During a conclave here, Menon, who had served as National Security Adviser and ambassador to China, also made reference to the escalation in tension in eastern Ladakh last year, and said, militarily, India knows how to deal with China and that he didn’t think Beijing achieved what it wanted to tactically.

To a question on how the current regime has dealt with China, Menon said, “This regime, previous regimes, basically we have managed the relationship. The trouble is, of course, the power balance has shifted against us”.

“When we established a sort of ‘live and let live’ attitude in Rajiv Gandhi’s time, our economies were roughly the same size, and also on technological level. India was probably more integrated in the world.

“Now China is five times bigger in economy, technologically much further ahead than India. And, much more integrated into the world,” he said.

“The balance has shifted, so China’s behaviour has shifted, because China responds to relative behaviour. So, we need to change our behaviour, and we are in the process of resetting…,” said Menon.

The session — ‘Dragon Teeth: Is the World Ready for a Chinese Century’ — was part of the India Today conclave.

Menon also said, “I don’t think we have ever been fooled in the recent past by what we have seen. Militarily, we know how to deal with China”.

He said that after this shift in behaviour by China, politically, India has done the “external balancing” with Quad grouping and a whole set of other actions.

Thanks to Chinese actions, “we have lots of new friends” and India is working with them, Menon said.

But, ultimately, the only answer to China, is not external, not relying on somebody else, but “relying on ourselves, strengthening ourselves, doing the military reforms, doing the other things, and each of these have begun”, he said.

But, it’s still an ongoing process. And, it’s too early to say ‘oh, we are successful’ and ‘we are on the right track’. Chinese behaviour is changing, what’s happening around us is changing so fast, we have to be pretty nimble over the next few years,” he added.

On what India needs to do to keep up with China, Menon, said, “Grow at 12 percent”.

Asked if he saw the next century as a Chinese century, Menon said China will be powerful and one of the dominant powers, and China and the US both look like they are “on track to be far ahead of everybody else, at present, in the race”, but “I still don’t see it as a Chinese century”.

Ideally, there will have some form of “multipolar world but you don’t have that today”, he said.

“My opinion is, we are in a world between orders, that’s why you see all the jostling, pushing, shoving, you saw it on our borders, you saw it in South China Sea, around Taiwan. That will be some kind of multipolar world,” he said.

The other more likely scenario, he said, is “this confused situation today” between the big two.

“They agree on something, they agree on keeping others down, to ensure no peer competitors for them, but they will contend in other domains like cyberspace, outer space, maritime space around China.”

But economically, they have to come to some understanding among themselves because they depend on each other. They are like Siamese twins in a sense, economically tied into each other, Menon said.

“Otherwise, we are going to see trouble, and that is the most worrying part. In any of these scenarios, the uncertainties are very high, risks of accidents are very high,” he said.

Great powers’ conflict seems unlikely, not between China and the US, but other kinds of conflicts, short of a conventional war between two great powers are possible, he said.

“‘Civil wars, proxy wars, you see what is happening in Afghanistan, so most likely a muddled sort of situation going forward, in the foreseeable future,” Menon said.

On Aukus, the recently-signed pact among the US, the UK and Australia, he said, “I see it as an attempt to restore balance, and therefore stability, in the seas around China, through the Indo-Pacific, but particularly in the seas near China, South China Sea, East China Sea”.

And, to that extent, if it restores the balance, and prevents domination of these seas by any one particular party, any one country, any one military. Then it’s a “good thing, from an Indian point of view”, he said.

Because, for India, it’s important that these seas stay open, that one can freely navigate them, for peaceful purposes, trade, among other use, he added.

Under the Aukus deal, Australia will get technology from the US and the UK to build nuclear-powered submarines.

The alliance is seen as an effort to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

“But, it’s only one small part of the larger security architecture that we are talking about.

“China’s problem is that she is contained by that first islands chain, from Japan to Taiwan, Korea, all of which basically are US allies, and at sea, she has the world’s greatest armada, 12 nautical miles off her coast,” the ex-foreign secretary said.

“And, this is China’s problem, she (China) is trying to project naval power, military power at sea, and she is trying to learn to be a maritime power, and that’s a transition, she still hasn’t made,” he argued.

He said India is watching multiple transitions, and China knows what she needs to do, but, “every time she does something, there is a push-back, reactio”

Aukus is a reaction to a Chinese build-up over the last thirty years, and this attempt to become a maritime power which goes beyond waters around her and into the blue oceans” he said.

Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF Asia and author Andrew Small also touched upon a range of issues related to China and its attempts to grow into a superpower, beyond being an economic power.

“China wants to escape the fate of being dependent on others. They are trying to make the rest of the world depended on it, while itself being self-reliant,” he said.

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