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.