Originally Published 2016-06-27 09:20:04 Published on Jun 27, 2016
At the Seoul NSG plenary, China behaved not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer

What happened at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) plenary in Seoul? Much misinformation (even disinformation) is floating around New Delhi and for three reasons. First, the issues are complex and require context, which many may not have. Second, the political opposition to BJP is understandably using the occasion to target the Narendra Modi government and making partial assessments. Third, the Chinese propaganda mechanism has turned much more sophisticated in an intelligent and selective briefing of Indian media. This presents a challenge for India, but that is getting ahead of the story.

The thread begins in 2008, with India winning the waiver from the NSG to undertake nuclear commerce despite being a nuclear power outside the ambit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The next logical step was for India to apply for membership to four high-tech export-control regimes: the NSG, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement (conventional arms, dual-use tech) and the Australia Group (chemical-biological weapons).

Of these the NSG was a priority. The Group works on consensus. It had given India a waiver in 2008 but could in theory revoke the waiver or change its terms. If India was in the Group it could veto any change that would harm India, Teflon-coat the 2008 waiver and additionally contribute to the global nuclear regime. In 2010, President Barack Obama visited and promised support for Indian entry to the NSG and the other treaties.

Astonishingly, the UPA government did not apply. It made a noise, but nothing more. Its nuclear liability law, which had problems that were eventually sorted out by the Modi government in 2015, may have deterred it. The liability law had made the 2008 waiver infructuous and nuclear commerce with India near impossible.

India applied to the MTCR in 2015. After a setback it got in, on the second attempt, in 2016. In May 2016, it applied for NSG membership for the first time. By June most of the countries (about 40 of 48) were willing to take it in straightaway, no questions asked. This was a significant diplomatic achievement over two months.

Why did India apply now? A sympathetic American president is ending his term. His successor may be preoccupied at the time of the next NSG plenary in 2017. In 2018, India will be in election mode and the Modi government may have less leverage. As such, it was 2016 — or it was a kick down the road.

In Seoul the NSG delegates met on June 23. China insisted India’s application would not be discussed. Late in the day it agreed to the application being included in the agenda on the condition that no decision on the application would be taken in the 2016 NSG plenary. At this stage, the Indian delegation in Seoul knew immediate success was not possible. Barring a miracle that got the Chinese to change their minds, India would have to come away from Seoul with an “application filed”, not an “application approved”.

From then on, all discussion in Seoul was theoretical. Every country knew a decision on India was not happening this time. As the conversation continued, the Group broke into four:

  • China opposed India full stop. It said India could join only if it signed the NPT,
  • About 40 countries said admit India at once,
  • Brazil, Mexico and Switzerland wanted two parallel announcements: India’s entry and a criteria for membership, which would mirror India’s nuclear record. It was understood no other country at present met those possible criteria, and
  • New Zealand and Ireland wanted the criteria for membership to come first and then an announcement that India was meeting those criteria. They too understood no other country at present met those possible criteria.

South Africa oscillated between positions three and four. Turkey remained neutral. Nobody other than China said it didn’t want India or opposed India. Nobody, not even China, brought up Pakistan. It was recognised that since China had vetoed a decision on the Indian application this had become a normal diplomatic confab, not a decisive discussion.

The word “criteria” has been used more than once. What was the nub of “criteria”? It was not that an applicant should necessarily be a signatory to the NPT. It was that an applicant must adhere and commit to the spirit of the NPT. The 2008 NSG waiver explicitly stated India was part of the “widest possible implementation of the provisions and objectives” of the NPT. As such, 47 of 48 countries were fine with India not signing the NPT and validated India, with its impeccable non-proliferation history, as being NPT compatible.

What next? The application is before the NSG. There is a renewed effort to have a special plenary decide on it in 2016 itself. That may or may not happen, but the NSG cannot defer the decision indefinitely. More critically, China has shown its hand. Unlike 2008 much of the diplomatic legwork was done by India, and not the US. In any case the US has less influence on China than it did eight years ago.

It’s down to a shootout between New Delhi and Beijing. China is behaving not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer, with the petty, perfidious and short-termist mindset of a Pyongyang dictator or a Rawalpindi general. India is honour-bound to send it a tough message. There is no option.

< style="font-size: large;">This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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