India’s abortive bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the fracas over China’s filibuster has caused a domestic political storm. The Opposition has called it Narendra Modi’s Waterloo, while the BJP says it’s another step in a process. Simultaneously, the BJP claims that India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime is Mr Modi’s coup and not the culmination of a similar process. A series of questions arise. Did India rush its application without neutralising China and other objectors? Was it a misreading of consistent negative signals as Chinese posturing? Finally, did Mr Modi err in pleading with China’s President Xi Jinping?
The United States supported Indian membership of the four technology control regimes — Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); Australia Group; and Wassenaar Arrangement — in the joint statement during President Barak Obama’s first India visit in November, 2010. This logically followed the 2005 India-US civil nuclear energy agreement and the 2008 India-specific NSG waiver. India was being unshackled from decades of high-technology denial, imposed after India’s 1974 nuclear test. It was America’s strategic response to China’s rise. China could hardly ignore this reasoning. To operationalise the India-US civil nuclear agreement, the nuclear liability law was enacted in 2010 just before Mr Obama’s visit.
However, in 2011, when the rules were being framed, the Fukushima nuclear accident in March and a Bhopal court’s revival of compensation and punishment issues regarding the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster conflated to inflame public opinion. As a result, enhanced liability was imposed on operators as well as suppliers and manufacturers. Foreign nuclear power firms shied away from India. The US too ignored the 2010 commitments as commercial considerations trumped strategic logic. Dr Manmohan Singh’s UPA government, hobbled by corruption scandals, could not fix the liability issue. The US in any case wanted India to first join the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement before approaching MTCR and NSG, both being informally NPT-linked. The UPA, to maintain momentum, bargained for all or nothing.
India’s structured dialogue with the NSG since 2008 enabled an annual exchange of views and Indian supporters kept India’s membership hopes alive. However, India formally applied for NSG membership only on May 12, 2016 after the nuclear liability issue was resolved and Westinghouse promised reactors in India. China promptly had Pakistan join the queue. President Obama’s goodwill and expiring term narrowed India’s window of manoeuvre. Uncertainty over the American presidential elections, particularly if Donald Trump wins, and realising that any newly-elected US President would hardly have India’s NSG application as his/her top priority also dictated urgency. Thus the timing of the application at this juncture was not entirely whimsical.
However, the assessment of Chinese resistance and the government’s public messaging went awry. Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Beijing apparently led the government to believe that a Modi-Xi deal was possible. Perhaps the Chinese foreign ministry, normally isolated from decision-making processes, contributed to the Indian misreading of Chinese intent. Mr Modi taking it up with President Xi in Tashkent, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, defied all diplomatic wisdom as win-or-lose gambits are always avoidedable at the summit level.
When Mr Modi declared on June 8 in Washington that the “hesitations of history” were over, the Chinese read it as an emerging India-US concord. Henry Kissinger had suggested that the Chinese are known to seek solutions to disputes through escalation rather than negotiations. The Chinese objections also defy logic. The NSG being a non-treaty group, it has no criteria for membership, only factors for participation. These too have been flexibly applied earlier, including when China applied. The eight factors are: separation of civil and military programmes; acceptance of IAEA safeguards; signing of the additional protocol (which incidentally many NSG members have not); credible export control regimes; harmonisation with the NSG’s latest control systems; voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing; and acceptance of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.
Pakistan clearly is nowhere near meeting all these criteria, whereas India does and hence got the 2008 waiver. China in fact breaches the letter and spirit by assisting Pakistan’s unsafeguarded nuclear programme after China’s 2004 NSG entry, disingenuously declaring in 2010 additional outstanding agreements with Pakistan for plutonium reactors that it “forgot” to declare in 2004. The Chinese ploy in Seoul worked when they proposed that the NSG first consider “technical, political and legal aspects of the participation of non-NPT countries in NSG” before considering the Indian application. This gave cover to traditional non-proliferation ayatollahs like Ireland and Brazil, who may not have openly opposed India on their own. Even the 2010 India-US joint statement prescribes a phased manner for Indian entry after consulting and encouraging “the evolution of regime membership criteria”. What the South Korean chair got bullied into not articulating was that the opening paragraph of the 2008 NSG waiver to India affirms Indian credentials and reflects the criteria they seek.
Mr Modi’s response to the Chinese stonewalling will determine his emergence or failure as a statesman. In a television interview he underplayed the NSG fiasco and Chinese duplicity. However, in practice, India must adopt appropriate counter-measures. As an MTCR member from June 27, India gets a veto on the Chinese application as well as a forum to highlight the clandestine Sino-Pak undermining of technology regimes. India should quickly join the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement; China again not being a member of either. Other measures can be examined like closer scrutiny of Chinese imports to punish dumping, freezing Chinese visa liberalisation, stalling Brics that India now chairs, discouraging Chinese-sponsored banks like AIIB and sharply raising military assistance to Asean nations like Vietnam and increasing naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. This country learnt in 1962 that few nations will openly confront China on India’s behalf. Our success will lie in combining their shared angst to contain China.