New Delhi: Exactly a month after the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers agreed to make their officials talk to each other on the issue of India’s application for membership iofn the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the top nuclear negotiators from both countries sat across the table, talked but failed to reach a meeting of minds.
On Aug 13, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj for the first time after China led a small group of countries in stalling India’s membership of the 65-nation nuclear commerce cartel. At that time, the two ministers decided to let their director generals of disarmament “meet soon” to continue the dialogue. In between, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian PM Narendra Modi met at Hangzhou for G20 summit for talks, where the NSG again featured as an agenda item.
In line with the ministerial understanding, the director general of the Chinese foreign ministry’s arms control department, Wang Qun, was hosted by the joint secretary for disarmament and international security in the external affairs ministry, Amandeep Singh Gill, for “consultations” on the NSG issue on Tuesday. At the end of the day, however, the two sides were no closer to reaching any understanding – at least going by their public statements – but agreed to another round of talks in China.
China has, of course, been rather vocal about discouraging India’s membership to NSG, which was in contrast to its silent approach of not making any public remarks the last time India’s case came before the group in 2008.
In Seoul, the bow-tie wearing Wang Qun broke with the usual reticence of Chinese diplomats and NSG member states by speaking to reporters on the record at Seoul about what had transpired in the plenary – that too even before the NSG plenary statement was issued. Later, India singled out China for scuttling New Delhi’s chances by raising “procedural hurdles”.
Just as in Seoul, the Chinese were quick to broadcast a relatively copious public explanation about their position on the NSG after their meeting in Delhi with Indian officials on Tuesday.
In contrast, the Indian side issued a very brief Indian press note.
Both sides had two common descriptors for the talks – “candid” and “pragmatic”.
The Indian statement said that the talks “covered issues of mutual interest in the area of disarmament and non proliferation”, but as agreed earlier, “the two sides focused in particular on an issue of priority for India – membership of the NSG”.
It concluded by saying that both had “agreed to meet for the next round on a mutually convenient date”.
The Chinese communique said that Beijing supported a “two-step approach” for a “non-discriminatory formula applicable to all non-NPT states” – the implication being that the group should not consider India’s application on its merits.
While the word was not explicitly included in the Chinese statement, the language indicated that Beijing has not moved away from its stand that that the NSG first work out the ‘criteria’ for membership that would be applicable to non-NPT states like India, Pakistan, Israel and even, presumably, North Korea.
The Chinese foreign ministry said that the first step would be “to explore and reach agreement on a non-discriminatory formula applicable to all the non-NPT states, and to proceed to take up country-specific membership issues at the second stage”.
China has been repeatedly stated that there should be a ‘criteria’ based approach to NSG, while India has talked of the more abstract term of ‘merit’. The former approach is the one favoured by Chinese ally, Pakistan, which has also applied for membership to the NSG, but has never gone through the 2008 waiver process and have therefore, not implemented steps as undertaken by India.
However, as usual, China asserted that it had “not yet taken a position on any country-specific membership in the category of the non-NPT states”.
The Chinese statement also ticked off other talking points, namely reasserting that the NPT is the “cornerstone” of the international nonproliferation regime.
“China pointed out that the issue of the non-NPT states’ participation in the NSG raises new questions for the group under the new circumstances, and the crux of the above question is how to address the gap between the existing policies and practices of the non-NPT states and the existing international non-proliferation rules and norms based on the NPT as the cornerstone,” it said.
India has of course always asserted that the NSG is a group of countries engaged in nuclear commerce, rather than a non-proliferation regime. So far, only Mexico has come out openly and stated that the NPT cannot be linked to NSG.
China was at pains to convey that the exchange of information had been a two-way process and that Chinese officials had their listening hat on during the meeting.
“China, for its part, shared with India the recent developments as it sees within the group in relation to the question. China also shared with India its principled positions and views on the above question. In the meantime, China listened to and had the inputs from India on this issue, and indicated that it will bring such views and inputs back to the group for its consideration. China hopes the above inputs will help facilitate the relevant discussions within the group,” he said.
The statement added that the “bilateral exchanges should serve to facilitate the relevant discussions within the group”, even as it asserted that a “multilateral issue” could only “be subject to multilateral solution by the group”.
The Chinese also added that the other topics on the table were cyber security and the work of the Conference on Disarmament.
The Indian foreign ministry has also been focused on taking forward the conversation on NSG with other countries, so that there is a momentum towards a special session to take up India’s case later this year. During the G20 summit, Modi talked about the NSG not only with China, but also with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.