India's NSG bid runs into the Wall of China
India's membership of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has hit a massive roadblock with China stoutly opposing it. It has emphasised such a move will be against its national interests. The state-run Global Times went public last Tuesday that this country's bid for NSG membership for the first time will touch a ""raw nerve"" in Pakistan and lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. China's hardline approach is to send an unambiguous message to the United States and Prime Minister Narendra Modi that their lobbying for New Delhi being part of the NSG can come unstuck.
It is apparent that Beijing is working in tandem with its all weather friend Pakistan along with cautioning the lone super power that its gambit to contain Beijing's aggressive regional policy and expansionist designs is unlikely to work. The South China Sea has been a major irritant between the US and China with the former maintaining that international maritime conventions cannot be given a go by. Even as the three-nation naval exercise among India, US and Japan was being held close to the South China Sea, a Chinese spy ship kept a close watch on their manoeuverings. It is argued by Beijing that Islamabad is not willing to see an enlarging gap in nuclear power with India having the portends of a nuclear race breaking out between the two neighbours jeopardising regional security. ""India musn't let its nuclear ambitions blind itself,"" the article added.
On his part Modi has been actively lobbying for support in the wake of Beijing's outright refusal to consider New Delhi becoming a new addition to the 48-member NSG. This adds a new dimension to India's vigorous efforts with Modi visiting Switzerland and Mexico during his recent five-nation tour to seek their backing. After his return home following his third Summit with President Barrack Obama in Washington along with addressing a joint sitting of the Congress earlier this month, Modi wasted no time in telephoning Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. He is believed to have impressed on Putin to use his good offices with China so that any hurdles connected with India's membership of the NSG are overcome. The Kremlin issued a statement that the ""discussion focussed on practical issues of bilateral cooperation including top level contacts to be held shortly."" Moscow has consistently backed India's membership of the NSG.
At the India-US summit a fresh push was given to the strategic relationship crucial for the two sides to balance China's growth as a major power. What did not escape universal notice was the joint statement's studied silence on the controversial South China Sea (SCS). Modi's address to the Congress was applauded several times with US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal observing that a ""compelling vision was laid out by Modi before the joint session of the US Congress."" She described Modi's visit, his fourth to the US since he assumed office as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, as ""historic"" and said the Obama administration has christened his vision on Indo-US ties that has overcome the ""hesitations of history"" and working for the betterment of the global good as the ""Modi Doctrine"".
Be that as it may, fresh irritants in the India-China relations have come to the fore with Beijing determined to use its veto in stopping India's membership of the NSG despite this country's impeccable record in the nuclear sphere. Even as there can be no comparison between India and Pakistan, China said India's membership issue did not figure at the meeting of the NSG in Vienna last week. Beijing is now firm that there should be consensus on the matter amid opposition that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). New Delhi has refused to sign the NPT as it has found it to be highly discriminatory. As things stand at this juncture New Delhi's efforts to be part of the NSG may turn out to be an exercise in futility.
Modi will be travelling to the East later this month where he is expected to meet Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping among others at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Tashkent. The final decision is unlikely to be known till the NSG meeting in South Korea on June 23 and 24. Interestingly, the SCO is also going to discuss India as well as Pakistan's membership of the NSG thus adding a fresh dimension to the matter. The SCO is a grouping of half-a-dozen Central Asian countries and is viewed as a counter to NATO. Meanwhile, Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz claimed that Islamabad's credentials for the membership of the NSG is stronger than that of India if the member countries agree to adopt a uniform criteria for NPT states. He said Pakistan has diplomatically engaged numerous countries over a criteria-based approach for non-NPT countries. ""Our strategy is to apply after India did and we would have followed immediately. We have had our application in an advanced state of readiness for the past three months,"" Aziz told a Pakistani newspaper.
China has maintained that non-NPT signatories should not be admitted to the NSG on the grounds that it would undermine efforts to prevent proliferation. It is apparent that China and Pakistan are working overtime to block India's entry in this grouping or admit both in one stroke. The NSG, set up after India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, regulates the trade of nuclear technology. While India is not a member yet, the NSG had exempted this country from restrictions on civilian nuclear trade. This happened eight years back. With its veto power, China can derail Modi and India's invigorated campaign can come to nought.
For India the NSG membership conveys legitimacy as an advanced nuclear state and an ability to participate in international governance and decision making on nuclear matters. For China, having India on the NSG table, means its chief strategic rival would be on an equal footing in this club. Even more significantly if New Delhi secures NSG membership, Pakistan as China's ally would be shut out from the club entirely because India would reject Islamabad's application. Membership of the NSG may not bring that many advantages to this country but it could be helpful if India chooses to export more dual use or nuclear specific technology in the future. The question is can the Dragon be pacified to drop its objection to this country's NSG membership.
Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said at a conclave in Mumbai Monday last that Indian membership to the NSG will benefit not just New Delhi but the world's nuclear trade and security. He cited the potential for a dramatic increase in investments in India's nuclear sector -- both from domestic manufacturers and international partners like the US, France, Japan and South Korea. For now becoming a member of the NSG appears to be a losing battle for India as the overarching body takes decisions unanimously.
(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator. Views are personal.) "