India is understandably disappointed that the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting at Seoul concluded without granting it admission. But then it was unrealistic in the first place to expect that a group whose raison d’etre has been to deny India nuclear technology could welcome the country so soon after it applied for membership. Yes, India had been preparing the ground for this since its exceptionalisation in 2008. But, it was expected that the formal application would run into ‘formal’ objections. A lot of commentary has since emerged in the national media to either lambast or laud the Indian government for its efforts. Well, the government did what it had to do. Not all efforts of this nature, where the decision is dependent on a consensus amongst fiercely independent sovereign nations, can guarantee success. Efforts, nevertheless, have to continue as long as India believes that the NSG membership is in its interest.
Two basic understandings discerned from the recent developments on why China behaved the way it did must direct future efforts.
First, the NSG meeting turned out to be China’s coming out party. This is a new China that the world is witnessing and Premier Xi Jinping believes that the time to come out into the open to stand up for his country’s interests is here. Gone is the China of the past that stayed in the background letting, even abetting, others do what it secretly desired. Rarely in the past has China opted to be singled out as an obstructionist to a decision that the majority seemed to favour. But this time China decided to play its own cards. It refused to submit to American pressure, which is both a sign of its own rise as well as the relative fall of the ability of the US to wield influence. China’s stand was as much targeted at India as it was at sending a message to the US. This new China will have to be handled with an appropriately calibrated strategy crafted across a range of actions. While many analysts have already advocated sending a ‘tough message’, it would be prudent to find pressure points that are subtle yet significant. Blatant machismo could backfire.
The second reason behind China’s stance comprises of purely commercial and strategic interests. In recent years, China has emerged as the poster boy of the nuclear industry. It is simultaneously building the maximum number of reactors that the world has ever seen being built across the world, let alone in a single country! It has entered into nuclear cooperation agreements with Argentina, Romania and the UK, and is desirous of fast emerging as a nuclear supplier. Why then would it want to grant a seat to another potential nuclear supplier that could eat into its own market and space? After all, India’s 220 MW pressurised heavy-water reactor, which has been its own workhorse for many decades, could be an attractive reactor for many smaller first time nuclear nations. At the more strategic level, India as an NSG member, assumes the same nuclear status that China has and this is certainly not palatable to a China that refuses to acknowledge India as a nuclear armed nation.
In order to address China’s negativity towards a nuclear New Delhi, India could first begin by engaging with it in the peaceful nuclear energy sector. It may be recalled that China did express an interest in India’s commercial nuclear power sector in 2014. Many analysts, at the time, turned up their nose and cited security reasons to turn down the offer. While there is no doubt that India has security concerns related to China, ways of cooperation in the civilian nuclear area can be found. The Indian nuclear market appeals to a mercantilist China and it has certainly progressed in developing an indigenous nuclear reactor. It would do India no harm to allow China to participate along with others for commercial power reactors as long as market forces find them viable and Indian regulatory processes endorse their technical worth. Also, industries on both sides could collaborate for manufacture of nuclear equipment. Joint research and development in common areas of interest, as well as cooperation between the centres of excellence could be ideas to start with.
On the strategic front, India’s growing nuclear capability – soon to be operational Agni V and INS Arihant, testing of Brahmos with the Su-30 – do matter to China. India must drum up the need for the two to engage in talks on strategic stability if a tricky situation is to be prevented from ballooning into a crisis. Holding such talks would change China’s mindset on India’s nuclear status.
Lastly, India must refuse to carry the albatross of Pakistan around its neck. Amongst the many objections that China has raised to obfuscate issues related to India’s entry into the NSG, the most lethal attempt is to link it with that of Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s entry into the NSG is unacceptable to most members, hyphenating India with Pakistan amounts to killing the move. But, the cases of the two countries are completely different in proliferation history and behaviour, nuclear doctrine and strategy, and even in the desire for strategic stability, given that Pakistan thrives on nuclear brinkmanship. India should refuse to accept any equality that is sought to be granted to Pakistan. In fact, it must decline the NSG membership if it comes with the rider that Pakistan will also be admitted at the same time.
Dr Manpreet Sethi is senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, where she heads the project on nuclear security.