The Plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ended on Friday, 24 July without a decision on India’s application for membership in the body. This outcome was not unforeseen. In fact, in her press conference on 19 June, External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj had sought to moderate expectations by expressing the hope that India would enter the NSG during the current year. Some opposition parties, particularly the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, as well as some commentators have stridently criticized the government for “embarrassing” and lowering India’s prestige internationally by launching a high voltage campaign and facing an ignominious defeat
It will be instructive to critically examine some of the serious charges levelled by political parties and analysts that India should not have embarked on such an excessive campaign for the NSG membership. It will also be useful to determine the future course of action to achieve India’s objective of NSG membership.
It has been stated that the high decibel campaign launched by India culminating in the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on 23 June in Tashkent has severely dented India’s prestige and standing in the world. It needs to be remembered that once India applied for NSG membership on 12 May 2016, it was incumbent upon it to pull out all the stops to achieve its objective rather than engage in a half-hearted campaign.
There are also strong reasons why India chose this moment to press its case. President Obama has reiterated full support for India’s membership. It is uncertain who will be the next US president and whether s/he will be equally committed to India on this issue. In any case, it will take the new incumbent several months to settle into the new job so that the issue could be expected to go on the back-burner for the next two years.
India conducted its diplomatic campaign with tenacity and dignity. The EAM worked the telephone lines with her counterparts. The Foreign Secretary travelled to Beijing on 16-17 June and parked himself in Seoul to steer efforts in the last leg of deliberations. Senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) fanned out to different capitals to explain India’s position to its NSG partners. In this context, it was incumbent upon the Prime Minister to raise this issue forcefully with President Xi to drive home the importance and significance that India attaches to this issue.
China’s attitude before the meeting, its statements that India’s membership will ”jeopardise” China’s interests and will touch a ”raw nerve” in Pakistan, and its resorting to procedural tactics to even deny the possibility of consideration of this issue have all laid bare its strategy of containing India and not allowing it to play its due role in regional and global affairs. India’s membership of NSG would not have harmed China in any way. China’s veiled contention that, once India becomes a member, it will prove to be an obstacle in Pakistan’s membership was laid to rest by the EAM in her press conference. In any case, Pakistan’s entry depends upon the views and position of other NSG members as well. Pakistan’s track record is so blemished that it will be a huge body-blow to the credibility of the NSG if that country were to be admitted to the grouping. A plausible explanation for China’s adamant stand is that it used Pakistan’s application as a fig leaf to take a ”principled” stand on admission of non-NPT members. This way it also continued its efforts to equate India with Pakistan rather than with itself.
Rather than “embarrassing” the country, India’s diplomatic campaign has raised its stature as an increasingly responsible and self-assured power. India argued on the basis of its credentials and track-record. Through these arguments, it was able to win over a preponderant majority of the NSG membership. However, China’s geo-political and strategic considerations prevailed over the views of more than 80 per cent of the members of the grouping. China’s opposition emboldened a few others to raise some technical doubts and queries. A realistic assessment is that if China had not displayed such obduracy, other countries would have been persuaded to fall in line.
Some commentators seem to suggest that China was so inflexible because of increasing closeness between India and USA. This contention does not stand the test of scrutiny. China has constantly, for the last more than 50 years, been placing obstacles in India’s path to realize its aspirations. China’s obstructionist behaviour during the 2008 NSG waiver deliberations and its opposition to naming Masood Azhar and Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi as terrorists by the UN are a few recent instances in this regard. India will have to devise a strategy to deal with China. This could inter alia include further strengthening of relations with USA, Japan, Australia, some ASEAN members and others who might have strained or difficult relations with China. Simultaneously, India will need to strengthen ties with its historical and all-time friends like Russia.
India has just become a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It was invited within a year of its application to join the fold. China’s application has been languishing since 2004 because of its dubious and suspect proliferation and missile technology control record. India will have to take an appropriate view when China’s application for MTCR membership comes up again for consideration.
India will have to guard against a strong push by China to become a member of SAARC. The next Summit takes place in Pakistan on 9-10 November 2016. China will reach out proactively to all other SAARC members, several of which appear to be supportive of China’s bid. India will need to stand firm against China’s entry into the South Asian body
China is a major economy and a large trading partner of India, sharing a 4,000 km long border that remains unsettled. There are several issues which are a source of discord between the two countries. And there are many other issues on which both countries are working together. Developments in Seoul should not be allowed to cast an irreversible dark shadow on the development of bilateral ties. China was offered a golden opportunity to reduce its trust deficit with India. It decided not to use it. Geo-politics and its support for Pakistan triumphed over better relations with India. China has emerged diminished from the Seoul episode, while India, although disappointed by a lack of consensus in the NSG on its application, has come out walking tall.
The Way Forward
The silver lining is that, in the near term, the denial of NSG membership will not make any substantive difference to the development of India’s nuclear sector because of the 2008 NSG waiver. In the ensuing period, till the next plenary in Switzerland in 2017 or the interim meeting before the end of the year, India should actively engage with all members and particularly with those who have expressed doubts or raised queries, including China. India has already stated that the lack of a decision in Seoul will delay its ratification of the Paris Accord on climate change.
India will have to emphatically tell the nay-sayers that its membership is in the larger global interest and that its participation would further strengthen nuclear non-proliferation and make global nuclear commerce more secure. India has made it clear that it does not have any geo-strategic ambitions in becoming a member of NSG. It only wishes to ensure stability, certainty and predictability in its nuclear commerce with its international partners. The Seoul meeting concluded with members declaring their “firm support for the full, complete and effective implementation of the NPT as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime” [emphasis added]. The phrase “effective implementation’’ was introduced by some Western countries to provide an entry to India by ensuring that compliance with NPT obligations will be a significant consideration and not only signature of the NPT
Developments in Seoul are a temporary setback. They are not a disaster. With its unblemished and impeccable record, India can hope to enter the portals of the NSG during this year or soon thereafter.
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