Diplomatic fiasco

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. President Barack Obama before their meeting in the White House on June 7. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Though India is trying to blame China for the failure of its bid to join the NSG, it is clear that the United States had led the Indian government up the garden path.

IT is now evident that the Indian government was led up the garden path on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership issue. The Indian diplomatic corps and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expended much time and energy in staking a claim for NSG membership. Modi made NSG membership look like India’s foremost foreign policy priority. Before the NSG plenary in Seoul on June 23-24, he hurriedly scheduled visits to Mexico, Switzerland and Uzbekistan to solicit support for India’s NSG bid. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar made an unscheduled visit to Beijing in late June to speak to senior Chinese officials. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, apparently in a last-ditch effort to persuade Beijing, said that New Delhi was not opposed to the inclusion of Pakistan in the elite grouping.

Pakistan put in a bid to join the NSG in May. It has been arguing that its exclusion from the NSG is discriminatory and will lead to a nuclear arms race in the Indian subcontinent. However, its eleventh-hour bid was seen mainly as an attempt to stymie India’s chances. Modi, during his visit to Tashkent for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conference, requested Chinese President Xi Jinping to put aside his country’s objections to India’s entry in the NSG and sought a “fair and objective assessment”.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had obviously miscalculated, thinking that it could ride piggyback on U.S. support to gain entry into the NSG. Since 2010, the Obama administration has been supporting India’s NSG bid. China objected at the outset on the grounds that the nuclear club was open only to signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China was also unhappy with the special “country specific” waiver India was given by the NSG in 2008, but it went along with the consensus. The NSG is a 48-nation club formed in 1974, following India’s first nuclear test. That test initially rattled the international community. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” showed that a nuclear bomb could be made by using nuclear materials transferred from third countries for peaceful purposes. The NSG was set up with the goal of limiting nuclear arms proliferation. Its main job is the protection of sensitive materials that can foster nuclear weapons development. Guidelines to the NSG, published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1978, were meant to ensure that the nuclear trade for peaceful purposes did not pave the way for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Membership to the elite club is conditional on adherence to the NPT; admission is also on the basis of consensus among member states.

Apart from China, nine other member states, including Brazil and Turkey, objected to India’s entry. Ireland and New Zealand were of the view that the criteria regarding the admission of non-NPT states should be discussed before the question of India’s membership was addressed. Among the states that opposed India’s entry were a few which had earlier pledged support to India’s bid. There was criticism that India had not fulfilled the commitments it made when it got the 2008 waiver. It had not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or separated its military and civilian reactors.

Pakistan claims that India runs the largest unsafeguarded nuclear programme with a fissile production capacity 7.7 times greater than its own. However, according to reports based on studies by U.S. think tanks, Pakistan has accumulated more nuclear weapons. According to one report, Pakistan is currently producing 20 nuclear warheads a year compared with India’s five.

Pakistan has been demanding that its case for admission into the NSG should be “fairly and simultaneously” considered along with that of India at least for the sake of “strategic stability” in the region. Some U.S. lawmakers have been critical about India’s NSG bid. An editorial in The New York Times said that India “has not accepted legally binding commitments to pursue disarmament negotiations, halt the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons and not test nuclear weapons”.

Admission to the NSG would have helped India expand its nuclear power generation and also enter the export market in the coming years. The 2008 NSG waiver does provide India the potential to engage in civilian nuclear trade with other countries. India has already signed agreements with many countries, including the U.S., France, Russia, Kazakhstan and Australia. Many Indian commentators are wondering why the NDA government had to stake its prestige for a seat on the high table when it already had many of the privileges enjoyed by NSG member states. As an NSG member state, India would of course have been a party to the decision-making process and would eventually have the ability to sell nuclear equipment. Inclusion in the NSG will give India access to advanced nuclear technology.

M.R. Srinivasan, former Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, is among those who have been critical of the government’s handling of the issue. He said that the government’s move was “unnecessary and ill-advised”, stressing that the 2008 waiver allowed India to have nuclear commerce with advanced countries. Yashwant Sinha, who was External Affairs Minister in the previous NDA government, said that India showed “too much keenness and desperation” to secure NSG membership. He was of the opinion that India “stands to lose, not gain” by becoming a member. The Left and the Congress have also been scathing in their criticism.

The china angle

The Indian government is trying to blame China for its latest diplomatic fiasco. Before the NSG meeting in Seoul in late June, the Chinese Foreign Office spokesperson stated that the inclusion of non-NPT signatories was not on the agenda and added that opinion within the NSG was divided on the question of admitting non-NPT signatories. China also views the U.S.’ support for India’s NSG bid as part of its strategy to enhance India’s “nuclear deterrence capability” against China.

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Modi has given India’s foreign policy an even more pro-Western tilt. On foreign tours, Modi has talked of China’s expansionist policies. On the South China Sea issue, he has opted to take a position against China. After the Prime Minister’s latest visit to Washington in June, a joint statement was issued outlining plans to further expand U.S.-India military cooperation across the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions.

In recent months, India seems to have gone overboard in its attempts to irk China. The issuance of visas to Uighur dissidents who are on Interpol’s wanted list, the announcement that Brahmos missiles were being offered to Vietnam and other regional adversaries of China in the Asia Pacific region, and joint naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan in areas near South China Sea are some illustrations. The Indian government, according to many observers, has been taken for a ride on the NSG issue by the U.S. For the record, the Obama administration is still insisting that India could enter the NSG by the end of the year, but as the events of this year’s plenary revealed, there are a few more hurdles to be negotiated before India becomes an NSG member.

But the disappointment at Seoul has been compensated for to an extent by India’s entry into the 34-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The U.S., once again, has been India’s main backer. Italy had stalled India’s entry into the MTCR owing to the diplomatic stalemate over the two Italian Navy marines. Now with both of them back home, Italy withdrew its objections. The MTCR, too, operated on the basis of consensus. Entry into the MTCR will allow India to market its short-range missiles in the international market and to acquire high-end missile technology. India, as is well known by now, is keen to market its Brahmos missiles, which it jointly produces with Russia.

The Brahmos’ range officially is below 300 km. MTCR rules prohibit export of missiles beyond that range. MTCR membership, officials hope, will persuade the U.S. to offer its surveillance drones such as the Predator Drones for sale to India. China is not an MTCR member. Its request for membership was rejected in 2004 on the grounds that it was helping North Korea’s missile programme.

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