It Is Time for India to Stop Blaming China for Blocking Its NSG Bid

Resentment against China has continued for far too long and gone too far. By focusing on just one issue in its ties with China, India risks having the world perceive its interests as monochromatic and emotional rather than based on realism and strategic foresight.

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

Even as India’s application to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is due to be reconsidered at a consultative meeting in Vienna later this month, questions over China’s response still remain unanswered.

According to the external affairs ministry, India’s argument for pursuing NSG membership is that being a member “would place our existing cooperation on a predictable basis and facilitate the enhanced investments, industrial tie-ups and technology access required to accelerate augmentation of nuclear power capacity in India”.

Additionally, public opinion seems to have settled on one aspect of India’s application – that China is the only country that stands between India and its aspirations. It is almost as if New Delhi has resigned itself to failure. After all, what realist would believe that Beijing would shoot itself in the foot by not only acknowledging India’s global role as a responsible nuclear power but also letting down its own ally, Pakistan, by accepting India’s application to the NSG? And so, it appears that New Delhi’s one goal is ensuring that India is perceived as standing up to China – and bad-mouthing Beijing seems to be a big part of this strategy.

Clearly, it is a bit disingenuous of the Indian government and many analysts to blame China alone for opposing India’s entry. Earlier this year, in the run-up to the NSG’s annual plenary meeting in Seoul, minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh addressed parliament regarding India’s efforts to join the NSG and appeared to have chosen his words carefully. Talking about international support for India, he used such expressions as “[a]n overwhelming number”, “[t]he broad sentiment within the NSG” and “a very large measure“. Notably, Singh did not say, “all minus one”. There is no doubt that China was not on board with India’s membership, but there are also other countries that are not fully convinced. Thus, Singh’s statement offered a wider picture of India’s diplomatic efforts to push its application forward – the Indian government’s efforts were clearly not concentrated to China but spread out amongst all NSG members, including New Zealand, whose prime minister recently visited India but notably did not express unequivocal support for India’s application.

It is unclear who the Indian government is trying to please by painting China in a bad light and as the only obstacle to India’s NSG membership.

If the intended audience is domestic then surely there is no need to exert such effort to generate prejudice against China, given that it already exists.

When it comes to popular rhetoric, critiquing China for tutoring and subsidising Pakistan in the ways of the atom is understandable. Especially in the wake of the Uri attacks and India’s limited options for retaliating against Pakistan, given that both countries are nuclear powers. However, Indian analysts and government officials – all realists, one presumes – know full well that the NSG is the stuff of international politics.

So how does this domestic grandstanding help India’s quest for NSG membership? It doesn’t.

Alternatively, if the intended audience is international, including the Chinese, then India must reconsider its approach.

How China games international law

Unlike 2008, when India won its NSG waiver and China tried to ensure that it was not perceived as the final obstacle in India’s way, today Beijing has no such qualms about international perception. To begin with, US-China relations are currently going through a particularly bad phase and for a number of reasons, including focusing on other regions, this time around Washington is unwilling to work on the issue with Beijing like it did the first time round in Vienna.

What’s more, Beijing’s current leadership may decide to block India’s NSG bid for an even longer amount of time if it believes that New Delhi is obviously targeting China or playing the American card.

China may block India’s bid by using what critics might call the ‘fig leaf’ of international law – that India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yes, China has ignored international law in the South China Sea and yes, it is being hypocritical when it demands India sign the NPT as a condition for entry to the NSG, but India would do well to understand how the Chinese leadership understands and uses international law.

Clearly, there is the Athenian ‘the-strong-do-what-they-can’ approach when it comes to international law, but there is also a savvier, backroom approach that can be employed. Case in point – in October, China persuaded the Philippines into temporarily setting aside the July ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea even though it was in its own favour. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China saw him meet four members of China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – unusual for any visiting foreign dignitary – and sign several billion dollars worth of trade deals and additional talk of undertaking a joint exploration for gas and oil in the South China Sea. In other words, the Athenians got the Melians to submit and pay tribute despite justice being on the latter’s side.

India’s options

India must learn from the Sino-Filipino case. One, India cannot expect its ‘morally just’ position to win just because it is so. It will need to work hard on the other NSG members to convince them to not just support India but also stand up to Chinese opposition.

Two, the US needs to be persuaded to put more skin in the game. In the case of the dispute with the Philippines, China’s confidence came from its assessment like that of the Athenians in Thucydides’ tale, that Melos’ ally was not inclined to risk blood and treasure for the latter’s cause.

Three, India must seek to persuade China that it is advantageous to back India. The continuing hostility between the two countries and the slow pace of movement that Chinese investors sense in India need to be addressed. Without some visible progress that Chinese state-owned enterprises, including provincial government investors, can highlight in India, the central government in Beijing will find little incentive to consider letting go of its opposition to India’s NSG application as well as other issues.

Following the PCA’s South China Sea ruling, China has demonstrated that the way to bounce back from a diplomatic loss is employing more diplomacy – political, economic and military.

The current attitude of surliness and resentment against China, exhibited by Indian civilians as well as government officials, has now continued for far too long and has gone too far. Case in point being the absurd call to boycott Chinese goods.

Aspiring great powers learn to live and deal with other great powers. They learn the importance of keeping multiple lines of engagement open. By focusing on just one issue in its relations with China, India risks having the world perceive its interests as monochromatic and emotional rather than based on realism and strategic foresight.

Jabin T. Jacob, Ph.D is Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. @jabinjacobt, [email protected]