A diplomat’s musings

Print edition : January 06, 2017

June 2, 1985: Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, who arrived in New Delhi for talks to resolve the ethnic conflict on the island, with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

September 7, 1993: After the signing of the China-India agreement for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control. It was signed by Minister of State for External Affairs R.L. Bhatia and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan in the presence of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chinese Premier Li Peng in Beijing. Photo: XINHUA/PTI

U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on March 2, 2006, after they agreed to terms of an accord that would give India access to U.S. nuclear power technology. Photo: BLOOMBERG NEWS

A lucid account of the making of India’s foreign policy in the past four decades and the rationale for the choices made.

THE author, Shivshankar Menon, needs no introduction. The choice of the title, Choices, implies that the reader will get the reasons for the choices made from an insider who has spent 40-plus years in the government, including three years as Foreign Secretary and four years as National Security Adviser. The style of writing is effortlessly lucid and witty. This reviewer read the book almost non-stop although it contains considerable reasoning, often philosophical, as the author, with his vast knowledge in foreign affairs, has used quotations and ideas from all over the world.

In the introduction, after pointing out that choice “involves uncertainty, risk, and immediacy”, he states that his generation of diplomats “was unequally blessed”. Shivshankar Menon joined the service in 1972. As India expanded its economy and accumulated power, its options for engagement with other powers increased.

However, as practice and precedent continue to accumulate, policymaking gets institutionalised, “opportunities for radical change, individual initiative, and innovation will diminish”. In short, the author maintains that India’s foreign policy was firmly set on a course, a conclusion that he obviously does not apply to the Narendra Modi era. Although the author does not deal with any of the specific choices made by the National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Modi, his comment on its policy is worth quoting. “The current NDA government is open to a charge of strategic incoherence, of having a vision deficit, and of forwarding a policy marked by much activity and energetic projection without an overarching conceptual framework.” The book deals with the five choices the author was intimately associated with.

Border and boundary

The 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement with China.

The author has the commendable habit of providing a quotation at the beginning of every chapter. For the chapter on the border agreement with China, he has chosen to quote a wazir (minister) who lived in ninth-century Baghdad: “The basis of government is jugglery. If it works, and lasts, it becomes policy.”

Shivshankar Menon joined the Indian Foreign Service because he wanted to see China. In the early 1970s, there were only two choices available for a person who wished to visit China: one went to China either as an underground Maoist guerilla or as a diplomat.

In April 1992, Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit asked Shivshankar Menon, who had already put in eight years in China, whether it was possible to settle the boundary dispute. Dixit was accompanying Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao on a visit to Japan where the author was posted.

Shivshankar Menon replied that settling the boundary dispute seemed unlikely as the gap between the positions of the two countries was too wide, but “China might be ready to agree to steps to maintain peace along the border based on the present status quo”.

In July 1992, Shivshankar Menon took over as Joint Secretary for North and East Asia. He made a crucial distinction between “border” and “boundary”. The boundary is a line agreed upon by two neighbouring states and normally delineated on maps and even demarcated on the ground marking the limit of sovereign jurisdiction, whereas the border is a zone between states, nations, or civilisations. India has consistently maintained that it had a traditional, customary boundary with China.

An important merit of Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy is that the author gives a lucid explanation of the issue before giving us the rationale of the choice. India, which rejected the concept of a “line of control” in 1959 and 1962 accepted the concept of LAC (Line of Actual Control) despite much resistance within the Ministry of External Affairs, especially from the younger officers. The reader will take note of the author’s ability to think out of the box.

Shivshankar Menon argues correctly that the 1993 agreement permitted the expansion of bilateral ties, with bilateral trade expanding 67 times between 1998 and 2012. However, the reader will find it difficult not to note that the author does not refer to the embarrassingly large trade imbalance in China’s favour or to the composition of the trade with India exporting mainly raw material, and buying industrial items from China, almost reminiscent of the trade between colonial India and the United Kingdom. Is there a belief that with stronger economic relations, China will behave better towards India in matters political and military? If so, that belief can be contested.

The author offers convincing reasoning to conclude that China is unlikely to agree to any settlement of the boundary in a manner India can accept. The reader will conclude that the author’s quotation of the words of the ninth-century minister in Baghdad sums up the whole issue brilliantly.

Natural partners

The civil nuclear initiative with the United States.

Once again, the quotations from Raymond Aron and Abba Eban are apt. Aron says, “Diplomats do not combine means with a view to ends, like engineers; they take risks, like gamblers.” Eban’s quote is even more telling, “Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

What is striking about this chapter is that Shivshankar Menon never suggests that he played a central role. He mentions by name all those who worked with him in delivering the intended result. The absence of an egocentric approach is refreshing.

We get a fairly detailed account of the genesis of the 123 Agreement. Initially, there was a sharp difference of opinion among Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s closest advisers about the wisdom of concluding an agreement with the U.S., which for 30 years had tried hard to “cap, freeze, and roll back” India’s nuclear programme. At one stage, the Prime Minister, while in the U.S., gave up, but a further discussion with his team and a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced him that he should proceed.

Three imperatives moved India: It was not possible to have a nuclear programme big enough to generate power on the basis of domestic uranium to support 8 to 10 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) growth; the U.S. was an essential partner if India wanted to reach its developmental goals; and the evolution of the international system, especially the rise of China, made it essential that India and the U.S. build on their “strategic congruence”.

For the U.S., it was necessary to help India become a great power as a counterweight to China and for that purpose India had to be seen not just in the India-Pakistan context. The author takes us through an exciting journey lucidly explaining the intricacies of the issues involved. India sent special envoys to each of the 46 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and to all the 34 members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board and got the necessary endorsement.

On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush hosted a small private dinner for Manmohan Singh. The 123 Agreement was yet to be approved by the Senate. Condoleezza Rice leaned over to the Indian Prime Minister and asked when India would be ordering reactors from Westinghouse. Bush cut her off immediately and said that this was not about reactor sales but about much bigger things. Manmohan Singh did not have to reply. The reader might recall that it was Condoleezza Rice who tutored Bush, the presidential candidate, in diplomacy and foreign policy. Here was an instance where the pupil corrected the teacher.

Restraint or riposte?

The Mumbai attack and cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.

With disarming frankness, Shivshankar Menon confesses that he had for a while argued for “immediate visible retaliation of some sort, either against the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] in Muridke, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, or their camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or against the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], which was clearly complicit”. But on sober reflection and hindsight, he now believes that restraint was the right choice.

In 1947, India took the case of Pakistan’s aggression on Kashmir to the United Nations with clear evidence of the involvement of the Pakistan Army. But the U.N. Security Council chose to play politics. An Indian attack would have united that country behind the Pakistan Army which was already in disagreement with the civilian government on policy towards India. An attack by India would have weakened the civilian government in that country. A limited strike on selected terrorist targets would have had limited practical utility and hardly any effect on the organisation. The LeT camps were near hospitals and schools and collateral damage, including civilian casualties, could not be avoided. Pakistan would have claimed civilian casualties even if there was none.

“By not attacking, India was free to pursue all legal and covert means to achieve its goal of bringing the perpetrators to justice, uniting the international community to force consequences on Pakistan for its behaviour and to strengthen the likelihood that such attack would not take place again.”

The reader should not get the impression that India did its utmost to bring to book the persons responsible, as suggested by the author. That India has not exerted the maximum diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is evident from the convoluted reference to 26/11 in a joint communique issued on July 27, 2011, in New Delhi following talks at the level of Foreign Ministers.

“The Ministers reviewed the status of bilateral relations and expressed satisfaction on the holding of meetings on the issues of Counter-Terrorism (including progress on Mumbai trial and Narcotics Control…).”

Why the choice of words “Mumbai trial”? Was the trial in Mumbai? Why not use plain English and say that Pakistan had to bring to justice those responsible for the terrorist attack on 26/11? Why was “satisfaction” expressed over the progress made with regard to the “Mumbai trial”?

Shivshankar Menon discusses the pros and cons of adopting the Israeli approach and convincingly concludes that India should not adopt it. Turning to cross-border terrorism, he counsels against military solutions. Cross-border terrorists do not pose an existential threat to India. However, this statement might be contested in view of the recent attacks in Uri (Jammu and Kashmir), Pathankot (Punjab), and elsewhere.

The author argues that India-Pakistan relations are one of the “few major failures of Indian foreign policy”. He contends that things would have been better had India grasped the opportunity created by Ambassador Satinder Lambah’s back-channel negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf’s confidant, Pakistan's National Security Council Secretary Tariq Aziz, in 2005-06.

The reader would have preferred an expanded argument from the author. Instead, we are referred to Lambah’s speech delivered in Srinagar on May 13, 2014, on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs. The website no longer contains that speech. The Lambah-Aziz non-paper proposed a “soft border” and free movement of people across it, that the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir should work together on issues of common concern such as environment, and that military presence should be reduced over time.

Is it not rather utopian to believe that, if implemented, the agreement would not have facilitated the movement of terrorists into the Indian side? While it is difficult to predict what might have been the course of events if something that did not happen had happened, there is reason to believe that separatists would have built a stronger base. The bottom line is that Pakistan wants the whole of Kashmir Valley.

While the author’s arguments are strong, the reader might wonder why India alone should be blamed for the sad state of bilateral relations. Is not Pakistan also responsible? Moreover, what about Dwight Eisenhower’s arming of Pakistan in 1954 when Jawaharlal Nehru was looking for a plebiscite administrator from a neutral country and was in touch with his Pakistani counterpart? While India could have played its hand better, it is wrong to blame India alone.

Force works

Sri Lanka eliminates Tamil Tigers, 2009.

We get an excellent account of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict and the background to the dispatch of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But the author’s brevity can cause confusion. For example, on page 131 it is said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader V. Prabakaran had personally agreed to the India-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayewardene in Colombo on July 29, 1987. This is not the case.

Prabakaran had wanted an agreement between himself and Jayewardene. In any case, there was a basic flaw in the agreement as neither Jayewardene nor Rajiv Gandhi had control over Prabakaran who was supposed to be bound by an agreement he did not sign. Further, it is necessary to recall that External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao, who was not included in the core group (advising Rajiv Gandhi), had told High Commissioner Dixit that the agreement should be signed by the Tamils with the Sri Lankan government.

Nuclear weapons

Why India pledges no-first use of nuclear weapons.

This chapter is of particular interest because of a statement made by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar expressing his “personal views” in the matter. Shivshankar Menon traces the origin and explains the rationale for the pledge. The no-first-use doctrine is combined with assured retaliation if attacked. Such retaliation required development of a genuine delivery triad on land, sea, and air. Matching the number of warheads and missiles that India’s adversaries possessed became less important than the reliability and survivability of India’s own weapons. The author has given convincing arguments in support of the no-first-use doctrine.

The last chapter, titled “A Final Word”, contains valuable observations, six in all:

(i) The determinant role of the Prime Minister in making the choices

(ii) Boldness in policy conception, caution in implementation

(iii) Realism in the policymaking

(iv) Process

Despite opposition from political parties, Manmohan Singh succeeded in getting approval from Parliament. Similarly, Narasimha Rao succeeded in gaining support for the 1993 Agreement with China.

(v) Escaping forward The Indian elite sees opportunities in a crisis. For example, the economic crisis of 1991 gave rise to reforms.

(vi) An Indian way

Is there a strategic culture uniquely Indian? The author’s answer is a hesitant yes.

This book is essential reading for anyone keen on understanding India’s foreign policy before the NDA came to power in 2014.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy: Indian Style, published in 2012.