In September 2008, with only 35 minutes to spare before the then 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group met in Geneva to discuss the one-time waiver for India from rules that forbade nuclear trade with a country that hadn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, US President George W. Bush managed to persuade Chinese President Hu Jintao to support the move, or risk the opprobrium of being the only holdout. The “clean waiver” went through. In large part, it was due to Mr Bush’s sustained push, that saw him not only work on Beijing, but send secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to persuade Australia, deeply sceptical of Indian intent, to come on board, and get other critics to fall in line.
Canberra’s decision to allow uranium exports flowed from a recognition that India had a good non-proliferation record and that, notwithstanding it being outside the NPT, it made no sense to isolate it on nuclear issues. India was no slouch either. It sent its two top diplomats Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran to Geneva days before the NSG meet, to assure the five other nations who had reservations — Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Norway and New Zealand — that it would stand by its pledge “not to share sensitive nuclear technology or material with others”.
India followed up private reassurances with a public statement at the NSG meet where it pledged to uphold its “voluntary moratorium on testing nuclear weapons”. Eight years later India, the country that went ‘rogue’ in 1974, now stands at the cusp of nuclear liberation, knocking on the doors of the NSG (with 48 members now) for full membership. Once again, China, the overarching Asian superpower, more powerful than it was in 2008, and which now more than ever can’t risk a vastly more confident India rising at its doorstep, is all set to play the spoiler.
India believes it has met every concern of the NSG on proliferation issues. The process that began with the 2005 India-US civil nuclear agreement, the stringent US Congress 123 Agreement, the civil-military nuclear separation agreement, and vetting by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has shown Indian intent. It has fallen in line with all export control regimes. It has demonstrated to the world that while it may not be a signatory to the NPT or CTBT, in letter and in spirit it abides by the law.
Energy-deficient India sees NSG membership as key to dealing with climate change, boosting capacity to help transition from dirty hydrocarbons to clean energy in the 30 nuclear energy plants it will have up and running in 15 years. Criticism that nuclear reactor construction contracts for the domestic nuclear power market never materialised are set to be laid to rest shortly with a deal with Westinghouse to build six nuclear reactors in Andhra Pradesh.
India’s adherence in spirit to the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group on dual-use technologies, armaments, chemical and biological weapons has won it brownie points. None of these is likely to sway China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China charm offensive, which began with an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to Gujarat, the equivalent of a visit to Mr Modi’s own home, the PM’s reciprocal visit to China, New Delhi’s cancellation of visas for Chinese dissidents, shying off from attending Taiwan President Tsai Ingwen’s swearing-in, and even the last throw of the dice in President Pranab Mukherjee’s quiet diplomacy on the sidelines of his recent visit to Beijing, have not eased Mr Xi’s geopolitical angst. An India in the NSG will be seen as China’s equal.
China also fears India’s broad and fast-growing nuclear research into next generation technologies that could pit India as a global competitor to China in power plant contracts. China’s argument that India, which formally applied for NSG membership on May 12, does not qualify as it’s not an NPT signatory rests on a technicality. But here’s the flaw. Stating that India cannot be given NSG membership unless Pakistan, which too has applied for NSG membership, is also acknowledged as a nuclear power, begs the question — where does the anointment of Pakistan as a nuclear power leave Israel, or Iran, which Washington has worked strenuously to bring on to the right side, and, more important, North Korea, a Beijing client state that it is unable or unwilling to control.
China has not been publicly named or shamed for its duplicitous projection of Islamabad and Pyongyang, its twin Cubas, that it armed with nuclear weapons in clear violation of its NPT commitments. India’s record, unlike Pakistan’s — and China’s — is unblemished. It doesn’t have a Prof. Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, its chief proliferator, buyer and seller of nuclear technology to not one but three rogue nations — Libya, North Korea and Iran — rattling around in its closet, threatening to rain nuclear Armageddon on its neighbour.
None of India’s civilian leaders has done what Pakistan’s civilian leadership has — former PM Benazir Bhutto going to Pyongyang with a ‘nuke for missiles deal’ in the bag! Ms Bhutto and incumbent PM Nawaz Sharif may, of course, have played along with the military in altogether different times, unable to step away from the jingoistic nationalism and anti-India refrain that marks the military’s hold over the national mindset. Mr Sharif, who heads a fledgling democracy, may not yet have the following that is needed to break with Pakistan’s all-powerful military.
But it’s this very Pakistan Army that pushed Washington closer to New Delhi, infuriating Pentagon insiders with its sustained attack on US soldiers in Afghanistan while refashioning the disparate Taliban elements into a fighting force that will step into the breach in the terror havens, ending Afghan attempts to strengthen democracy, once the American forces exit.
The other signal that Washington is pulling India into its arc of allies will come when India gains entry, expected this week, into the second critical technology control grouping, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which is complementary to the NSG, and which will allow it to import Predator drones that can halt Pakistani infiltration across its borders, as well as give India a freer hand if it should choose to export missiles to anti-Chinese countries like Vietnam. The far-reaching implications of the India-US military logistics support agreement, too, is lost on no one.
Beijing’s line that denying Islamabad entry will reinforce the Pakistan military’s expansion of its nuclear programme is essentially saying the world must reward nuclear bad behaviour. On June 9, when the NSG meets in Geneva, and again in Seoul June 24 to decide India’s entry, it must demonstrate that the world knows how to distinguish between good and bad nuclear behaviour....