Across the Indian media, there have been statements and opeds berating the Chinese for their perfidy, hypocrisy and cussedness in refusing to support India’s case for entry into the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG). The complaints go that they themselves have broken all the rules; aided Pakistan with nuclear materials, design and testing; cocked a snook at the NSG by supplying allegedly grandfathered nuclear reactors to Pakistan and protected North Korea as it torpedoed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet they are denying India its just place in the world order. So, frustrated and angry Indians are demanding that we punish China, boycott their goods, join forces with the US to take on China and other such remedies.
The NSG is not an international treaty, but a cartel of nuclear
equipment and material suppliers that sets its own rules and amends them
through consensus among its 48 members. The US may have promised to get
India into this club, but China owed India nothing – it made no such
commitment and, in 2008, very reluctantly went along with the waiver
India got on civil nuclear trade.
Indeed, far from isolating China, India has found itself alone when
the NSG refused to consider its request for membership. India may take
comfort that the holdouts were China, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and
Switzerland (some reports also include Mexico in this list), but in the
public statement on Friday, June 24, following its plenary in Seoul, the NSG said
that the “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.” In other
words, the entire outfit, including the US and the others, called for
the “effective implementation of the NPT”, code for its universalisation
(even though the u-word was not used) which means that either India
signs or stays out of the NSG.
The Indian response has been that the 2008 NSG waiver to justify its
application “states that the decision on India contributes to the widest
possible implementation of the provisions and objectives of the Treaty
on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”
The Seoul communiqué speaks of the “full, complete and effective
implementation of the NPT” and the 2008 waiver “contributes” to the
“provisions and objectives” of the NPT. No doubt this circle will be
squared sometime in the future; after all, a club can write and rewrite
the rules at will.
Just why India wants membership to the NSG so badly is not clear,
since we already have a waiver for civil nuclear trade. There has been
talk of arriving at the nuclear high-table. But since 2011, the NSG has
instituted a rule that would deny enrichment and reprocessing
technologies even to members if they have not signed the NPT. In other
words, we are probably condemned to a second-class membership anyway,
whenever we do manage to get in.
There were expectations that the US would win the day for us. But
that was a serious miscalculation. In 2008, the US was willing to do the
heavy lifting because the waiver was necessary for the US to activate
the Indo-US nuclear deal. But this time around, India’s membership to
the NSG does not have the same salience for the US; it is a commitment
to India, but not something that affects the US itself. India has the
waiver it needs to trade with the US and other countries. And the US has
never quite been committed to giving us enrichment and reprocessing
technologies. Besides, the US cannot be entirely unhappy with the focus
on China on this issue because it is pushing India into a deeper US
No free lunches
The NSG episode should deliver a few lessons in the way international
politics is conducted, provided we have an audience willing to learn.
International policy may be about summits and photo-ops, but these are
based on deals that have been carefully worked out beforehand. The
expectation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would charm his
interlocutors into supporting India is naïve, to say the least.
The doyen of realists, the political scientist John Mearsheimer,
tells us that the world is inherently insecure and the great powers are
locked in a tragic competition to be, and remain, number one. The
hegemon of the day will do everything to prevent a rival from taking
over, and no one will aid another in achieving primacy.
China is today an Asian regional power, aspiring to global primacy,
and it is not about to give India, a regional state with some
geo-economic and military heft, a leg up. A corollary to this could well
be a question about the extent to which the US will help us to become a
great power – the answer is surely, only to the point that we aid the
project of balancing China in south-east Asia. In other regions, there
are other options.
Realist international discourse is built on the principle of give and
take and, as the adage goes, there are no free lunches. Each country
ruthlessly pursues its national interest and if other states get in the
way, they find ways of winning them over, neutralising them or punishing
them. Kautilyan injunctions call for pitilessly using saam (suasion), daam (purchase), dand (punishment) and bhed (division) as the ways of getting on in the real world.
Instead of evolving policy through this matrix, India is displaying a
petulant attitude, a sense of entitlement that somehow China owed it
something and has therefore stabbed it in the back by not supporting its
NSG bid. The hype over Modi’s diplomatic abilities is not particularly
Outfits like the NSG are not about international law, but about
geopolitics. China’s views are not too difficult to understand. Of all
the Asian countries that have the potential to rival China in
terms of geographical spread, military power and economy, India does.
China has no intention of aiding a rival’s rise, even if that rival is
way behind it. It is, of course, ready for normal relations, one
involving carefully calibrated give and take.
There is a further disincentive to China giving too much – its
relationship with Pakistan, the ‘iron brother’ that has helped it lock
down India in South Asia.
The second lesson of international politics India needs to learn is
that geopolitics always trumps world order. And of all the countries
that have excelled in exploiting this, Pakistan is without a peer. In
the 1980s, it persuaded the US to set aside its global non-proliferation
agenda in exchange for facilitating the latter’s jihad against the
Soviet Union. Today it has convinced China that its best chance of
getting into the NSG lies in appending its application to that of India.
The Wire June 26, 2016