This was published by Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, on June 24, 2016.
India’s NSG membership and China’s containment strategy
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Seoul on Thursday (June 23) ended without any decision on India’s application for membership as a consequence of China’s refusal to accept India into the group. India’s chance of being admitted into the NSG were always slim because of China’s opposition. But that was not a reason for not trying. There were excellent reasons for making a high-profile push for NSG membership. Most of the criticisms about both the usefulness of NSG membership itself and about the need for such a high-stakes effort are misplaced. Though India did not get the membership, this will be policy failure only if India fails to respond to what is clearly yet another indicator of China’s determined effort at containment of India.
India does not need NSG membership in order to engage in nuclear commerce, of course. But the NSG makes the rules for such commerce and it is always possible that they can frame rules in future that will hurt India’s interests. There are already questions about some of the rule changes that NSG introduced in 2011 with regard to enrichment and reprocessing technologies, after India got a special waiver from NSG. India can protect itself best only if it is inside the tent. Additionally, India’s road to a partnership in global governance is ill-served if there are governance groups that explicitly leave India out.
Those arguing that India should not have engaged in such a high profile push are also mistaken. India’s choice was to either not apply at all or to make a determined push for membership. There was no middle path here. For at least three reasons, it was impossible for India to simply file an application and not make a serious effort to get in. First, the Indian application required convincing many friendly states who had legitimate concerns about NPT and the nonproliferation regime, concerns that were not motivated by any balance of power considerations (unlike China’s opposition). These countries are wrong to equate support for nonproliferation with just signature on a treaty rather support for the principles of nonproliferation as demonstrated in actual behaviour. But this still required an argument to be made and making this argument to a number of international partners meant that this could no longer be a low-profile effort.
The second reason is even more important. India depended on the US as well as, apparently, a number of other well-wishers to press India’s case with other NSG members and smoothen the way for the application. New Delhi could not very well have asked its friends to press India’s case even as it stood back from the fray. They needed to know that India was doing its bit, even if they had to do much more simply because of their status as members. Moreover, it would have made the task of these well-wishers much more difficult if India itself appeared unmotivated.
The third reason is probably the most important: strategy. Raising the stakes was necessary to concentrate the minds of all the members. Raising the stakes demonstrated to those still uncertain that India was serious about the application and that opposition might come with costs to the broader relationships. Simply put, raising the stakes reduced the opposition.
A policy post-mortem is of course necessary, but we should beware of false tracks that divert such analysis. For example, it would be a mistake to see India’s application as being the victim of a US-China power struggle. The US was involved, undoubtedly, in promoting the Indian case for membership. But the fact that Prime Minister Modi directly raised the issue with President Xi should have made clear to Beijing that it was directly about India and that India would not take its opposition lightly.
A related argument is that China opposition was a response to India’s increasing closeness to US. This is simply wrong. China’s strategy has been consistent since the 1960s and its sole objective was the containment of India. China containment strategy shows little correlation with the state of US-India relations. China transferred nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan in the 1980s, not exactly a period of close US-India ties. It transferred missiles to Pakistan in the 1990s at a time when India had lost its Soviet ally and its relations with the US were still tense. India’s increasing closeness to the US is the result of New Delhi’s reluctant recognition of China’s containment strategy against India, not its cause.
India’s policy will be a failure, however, if New Delhi fails to respond to what is yet another blatant example of China’s containment strategy. India can respond in a number of ways. Because this was primarily a balance of power move, India’s response should also be on that particular chessboard. India can imitate what China is doing with Pakistan: build up the military capabilities of others on China’s periphery who share India’s worry about China. They may be too weak to match China, but enhancing their capabilities is one way of forcing China to divert its energies and make it understand the costs of strategic blowback. This can take the form of military assistance as well as training and other forms of cooperation. India should also ask its existing partners to expand the Malabar naval exercise to include all other countries in the Asia-Pacific that are worried about China. Finally, India should restart the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue that was suspended because of China’s objections (and Australian reticence) but seek, once again, to include others such as Vietnam, Philippines and even Indonesia. There are other, more immediate ways of showing displeasure too, such as curtailing levels of engagement with China, or suspending its own strategic dialogue with Beijing.
China had a choice. It should have been an easy one because India’s entry into NSG did not hurt Beijing in any way and opposition threatened to do fairly serious damage to its ties with India. China did not even blink — now, neither should India