Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay in the Indian Express yesterday 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. [This essay was slightly edited on July 1, 2016, to modify a couple of harsh characterizations, which, on reflection, I felt were unhelpful to carrying forward a debate]
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.
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 thee 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
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
This is the biggest problem with the proponents of the strategic
autonomy argument: they fail to recognize 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 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.