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Why India's NSG Bid Was A Diplomatic Eye-Opener

26/07/2016 1:20 PM IST | Updated 28/07/2016 8:47 AM IST
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India's pursuit of membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has at times been arrogantly referred to as diplomatic hubris. This analysis, I think, is incorrect. India's bid at the NSG plenary was not an example of misdirected diplomacy but a sincere effort to ask for its due by a nuclear-disciplined nation, which has for years been aligning itself with the norms of global nuclear export control regimes. In accordance with this, some of the benefits of the nation's strategic sincerity were accrued with India gaining access to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) earlier last month. If India had indeed been out of sync with the global movement and control of nuclear materials, even gaining MTCR membership would have been a distant dream. The fact that India is expecting the fructification of its NSG bid by the end of this year again, further points towards the fact that such claims do not ring hollow.

India's NSG bid has had the interesting side effect of making China's position clearer than ever.

Then there's the criticism that the Prime Minister went overboard with his expectations vis-à-vis China's support for India's membership to the 48 nation group. Now, he is a seasoned statesman and was probably always fully aware that he would not be handed over Chinese acquiescence on a platter. It was in the pursuit of the requisite tough diplomacy that Modi's outreach to Xi Jinping was preceded by the Foreign Secretary's hush-hush visit. However, in the end Prime Minister Modi took his chances with the personal outreach that has so far paid him dividends.

What was not given enough attention was the behind-the-scenes anti-diplomacy against India's NSG membership: several (at least 17) letters written by Pakistan to several nations asking to block India's entry into the NSG, and a possible arm twisting by the Chinese to several nations that saw their last-minute switch against India's bid, after having affirmed India of their support when Prime Minister Modi visited these countries (Switzerland, Mexico and Belgium being a few of those countries).

Clearer Asian Fault Lines

India's NSG bid has had the interesting side effect of making China's position clearer than ever. China's "Taller than mountains...sweeter than honey" relationship with Pakistan is here to stay. In addition, China is ready to put its relations with India on the line, if it means supporting Pakistan's cause. China's position on Pakistan's nuclear issues, including its rather farcical application for seeking an entry into the NSG, is understandable. In addition to the fact that China has been in the know of the notorious A. Q. Khan proliferation network which benefited Iran, Libya and North Korea, there are clear reports pointing towards China's deliberate overlooking of Pakistan's effort to sell nuclear materials to N Korea.

The NSG bid has raised the possibility of at least two divided Asian blocs... China and Pakistan on one side and India and the US on the other.

China's support to Pakistan, along with its opposition to India's bid on the one side, and the US's unwavering support for India together with the White House's formal plea to NSG members to support India on the other, have brought the Asian fault lines to the fore in an unprecedented manner. The NSG bid has raised the possibility of at least two divided Asian blocs in the future, with China and Pakistan on one side and India and the US on the other. Even though the subcontinent cannot risk a more polarized bilateral relationship between its two non-NPT signatory nuclear powers, the choice ahead for India is between seeking its interests and facing China's fast developing Asian hegemony. For India, it would be a realist's position to partner with the US to realize its regional interests, while still deterring Chinese hegemony in Asia. India can easily afford to ignore China's criticism that it is a "smug golden boy" of the West as India's relations with the US is fast attaining bilateral great power relations status, with increasing convergences in the maritime domain, security and freedom of navigation at sea and, above all, in defence cooperation. Moreover, in international relations "there are no friends, there are only interests."

There is a lot to learn from the entire episode for India's future diplomacy. China was confident of opposing India's NSG bid without jeopardising its bilateral relations with the country. The touch of realism in China's approach has a lot to offer to India's diplomacy, which often gets tangled in the "cultural and civilizational" strand of thought. India should seek a renewed approach towards restructuring its relations with China, where its apprehensiveness regarding the latter should be replaced by a firmer stand, together with its traditional strategic autonomy in decision making. For instance, India should see its recent entry in the MTCR not only as an opportunity to seek independent decisions -- such as buying predator drones from the US rapidly and to supply Brahmos missiles to Vietnam -- but as a hedge against China's membership in the MTCR which it has been seeking for more than a decade.

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