Seoul Searching on NSG: Move Aside US, China is the New Sheriff in Town

China successfully stared down the US in Seoul while trying to control the nuclear order – once an American playing field where Washington set the rules.

Credit: PTI/File Photo

Credit: PTI/File Photo

Washington: The events in Seoul are not just a setback for India because its high-octane bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) failed, but they are also a reality check for the US.

There is a new sheriff in town, swaggering and seizing new terrain.

China successfully stared down the US in Seoul, staking territory while trying to control the nuclear order. It used to be an American playing field where Washington set the rules, decided who was in and who was out.

China’s power play will reverberate across Asia, leaving behind tough questions about the emerging reality. It will impact calculations of countries as they assess the weather over South China Sea and the Pacific, and think about the American pivot. They might favour rebalancing themselves in a new way.

It must be sobering for US President Barack Obama to realise how far he has gone from his ‘rock star’ status in 2008, when the western world seemed in awe and leaders lined up to shake his hand to imbibe some of the magic. Today, his name invokes neither fear nor love as he prepares to end his tenure.

Obama couldn’t keep his promise to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the NSG, at least not this time around. It remains to be seen if an “extraordinary” NSG plenary is called before the year is out to make another push for India’s membership. In the meantime, India has hinted it may not ratify the Paris climate agreement, something that Obama and Europeans really want.

US and Indian officials say that Obama was personally engaged in the NSG diplomacy, that secretary of state John Kerry made calls, as did Tony Blinken, his deputy. Blinken was in daily contact with foreign secretary S. Jaishankar to plot strategy and exchange notes. The White House reportedly called the leaders of Austria, Ireland and New Zealand. A US official described it as a “very, very intense engagement”.

An Indian official corroborated the statement: “It was a 100% effort by the Americans. Without them, things wouldn’t have reached as far as they did. They put their reputation on line”.

Yet an impression lingers that Obama isn’t as invested or enthusiastic as George Bush about India and the whole nuclear issue. After all, just two months ago he equated India and Pakistan’s nuclear programmes at the Nuclear Security Summit and implied they were moving in the “wrong direction”. New Delhi found that offensive.

Obama’s White House has also flirted with the idea of giving Pakistan a nuclear deal, thanks to some officials who are said to be close to Pakistani generals and others who don’t like India enough. Senior officials in the Bush team had a clearer vision and plan for India’s inclusion in the global nuclear architecture. They stayed on message.

In Seoul, the Obama administration couldn’t prevail over or convince countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland and Austria to come fully on board to isolate China. The presence of these “conscientious” objectors – who admittedly don’t oppose India’s entry on principle but want some criteria in place – allowed China to play procedural games with aplomb. In turn, China was the wall they stood behind.

These countries raised “questions on process, not substance” about what criteria ought to be used to admit countries that haven’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This must have pleased China, “which created procedural blocks at every single turn, from the time the session opened to the last minute,” according to a US official. “The Chinese were extremely obstinate”.

But everyone knew China would be, because it had made its stand and intentions clear. It was Xi Jinping’s China. Yet, the India-US combined strategy was the same as in 2008 when Hu Jintao was in power. Essentially, it was to “winnow the field,” and isolate China as the lone man standing.

But Xi is the happiest lone man standing, unafraid to use his considerable elbows. Perhaps a very different line of attack and defence was required. It seems the White House left it to India to make “the final play” and reach some sort of understanding when Modi met Xi just before the Seoul plenary. The Americans didn’t really plan a countermove themselves.

Interestingly, America’s own band of NGO non-proliferation hardliners also played for the Chinese side, not the American. Some of them reportedly signed a letter sent to the NSG chair before the Seoul plenary, slamming India’s non-proliferation credentials in the worst way possible. The issues raised make India’s record seem almost as bad as that of Pakistan.

But then, non-pro hardliners have been targeting India for years. It is they who first came up with most of the ideas that China and Pakistan float as bare necessities of a new nuclear order. One of them wrote in favour of a “criteria-based process” that would “preserve Pakistan’s prospects for future admission” just before the plenary.

At the same time, he wondered if allowing India and Pakistan into the NSG was really worth the trouble because the “club” could get “ensnarled” in “animosity”. Trouble is western analysts can’t be bothered to differentiate between two very separate histories and trajectories. They resort to “pox-on-both-their-houses” as an easy way out.

As India deals with disappointment and the US with the new normal, what neither should do is give more reason to China to celebrate.