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India and the China Crisis: A Conversation with Ambassador Shivshankar Menon

October 27, 2020


Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, Visiting Professor, Ashoka University

Eliot A. Cohen, Dean, Johns Hopkins SAIS

The school hosted a discussion with Ambassador Shivshankar Menon on the broader strategic implications for India and Asia given the current China-India crisis, drawing from his prior experience serving as National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, Foreign Secretary of India, and as the Indian Ambassador or High Commissioner to China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Israel.

Cohen began the conversation by noting the deep Indo-American ties, the penetration of the Indian diaspora into all facets of American life, as well as the greater shifting geo-political sands in the world at large.

Cohen posed the question on whether the “traditional” American understanding of India’s “inability to catchup to, or match China,” was an accurate assessment. In response, Menon reminded the audience of the problem of grand-narratives, and how often nations become entrapped by them. Menon noted how India itself has become encased in the “British narrative of India as an insular society prone to invasion and conquest.” Menon challenged this idea, noting that India’s historical prosperity was in its outreach and connection to the world. Menon further stated that “India is not China, and should not try to be China,” focusing on its own model of development.

On China more broadly, Menon was concerned of growing nationalism in Beijing, but conceded that “China for now is only a regional military power.” But with the “diminishing of high economic growth,” and noting how “personally Xi sees politics,” miscalculations were possible. But since China and India were too highly linked to the West and on each other, war was unlikely. In regards to the greatest threats, Menon was concerned about India becoming increasingly insular, noting that today India does not face an “existential outside threat,” instead communalism and service delivery are its greatest challenges. In closing, both Menon and Cohen agreed that American and Indian policy had more continuity than assumed, and that relations between the two would continue to strengthen.