External Affairs

Process as Punishment: How India Misread Signals from the NSG

“India doesn’t seem to understand that the ‘process’ is where the game is being played and that’s why the minor objectors are more problematic than China in some ways,” says an analyst.

The brains trust of Indian foreign policy today: Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, national security adviser Ajit Doval, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

The brains trust of Indian foreign policy today: Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, national security adviser Ajit Doval, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Washington: As the Modi government’s diplomatic push for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group was gathering momentum, a few countries were quietly coordinating their strategy among themselves – and possibly with China – to oppose India’s entry.

Although New Delhi has officially chosen to single out China for blocking consensus during the NSG plenary in Seoul last week, which it most certainly did, the ground reality was far more complex. From South Africa to Brazil, Mexico to Turkey, not to speak of key Western holdouts, there were questions that were not adequately addressed.

Seoul, sadly, had more villains than a B-grade Bollywood film. There still may be a happy ending for India since its case continues to be discussed but it’s important to look at the grainy picture.

There were enough signals that Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, New Zealand and Brazil would stand up and not allow a repeat of 2008, when the United States used its heft to get India a special waiver from NSG rules that prohibit nuclear exports to countries that are not party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Apparently they had told the Americans as much and in so many words – they would not roll over this time. Perhaps that was the reason for Washington’s low-key diplomacy.

An honest post-mortem of Modi government’s bold initiative and its failure requires an impartial assessment of what went wrong where and why. Did Indian diplomats misread or ignore the signals from various capitals because they were convinced of success? If not, was the project aimed at exposing China’s real game – something that hardly required exposure, or this level of diplomatic activity.

In tandem with China

The Wire has learned that a few European and other countries had formed an informal bloc within the NSG to raise objections before the June 9 meeting in Vienna and subsequently in Seoul on June 23-24. The approach of “unity in numbers” was designed to withstand US pressure, which they knew would come sooner or later.

Well-informed sources say that diplomats from Austria, New Zealand and Ireland in New Delhi were especially active in evolving a coordinated strategy to raise questions about India. They even attempted to involve China. It is unclear whether the Chinese were merely providing moral support or also helping design the diplomatic arsenal against India.

A similar pattern was discernible in Vienna where the Swiss and Austrians were especially irked that India was not listening to their concerns, sources said. It is a different matter that New Delhi can do nothing to address their primary objection – India remains outside the NPT.

In the run up to Vienna and Seoul, these countries used the NSG’s confidentiality rules – only member countries are privy to what happens behind closed doors – to give India the run around. They used the excuse of trying to achieve “consensus” among members on India’s application before they could talk to New Delhi about its prospects.

They repeatedly raised problems of process and procedures, making them appear as minor and surmountable but in reality those questions were designed to delay progress.

China’s determined opposition to India – for geopolitical reasons and to protect its all-weather friend Pakistan – gave these countries the required cover. Some European diplomats reportedly found parallels between China’s stand within the NSG and the role played by France in the UN Security Council in the run up to the Iraq war.

In 2003, France effectively denied the Bush administration the much-needed UN cover for its invasion of Iraq by threatening to use its veto. The French resistance thus gave less powerful members of the Security Council more reason to stand up and be counted.

The China-France comparison may not be entirely accurate. France acted out of conviction, based on widespread public opposition to the war while China’s stand is driven by geopolitics rather than fidelity to nonproliferation rules that it has itself been credibly accused of violating.

Since China joined the NSG in 2004, it has signed agreements with Pakistan for four civilian nuclear reactors despite the group’s guidelines prohibiting this. It has done so by insisting these agreements were first envisaged before China’s membership of the cartel. Neither the Europeans nor the Obama Administration called Beijing out.

Despite this record, those countries anxious to renew their faith in non-proliferation ideals at Seoul found no irony in hiding behind China. In fact, say sources familiar with the diplomatic interactions which preceded the plenary,  this fitted their strategy perfectly – they could point to Beijing as the main objector while they raised problems about the “process” of considering India’s application. It was a way to avoid US pressure – and minimise bilateral costs vis-a-vis India.

In addition, they hobbled India by not talking to it directly, citing secrecy rules. This made negotiations supremely difficult because Indian diplomats were primarily dependent on their friends inside the NSG to brief them. The information flow was restricted to say the least because no one wants to be seen as openly violating the rules.

The Americans acted as the intermediary for the most part but every time they conveyed an argument  and India addressed it, another would pop up from some other member of the club.

Loose Brics

Then there was also a misreading of signals by India as in the case of Brazil – a very special case because Brazil could have been a nuclear weapons power itself. Brazil has a gut reaction against exceptions being made for India and needs to be treated with care. Apparently, the Brazilian position was nuanced. In principle, Brazil opposed India’s entry and if others put roadblocks, it would support them. But if consensus evolved in favour of India, Brazil would honour it. Brazil was not a supporter, per se, but was apparently counted as one by New Delhi and thus the huge shock when its stance was revealed in Seoul.

South Africa, which also raised questions, is similarly a special case. It had nuclear weapons’ capability under the Apartheid regime but was “persuaded” to give it up when white-minority rule ended. India may be disappointed that for all its unconditional moral and material support to the African National Congress and other representatives of the anti-Apartheid struggle, South Africa could not return a ‘small favour’. But then that’s how the world rolls.

It is possible that these countries will use similar delaying tactics even for future consultations, which are to be facilitated by Ambassador Rafael Grossi of Argentina on India’s membership application, as reported by The Hindu. The informal panel is supposed to find a way forward after several countries, which support India’s admission, pressed its case in Seoul.

India should keep in mind the possibility that the position of “conscientious objectors” may continue to vacillate and New Delhi may be left “clutching” at straws from all 10 of them. As an analyst familiar with the Seoul scenario said, “India doesn’t seem to understand that the ‘process’ is where the game is being played and that’s why the minor objectors are more problematic than China in some ways.”

The Obama administration has let it be known that it plans to continue pushing India’s case and succeed. In the wake of all the disappointment in New Delhi, a senior US official told PTI: “We are confident that India would be a full member of the regime by the end of the year.”

For that to happen, the playbook may need new songs.

  • ashok759

    Aren’t the smaller nations being very small hearted ? India already has the waiver and can hardly be expected to surrender its deterrent. So, with all the foot dragging, nothing changes. I would not be surprised if NZ is looking to sell some of its lamb to China.

  • ashok759

    Aren’t the smaller nations being very small hearted ? India already has the waiver and can hardly be expected to surrender its deterrent. So, with all the foot dragging, nothing changes. I would not be surprised if NZ is looking to sell some of its lamb to China.

  • Srilakshan Anand

    Well author, Austria is in EUROPE, Ireland, turkey covered by NATO guarantees.
    New Zealand has US protection.
    Brazil, south Africa have no nuclear or terrorist rivals.
    They don’t have 1.25 billion population which needs energy.
    It is our duty to appraise them and persuade.

  • Srilakshan Anand

    Well author, Austria is in EUROPE, Ireland, turkey covered by NATO guarantees.
    New Zealand has US protection.
    Brazil, south Africa have no nuclear or terrorist rivals.
    They don’t have 1.25 billion population which needs energy.
    It is our duty to appraise them and persuade.

  • Srilakshan Anand

    Austria in EU

  • Srilakshan Anand

    Austria in EU

  • Raj Kumar Pandit

    World community just forget that, India is a big fish, you can’t ignore India,,,,, Can world survived with out stopping pollution of India.

  • Raj Kumar Pandit

    World community just forget that, India is a big fish, you can’t ignore India,,,,, Can world survived with out stopping pollution of India.