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After the NSG's Seoul plenary: Time to mend ties; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0092/2016


India’s failure to break into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at its plenary last week in Seoul does not translate into China’s gain. It would be erroneous to see the NSG session as an India-China match which ended with a score of 0-1, for it casts in bilateral terms what was not a bilateral contest at all. However, there is no denying that New Delhi’s abortive bid for NSG membership is bound to impact Sino-Indian relations in ways that it should not.

After the door was shut on India in Seoul, there was implied criticism of China, including in official statements, which referred to procedural hurdles raised by “one country.” This may be attributed to anger and frustration over being unable to achieve the desired goal. The outcome is still rankling in India, and it may be a while before those stung by the perceived “humiliation” can take an objective view of the matter.

Even the most sympathetic of informed observers and those with an insider’s grasp of the matter in India are on record that the bid for membership was a gross miscalculation on the part of the Government of India (GoI). Secondly, the GoI misread the situation as a matter of bilateral negotiation between India and China. Thirdly, it personalized the issue by presuming that it could be resolved at a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping (in Tashkent where they gathered for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit). Lastly, the GoI made it a high-stakes battle, which clearly it was not. Therefore, when the cookie crumbled, the GoI found itself at a loss to respond in an adequate and appropriate manner befitting its stature as a leading power.

Curiously, had the GoI succeeded in Seoul, it would have been credited to India-U.S. relations and Modi’s recent visit to Washington – which would have been just as erroneous as blaming China and his Tashkent visit for the failure. This emphasis on two disparate bilateral relationships ignores the reality of preconditions for membership in the NSG and what it requires to be negotiated.

Membership of the NSG is not something granted across the counter on U.S. certification endorsed by China. The stark truth is that Washington pushed New Delhi into an avoidable tangle with Beijing, in effect saying,”We’ve done our bit, now you get Beijing to play its part.”

The NSG is exactly what it says it is, a Group of 48 nuclear equipment and material suppliers with its own rules where all decisions are unanimous. The U.S. created the NSG, after India’s 1974 nuclear test, solely to deny advanced technology to India and, thereby, isolate and contain India. China became a member only in 2004. Thus, at one level, making India a member would undermine the very objective of creating the NSG. At a larger level, India’s membership would make nonsense of the so-called non-proliferation considerations that form the very basis of this club.

So, it was not China or 10 of the 48 members that stymied India’s membership. As the statement issued after the Seoul plenary said, “Participating governments reiterated their firm support for the full, complete and effective implementation of the NPT as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.”

This shows that the NSG members who in decades past were arm-twisted into signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty refused to roll over and allow India a cakewalk. Like in 2008, this time, the U.S. had no compelling reason to pull out all the stops for India because the U.S. had nothing to gain by it. In 2008, it ensured the waiver for civil nuclear trade to give life to the India-U.S. nuclear deal. This time, U.S. interest was better served by pitting India against China, and, on the rebound, bringing the GoI deeper into Washington’s embrace for more military cooperation and arms purchases.

Beijing has denied blocking India’s membership. At no stage did it encourage the GoI to believe that NSG membership was “negotiable” in a bilateral sense. To the contrary, both party and government organs were at pains to disabuse the GoI of the impression that China could be persuaded to budge from the policy and principles of the NPT by which the NSG was bound.

Regardless of these facts, the reality is that Sino-Indian relations have taken a hit. New Delhi and Beijing need to swiftly chalk out moves to prevent a “climate change” for the worse. Neither country has allowed the all-important boundary dispute to block the progress of bilateral relations on other tracks. Similarly, the setback to India’s NSG ambitions should not be allowed to stall normalization, which is a pre-requisite for dealing with common challenges to their mutual advantage.

[Shastri Ramachandaran, an independent Indian political and foreign affairs commentator, is a Senior Consultant & Editor of China-India Dialogue, published by China International Publishing Group (CIPG).]

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