External Affairs

Interview: There is a New China in the NSG and India Needs to Find a Way to Deal With It

In the second part of his interview with The Wire, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran discusses why China acted the way it did at the NSG and what India can do about it.

Siddharth Varadarajan: We have two questions from Madhup Mohta, this may well be your former colleague at the MEA. He asks, “Why does India need to be in the NSG at all? We have capability and access through alternative means.” And he also says that what happened in Seoul “basically shows that our China policy is weak and spineless. We do not know how to bell the cat in both multilateral and bilateral fora.” Strong words!

Shyam Saran: (laughs) Well, the first question about why NSG membership is important to India, I think we have already covered that [in the first part of the interview].

With regard to what happened in Seoul, frankly, some people have been arguing that we have taken too tough a public position with respect to China. As I have argued frequently, the India-China relationship is a very complex relationship. You know, it’s not an either/or relationship. It’s not a relationship merely of adversaries or of collaborators. It is a mix of both. And it is extremely important that in carrying forward this relationship, that sort of balance should be maintained. Areas where we have convergence with the Chinese, we should pursue those areas of convergence. We should maintain the high-level engagement that we have been able to maintain for the last 15 years because my own personal experience has been, having sat in many of those meetings, that those summit meetings play a very important role in introducing a degree of, shall I say, calm, in what could be otherwise troubled waters in the relationship. That does not mean that when our interests are threatened by what China is doing, we should not respond to it. Certainly, we should respond. Areas where there are differences in perspective, we should try and overcome those differences in perspective. But, if there is clear evidence that China is working against India’s interest, certainly India should respond. And I think, by and large, if I look at the record of the past 15 years or so, generally speaking, governments in India, whether belonging to the BJP or to the Congress, have actually worked upon that basis and I would hope that we can keep this going. This is the reason why I said that I would not want to see NSG membership being made into a very major point of friction between the two countries.

SV: Now, if we look at Seoul, whether we say that China hid behind these other six or seven countries or the other way round, it’s clear that the opposition, whether in procedural or process terms, was more than simply Beijing, and that seven or eight countries raised the need for objective – I think Brazil said non-discriminatory – criteria for membership of non-NPT countries. Now, the question that comes to my mind is that when the 2008 waiver uses pretty clear language about the need for broadening the effective implementation of the goals of the NPT – when you use that phrase – you are implying that India will never be a member but there is no reason why India cannot help to contribute towards the goals of NPT, primarily as a nuclear weapon state, i.e. that you won’t proliferate. And, I suppose, that you will also work towards universal disarmament. Now, India fulfils both of these conditions and more. If we won that battle in 2008 and actually, then, agreed to abide by seven or eight commitments, and the world can see that we have stuck with our commitments…

SS: Absolutely.

SV:  Then why is it that we haven’t managed to convince these seven or eight countries?

SS: Well, this is the irony – that we were engaged in far more complex, far more difficult negotiations on that waiver document. This would have been a very simply case of either yes or no on the membership.

SV: Because the waiver is a much bigger obstacle than membership?

SS: Exactly. So, it should have been a very simple matter to actually admit India into the NSG based on precisely those conditions that are listed in the waiver. That did not happen. That did not happen because of procedural reasons. We should recognise that there are important political reasons behind this. This is why I said that there is a change as far as the Chinese posture is concerned. China is no longer hiding behind other countries. My sense is that China would have been ready to be the last man standing, if it came to that.

SV: Right. So if things were pressed for an up-down vote, China would say, fine, here’s my veto…

SS: That’s my judgment. I cannot prove it in any way but my sense is the change that has taken place in China is precisely that today I am ready to take a public posture on this. I am ready to be the last man standing, if it comes to that.

SV: So, what explains that? Is it because of their perception that India has drawn close to the US?

SS: My sense is that, number one, China is in a way demonstrating that as far as these global regimes are concerned, it will no longer just be a spectator. It is a power in the same league as the United States of America, and is ready to play that role.

Second, and I think it is important for us to look at the implications of this, this represents a level of commitment to Pakistan which is more than what we have seen in the past.

SV: So this is a new factor, actually.

SS: Yes. It is not only as a proxy against India, which has been the traditional role that Pakistan has played, but also, to my mind, the role that Pakistan is potentially going to play as far as the very ambitious One Belt, One Road plan is concerned. Pakistan is a very key factor in the success of  Xi Jinping’s great project. So, I think there is a willingness to show that, you know, because our interests are involved here, we are ready to give satisfaction to Pakistan because for Pakistan, it is far more important not to have India in and Pakistan out than it is, frankly speaking, for India. Because India has the waiver, Pakistan does not. So, in a sense, the commitment to Pakistan is greater and that has implications for India, which we should be looking at.

The third is, I think the Chinese sense that, you know, this hyphenation between China and India, which is being fostered by the US and others, this simply does not exist. This is one way of demonstrating…

SV: You mean the idea that these are two rising powers in Asia and so on.

SS: Yes, so this equivalence that people have tried to bring about, [China wants] to show that this is simply not true. We are in the driving seat. So, there is a more assertive China. There is a China which believes that it is already in a very different league than, say, India is or several other middle powers are concerned. And, therefore, the world must take notice.


SV: What about the Chinese reading of the India-US relationship? Is that also somewhere a factor –  that they see India now in that way? For example, the quadrilateral has been revived – India Japan Australia and the US in Asia. We have repeatedly made statements about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Are these also elements which may have worked on the Chinese leadership?

SS: There may be an element of concern but I think China is fully aware of the fact that India is not going to become a subordinate ally of the US as say, for example, Japan is or Australia is. That there is a degree of convergence between India and the US as far as the security environment in the region is concerned, that is quite apparent. However, I think we also need to be able to project the fact that much of that convergence is a result of the actions of the Chinese themselves.

SV: Right

SS: Recently, I was in Beijing when we were having one of these track II dialogues and, you know, if China says we are not against the freedom of navigation, and yet in the next breath says, that as far as the nine-dash line is concerned, these are the historic waters of China, then how are you going to have freedom of navigation (laughs), if you are virtually saying that this is a part of Chinese jurisdiction?

SV: Right

SS: So, there are, you know, actions on the part of China which do cause concern.

SV: They’ve sharpened their border confrontations with virtually all neighbours at the same time.

SS: Yes. Everybody recognises, even the Chinese themselves recognise, that they have been far more assertive. Now, they should not be surprised if the rest of the world is reacting to that. And, the other aspect is that with… we see, for example, in the Asia Pacific…you know, ASEAN was not a major power but as a platform, you know, regional platform, it was useful to all the major powers, as a kind a mediating platform, as a kind of a reconciling… providing a little bit of a buffer in what could be a major power conflict. In the last few years, China has actually abandoned that implicit consensus that we should not undermine ASEAN because it is useful to us. Now, you see China going all out in terms of dividing ASEAN. And that is not good for the region. And I believe it’s not good for China either. So, when we use this mantra that we have been using, I think one should not dismiss that only as a mantra – that we need to have an open, inclusive, transparent and balanced security architecture in the region, which does not exclude China.

SV: Right

SS: But, China should see its interest in that kind of a multilateral framework, rather than seek unilateral dominance. That is something which will inevitably invite a countervailing response.

SV: There’s a question from Samar Jodha who says that this is a larger issue here. China at every point wants India inside South Asia. Do we have any long-term strategy and is there a danger in India becoming an outsourced wing of the US.

SS: Well, I don’t think that India is in danger of becoming an outsourced wing of any power because India itself is a major power. But, with regard to what is our strategy against China trying to keep us tethered in South Asia, the obvious strategy is that you need to have a much better environment in the sub-continent itself.

SV: With your neighbours?

SS: So you [need to] follow a very very active, properly nuanced policy with respect to your South Asian neighbours, including Pakistan, and you become a champion of say, regional integration, you become the engine of growth for your neighbours who begin to see you as an opportunity rather than as a threat. If you create spaces, someone will walk in. So, our effort should be to make certain that as far as the subcontinent is concerned, we don’t create those spaces. That we become the most relevant power for our neighbours not because we are able to impose upon them but because we offer better opportunities than any other power can. I think that should be really our response.

SV: Manisha Chachra asks, with India making efforts to become a part of the NSG, is the idea of NAM or the Nonaligned Movement as a policy objective principle still relevant? We were a part of the group which wrote Nonalignment 2.0 so, I know how you will answer this.

SS: Yes, so, maybe I do not need to answer this, maybe you can! There is no doubt that the non-aligned movement has become a pale shadow of what it was and that is because there is a completely changed geo-political situation. I mean you don’t have a Cold War, you don’t have an east-west confrontation. Even the north-south confrontation has become different than it was before. So, the non-aligned movement itself and its role has become diminished. There is no doubt about that. However, as we had argued in Nonalignment 2.0, that nonalignment as a policy or non-alliance as a framework within which India orders its relations with the rest of the world still remains relevant because my view has been that non-alignment has been nothing more than another name for strategic autonomy. And what is strategic autonomy? Strategic economy is that on matters of vital interest to India, it should be able to take a relatively autonomous decisions. Not take completely autonomous decisions because you have to live in a world where you have to interact with so many other powers, you know. Not all the interests are vital and therefore you should distinguish what is really important, and what is not important. So as we discuss with regard to NSG membership, I do not see that as an elemental issue – that requires a very very major diplomatic effort on our part going forward. But, on whether or not you have the capability and the willingness and the intention to take those relatively autonomous decisions on issues which we have determined are of vital interests to India, that is what non-alignment is to me – that is the philosophy of non-alignment.

SV: We’re almost out of time but I just want to come back to Seoul and the NSG. The second and the final day of the plenary meeting concluded with Mexico making a proposal for the NSG to continue to remain engaged on the issue of membership criteria for non-NPT countries particularly India and that seems to have carried the day that there will probably be another meeting this year. Assuming that this happens, say, November-December, India has a good five or six months. What do you think is the conversation we need to have with China as well as with the five or six other holdouts but primarily with China? What can we say or do.

SS: The first order of business is that whatever criteria are going to be discussed, they do not go beyond what is there in the 2008 waiver. That’s very important. So, if we perceive that the discussion may vary in a direction where instead of opening the door for membership, it becomes an occasion for imposing more onerous conditions, I think we would be well-advised to [not proceed].

SV: Such as signing the CTBT or agreeing to a fissile material production moratorium.

SS: Yes, because we are not there and you know, the evangelical countries will want to bring as many [demands] as we saw in 2008. So, I think we have to be a little circumspect and a little, shall I say alert to the possibility that in seeking membership, we do not actually open the door for more restrictive or onerous conditions being brought in.

SV: And when it comes to the conversation with China? What can we say to push the envelope there?

SS: Well, I think the diplomacy with China would really have to convince China that in terms of that larger fabric of India-China relations and the many things on which we work together and we need to work together – if China does not have any problem with India becoming a member, as it says, but it was only a procedural issue, a technical issue, then I think that our effort should be to convince China that insisting on those technical grounds, having conceded the waiver for which we appreciate China’s stand, does not really make sense because there is a much larger…

SV: But the Chinese objection is primarily political rather than procedural.

SS: It is political. Although, since it is being projected as procedural, you operate on that basis. If the Chinese are saying it is procedural, why should I go to them and say no no, it is political.

SV: Not as a Tu-Tu Main-Main (accusation) but I am saying as far as addressing the underlying politics.

SS: Let us respond to what the formal Chinese position is, which is that it is procedural. So, we can sit down and say, if you have said it is procedural, can we [move forward].

SV: But a final thought. If in fact the strengthened Pakistan-China relationship is propelling China in taking a certain stand, is there something India could do with Pakistan? We have seen Prime Minister Modi for example, say that we want better relations with Pakistan. He has tried two or three times but somehow the car hasn’t moved forward. Is there something that we could do with Pakistan that could unlock this?

SS: I think that even though he may not have been successful, if you look at the record of not just Prime Minister Modi but previous prime ministers as well, all of them recognised that it is very important to try and improve India-Pakistan relations not to a level of bonhomie or friendship but at least to that more normal kind of a state-to-state relations. I think that is a realistic objective. And I think even if there are setbacks, even if there are issues, we need to be able to pursue that policy with respect to Pakistan. My own sense has been that it is perhaps far more realistic to gain by incremental steps with Pakistan, whether it is with respect to trade or people-to-people relationships or working on things which are of larger interest like ecology or climate change. These are ways in which you can expand the scope of our engagement, even while we are dealing with difficult issues. But it is when you have a high-profile kind of a thing like Lahore – there is inevitably a reaction from those who see any improvement in India-Pakistan relations as a great threat to themselves. Somehow or the other, we need to neutralise them and neutralisation can be done to my mind, given the record of what we were able to achieve in the 2004-2007 period – by really taking incremental steps. I think that is the way to go.

SV: We have covered a lot of ground in our conversation. Thank you.

SS: My pleasure.

SV: Well, it’s been a roller coaster ride from India in the last 11 years. 2005 is when India and the US issued the first joint statement envisaging the ending of nuclear sanctions on India. Three years later, India’s NSG waiver was agreed and now we have seen in 2016, the Indian effort to join the NSG, stumbling at the door because of opposition from China and a handful of other countries. We know that this issue will be raised again later this year. Be sure to tune in or check in with The Wire for our foreign policy coverage and our coverage of nuclear issues to learn what happens to the story. Certainly, we haven’t seen the last chapter being written on this yet.

You can see the first part of this interview here.