As India’s application to membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) comes up for renewed discussion at a consultative meeting in Vienna later this November, several questions about China’s possible response remain.
The Indian argument for putting effort into the pursuit of NSG membership is that this ‘would place our existing cooperation on a predictable basis and facilitate the enhanced investments, industrial tie ups and technology access required to accelerate augmentation of nuclear power capacity in India’.
Justified as this may be, this is an argument that however, holds less sway in public perception than the one about China being the only country that stands in the way of India’s aspirations. It is almost as if New Delhi has resigned itself to failure – what realist would believe that China would shoot itself in the foot – both acknowledge India’s role as a responsible nuclear power and ‘let down’ its ally Pakistan – by agreeing to India’s membership? And so, New Delhi’s one goal appears to be to ensure that it is at least seen as having stood up to China in some way or the other. And bad-mouthing Beijing seems to be a big part of the strategy.
Clearly, it is a bit disingenuous of the Indian government and many analysts to blame China alone for opposition to India’s entry. Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen VK Singh (retd) in replies in Parliament to questions on India’s diplomatic efforts in the run-up to the NSG’s annual Plenary meeting in Seoul in late June this year was careful in his choice of words. Talking about support for India, he used such expressions as ‘[a]n overwhelming number’, [t]he broad sentiment within the NSG’, and ‘a very large measure’. He did not say, ‘all minus one’. China was certainly a holdout no doubt, but there are other nations too, who are not yet 100% on board. Thus, Singh’s statement also that the government continued to engage with all NSG member countries on the issue of India’s application. And this includes New Zealand whose Prime Minister was recently in India and which has still not unequivocally committed itself to supporting India’s application.
To concentrate the attack on China, to make it look bad on the NSG front, might be normal diplomacy but who is the audience that the Government of India wishes to make this case to?
If the audience is domestic, surely there is no need for much effort for prejudice and ignorance vis-à-vis China are already quite considerable in India. No doubt, following the Uri attack, what kept India’s military offensive options vis-à-vis Pakistan limited in nature despite the belligerent rhetoric both before and after the ‘surgical strikes’ was the overhanging threat of nuclear retaliation by Pakistan. And, of course, it is the Chinese that tutored and subsidized their neighbour into the ways of the atom. But while criticism of China on this front is understandable at the popular level, Indian analysts and government officials – all realists, one presumes – know full well that this is the stuff of international politics.
So how does this domestic grandstanding help India’s quest for membership of the NSG? The truth is that it does not.
And if one assumes that the audience is international, including the Chinese themselves, then the government must reconsider its approach.
China Games International Law
What makes the situation today different from 2008 when India won its NSG waiver and when China tried to ensure that it was not seen as the last country blocking the move, is that today, Beijing has no such qualms. US-China relations are in a particularly bad phase and for a number of reasons including distractions elsewhere, Washington is not willing to work on the Chinese like it did the first time around in Vienna. What is more, if the current assertive leadership in Beijing perceive their counterparts in New Delhi as very obviously targeting China or playing the American card, they will stand alone for some considerable time blocking India’s NSG entry.
And the Chinese will do this using what critics might call the ‘fig leaf’ of international law – that India has not signed the NPT – but use it, they will. Yes, China has ignored international law in South China Sea and yes, it is being hypocritical when it demands India sign the NPT as a condition for NSG entry but India would do well to understand how the Chinese understand and use international law.
Clearly, there is the Athenian ‘the strong do what they can’ approach with international law. But there is also a savvier, backroom approach. A case in point is of how the Philippines despite winning the South China Sea case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July had by October been persuaded to set aside this ruling, however temporarily. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China saw him meet four out of China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – unusual for any visiting foreign dignitary to China – and sign several billion dollars worth of trade deals with talk now, even of joint exploration with China for oil and gas in the South China Sea. In other words, the Athenians got the Melians to submit and pay tribute despite justice being on the latter’s side.
India must learn from the Sino-Filipino case. One, India cannot expect its ‘morally just’ position to win just because it is so. It will need to work hard on the ‘neutral Greek states’ (other NSG members) to not just support India but to stand up to Chinese opposition.
Two, Sparta (the United States) needs to be persuaded to put more skin in the game. In the case of the dispute with the Philippines, China’s confidence came from its assessment like that of the Athenians in Thucydides’ tale, that Melos’ ally was not inclined to risk blood and treasure for the latter’s cause.
Three, while there is nothing like an Athens-Melos equivalence in China-India ties, like Melos however, India must seek to persuade China that there is advantage to backing it. The continuing climate of hostility and the slow pace of movement that Chinese investors sense in India need to be addressed. Without some visible progress that Chinese state-owned enterprises, including provincial government investors, can highlight in India, the central government in Beijing will find little incentive to consider letting go of its opposition to India at the NSG and on other issues.
China has shown following the PCA ruling that the way to come back from a diplomatic loss is more diplomacy – political, economic and military – not less.
The current environment both inside and outside of government in India of surliness and resentment against China has gone too far and continued for too long – the absurd call to boycott Chinese goods being a case in point.
Aspiring big powers learn to live and deal with other big powers and need to keep political communication and multiple lines of engagement alive and open at all times. An excessive focus on any one issue in the India-China big-power relationship – Pakistan, terrorism or the NSG – risks portraying to the rest of the world that Indian national interests are monochromatic, and based on emotion rather than on realism and strategic foresight.
A version of this was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘It Is Time for India to Stop Blaming China for Blocking Its NSG Bid’, The Wire, 8 November 2016.