External Affairs

India’s Abortive NSG Bid and the Kautilyan Lessons it Needs to Learn

Far from being geopolitically savvy, India has displayed petulance and a sense of entitlement in its attitude towards NSG membership.

China has opposed India's bid to enter the NSG. Credit: PTI

China has opposed India’s bid to enter the NSG. Credit: PTI

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 embrace.

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 helpful.

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 writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

  • ingeborg Malik

    I am wondering why is this Paper Pathological Anti Modi??It never tires in posting such Articles but never does so as regards the Congress and Leftist transgressions.If at all these mentioned Parties are responsible for the state of affairs in India today.Modi is trying hard to bring India forward.

  • ashok759

    India could profit by learning many useful lessons from Seoul. The first obviously would be to increase our weight on the world stage by doing the right things at home, economic reform, faster, sustainable growth, social harmony, improved HDI scores. We sometimes overestimate the utility of diplomacy as a force multiplier that can make us a more secure, prosperous nation by how well we interact with the world’s leaders, almost reversing the sequence of how it should be. 2. A lot of basic redesign of foreign policy on the drawing boards of MEA, looking at least fifty years ahead, is required. With China, its institutional memory on how we have managed this complex relationship for half a century, is priceless. What the distinguished columnist says about the amoral universe of diplomacy applies most strongly to our twin challenges from China and Pakistan, totally impervious to charm and emotion. 3. BRICS, an artificial construct from Goldman Sachs, yesterday’s news with the collapse in commodity prices, now with Brazil and South Africa showing their colours, should be laid to rest. 4. Russia retains its salience and this is one relationship that should be nourished. 5. India’s traditional strategic autonomy becomes all the more imperative when America’s relationships with Russia and China are becoming fraught.

    • IAF101

      The very basic premise of the entire episode is faulty. Why does India need NSG membership ?? What benefit will it accrue India beyond prestige ? India’s diplomatic capital has been expended to achieve a goal that was hardly worth the reward of entry. When insignificant countries like New Zealand, Austria etc which have never faced a terrorist attack or gone to war in recent memory talk about “nuclear proliferation” they do so from corners of the world where nobody would waste a nuke on unlike India which is sandwiched between two inimical nuclear neighbors colluding against India.

      The NSG at its heart is a cartel – a business group that wants to control, punish and deny those who don’t play by its rules. It is a reactionary group created to contain the spread of technology that is more than 60 years old and has failed miserably at it ever since.

      The NSG offers no “high table” for India to sit and begging to be allowed to join its discriminatory and failed institution is hypocritical given all that India has said against it in the past.

      India would do well to better market its own nuclear technologies and sell civilian nuclear technologies globally and have the NSG chasing it than lobbying any nation or group for entry. Now that the NSG has denied India entry it gives India all the more legitimacy to sell nuclear reactors to African nations, island nations and other places starved of power undercutting international players. There is a huge demand for cheap PWRs that aren’t saddled with all the strings attached by the NSG. India would do well to capitalize on that.

    • IAF101

      The very basic premise of the entire episode is faulty. Why does India need NSG membership ?? What benefit will it accrue India beyond prestige ? India’s diplomatic capital has been expended to achieve a goal that was hardly worth the reward of entry. When insignificant countries like New Zealand, Austria etc which have never faced a terrorist attack or gone to war in recent memory talk about “nuclear proliferation” they do so from corners of the world where nobody would waste a nuke on unlike India which is sandwiched between two inimical nuclear neighbors colluding against India.

      The NSG at its heart is a cartel – a business group that wants to control, punish and deny those who don’t play by its rules. It is a reactionary group created to contain the spread of technology that is more than 60 years old and has failed miserably at it ever since.

      The NSG offers no “high table” for India to sit and begging to be allowed to join its discriminatory and failed institution is hypocritical given all that India has said against it in the past.

      India would do well to better market its own nuclear technologies and sell civilian nuclear technologies globally and have the NSG chasing it than lobbying any nation or group for entry. Now that the NSG has denied India entry it gives India all the more legitimacy to sell nuclear reactors to African nations, island nations and other places starved of power undercutting international players. There is a huge demand for cheap PWRs that aren’t saddled with all the strings attached by the NSG. India would do well to capitalize on that.

  • Joji Cherian

    In diplomacy there is no stabbing in the back.China acted in ITS best interests. Modi thought he could he could hoodwink(I think charming is not the right expression) China after allying openly with America.This reader in fact had a wager with one of his friends about the possible outcome.He won ten Rupees

  • Abhijit Ray

    It is true China does not owe India anything. China would also not like India to come out of its corner in Asia. So will India. We are playing with the U.S. and Japan in South China Sea. India did not allow China to enter SAARC. So nothing wrong in what China is doing. Only problem is China is demanding right of Pakistan on nuclear high table. That is disingenuous, given Pakistan’s track record on proliferation and Pakistan being hot bed of terror. Only country that uses terrorists to kill civilians in her neighbouring countries. For India, we had tried. We have tried to persuade naysayers. There is nothing to be embarrassed about our effort. Only defeatists and pessimists will ridicule India’s effort. To attain something, one may have to show boldness, irrespective of success or failure. Only issue India has to take side. May be tow US line. But where has nonaligned policy lead us to ?

  • Shivam

    “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”

    What is this guy smoking? Does he even know english sufficiently? How does “Effective implementation” mean “signing” NSG? In fact, the phrase was actually put in so that a path stays open. Implementation MEANS that NPT is “implemented” rather than “signed”. I stopped reading there itself.

  • TrumpForPresident

    India should take an assertive role against chines containment and align more with democratic allies like USA, Japan, Australia etc. to counter chinese bullying. they recently endorsed chines position on South China Sea during BRICS summit. That was simply foolish and they got nothing in return from china. they should take strong position against china and increase tariff on chinese goods, chines are dumping their cheap stuff in Indian market and there is a huge trade imbalance in chinese favor. use both soft power and hard power if needed against china. sell Brahmos and other high end weaponry to Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan etc. show chinese aggressors that India has grown spine under Mr. Modi’s leadership. Long live India USA partnership.

  • TrumpForPresident

    India should take an assertive role against chines containment and align more with democratic allies like USA, Japan, Australia etc. to counter chinese bullying. they recently endorsed chines position on South China Sea during BRICS summit. That was simply foolish and they got nothing in return from china. they should take strong position against china and increase tariff on chinese goods, chines are dumping their cheap stuff in Indian market and there is a huge trade imbalance in chinese favor. use both soft power and hard power if needed against china. sell Brahmos and other high end weaponry to Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan etc. show chinese aggressors that India has grown spine under Mr. Modi’s leadership. Long live India USA partnership.

  • http://thewire.in Siddharth Varadarajan

    I am posting this comment on behalf of the Embassy of Mexico, which sent this by email:

    This is in reference to the article titled “India’s Abortive NSG Bid and the Kautilyan Lessons it Needs to Learn” published in The Wire on June, 26th.

    With regard to the events at the recently held Special Plenary Session of the NSG in Seoul, where the suggestion is made that Mexico was among the “holdouts”.

    We find it necessary to make some clarifications regarding Mexico’s official position and actions in the Seoul Plenary.

    Mexico has expressed its positive and constructive support for India’s aspiration to join the NSG and believes that the NSG wins with India’s inclusion.

    Mexico did not oppose the membership of India, but actually contributed to the process of giving a response to the application of India by means of an Extraordinary Plenary Session before the end of the year.

    Press Section
    Embassy of Mexico
    New Delhi

  • The Wire

    We are posting this comment on behalf of the Embassy of Mexico, which sent this by email:

    This is in reference to the article titled “India’s Abortive NSG Bid and the Kautilyan Lessons it Needs to Learn” published in The Wire on June, 26th.

    With regard to the events at the recently held Special Plenary Session of the NSG in Seoul, where the suggestion is made that Mexico was among the “holdouts”.

    We find it necessary to make some clarifications regarding Mexico’s official position and actions in the Seoul Plenary.

    Mexico has expressed its positive and constructive support for India’s aspiration to join the NSG and believes that the NSG wins with India’s inclusion.

    Mexico did not oppose the membership of India, but actually contributed to the process of giving a response to the application of India by means of an Extraordinary Plenary Session before the end of the year.

    Press Section
    Embassy of Mexico
    New Delhi