Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 02, 2016
India, China and NSG: Partnership vs strategic autonomy

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay in the Indian Express on Thursday outlined a critique of India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group at its meeting last week in Seoul meeting. I was not surprised to find that I disagreed with almost every point he made there. Mehta’s is an important voice in the Indian public policy discourse on a variety of subjects, a Liberal, erudite, complex and moderate one. I find myself agreeing with almost all of his writings, save for that on Indian foreign policy and international politics, where his Liberal instincts and my Realist thinking part ways, as I have written on this blog before (here and here). But his is an important critique, not just from a policy perspective but also a theoretical perspective and so it is even more important to engage with it.

Before I get to my disagreements, a couple of points of agreement, even if they are relatively minor ones: I also thought the reference to climate change and Paris was unnecessary, and I agree with Mehta on the need to have the capacity to hurt the great powers if you want to take them on, a point also made by Praveen Swami. And now to the disagreements.

Mehta argues that there were three delusions in the discourse on India’s NSG membership bid. The first was about whether an NSG membership was really worth “the political capital invested in this venture”. He argues that the NSG waiver India got in 2008 takes care of most of our needs and any negative changes within NSG could have been prevented by having just one friend within the group (since the group works by consensus).

I had already dealt with the “political capital” argument in an earlier essay: the point is that India did not have a choice of making a pro forma application: it was either all or nothing. What Mehta is suggesting is that considering the cost, it was better not to have applied at all. This ignores the fact that the NSG is the essential rule-making body for the global nuclear order. We cannot stay out of it for long, not so much because it is a matter of prestige — the “high table” argument that is so tiresome — but because it makes real rules that have real impact. It was an NSG rule change in 1992, when they adopted what is called ‘full-scope safeguards’, that eliminated India’s options for nuclear commerce even with countries such as Russia that were willing to overlook India’s non-NPT status. More recently, the NSG made another change that restricts transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology. These rules cannot be overlooked because this is a cartel with teeth. Not being part of the NSG has had real costs to India; not joining could be equally expensive in the coming years.

Mehta’s suggestion that even one friend within the group can stop the NSG from framing rules unfavorable to India’s interests is problematic. I would have thought that the whole point of ‘strategic autonomy’ is that we do not have to depend on others. Moreover, there are only two countries in the NSG that are strong enough to potentially do our bidding: the US and Russia. Though everyone technically has a veto, expecting smaller countries in the NSG to risk standing against China for us is not very wise. And considering Russia’s increasing closeness to China, depending on Moscow to go against China to support India would also be risky. Russia is (still) a friend, but there is only so much you can ask of friends. This is one reason why India had to get the US to manage the NSG waiver in 2008. It was not that Russia (or France, for that matter) did not want to change the rules for India (especially since they were keen to sell India nuclear power plants) but they simply did not have the capacity to do it.

It may be possible to convince the US to stand by India again in the future to prevent such rules from being adopted but this would get more difficult with time unless we are willing to enter into a closer strategic relationship with the US, something that Mehta clearly opposes. Moreover, though our interests are currently aligned with that of the US, they may not always be. It was better to have made the effort now than wait and lose the opportunity. We have wasted several years already.

The second delusion, Mehta argues, is about the international order and thinking that China opposed India because it was India. Mehta argues China is not really concerned about India: we are “incidental”. China is more aggressive today and will not let the US write rules for its ally that excludes China’s ally, Pakistan. We are unnecessarily making this about us because of our “sheer narcissism”.

I do not doubt that China has become more aggressive but to suggest that India is incidental to China’s concern or that it opposes India only because the US is championing India’s case is completely mistaken. It exhibits a willingness to overlook the long history of China’s efforts to balance and contain India. China’s alliance with Pakistan has no basis other than the containment of India. The lengths to which China has gone in this pursuit is unparalleled, especially its willingness to supply nuclear and missile technology to Islamabad, something that no other nuclear weapon state has done. This has been a consistent pattern, with little correlation to the state of US-India relationship. This is not narcissism but the recognition of a mountainous reality that I find incredible Mehta cannot see. India can ignore this reality only at its peril.

The third delusion that Mehta outlines is that the one I find most difficult to understand: that the “American security lobby” is using the episode to demonstrate that the US is a friend and China will block our rise. In other words, the problem is not with China opposing and balancing India but with those who point this out.  Mehta seems to be suggesting that if we only ignore the facts of China’s behavior, it will somehow not be so.  Call me crazy but I am not convinced that burying our heads in the sand is a workable strategic solution.

The second part of this delusion, Mehta says, is that the NSG membership episode is being used to discredit the proponents of ‘strategic autonomy’.  It is not an equidistance argument, Mehta insists, but a plea to not see issues as framed by the great powers, see each issue on its merits, to think hard about our interests. The US alone cannot get us everything, which is why we should be an “arena of great power agreement”. If we are that, presumably, we can get some things from the US but others from China. This is an important argument — and a deeply flawed one.

The idea that we can be an arena of great power agreement is completely unrealistic. We cannot simply declare ourselves as such and expect others will agree to leave us alone. China seeks to balance us because we are a strong military power, even if not as strong as China, and they will not stop balancing India simply because New Delhi declares itself neutral between the US and China. As I argued above, China has balanced us consistently and this will only get even more vigorous as India gets stronger, irrespective of the state of our ties with the US. All such an unrealistic pursuit of becoming an ‘arena of great power agreement’ will do is weaken India by isolating us from strong friends whose strength can aid us, even if not on every issue.

The idea that we can make a la carte choices on strategic issues is equally difficult to understand. Issues are linked, even if they are not zero-sum. Siding with the US and opposing China on some issues and vice versa makes no sense because no one will buy our claim that we are only looking at issues “on its merits”. This is not a recipe for strategic autonomy but for strategic loneliness. If we follow this prescription, we are basically on our own and we cannot expect any one to help us on anything at any time.

This is the biggest problem with the proponents of the strategic autonomy argument: they fail to recognise that while partnerships come with some constraints, under many circumstances they are also a deliverance.  Alliances are not forced upon weaker states by the great powers: weaker states join alliances because it provides them security and so some freedom to maneuver. This is why Pakistan sought out China; this why China aligned with the US against the Soviet Union. This is also why India needs a closer strategic partnership with the US. In short, alliances are sometimes needed for strategic autonomy because weakness is a bigger strategic constraint.

The author is Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Rajesh Rajagopalan

Rajesh Rajagopalan

Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. His publications include three books: Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts ...

Read More +