India’s NSG bid: Where New Delhi’s approach fell short

  • Sushil Aaron
  • Updated: Jun 30, 2016 23:15 IST
Activists from the Hindu Sena organisations shout anti-China slogans in New Delhi on June 25. India has blamed regional rival China for blocking its entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. (AFP)

India’s attempt to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) through frenetic lobbying over the last two months has not ended well. New Delhi can take comfort from the fact that the group may consider the issue of new members later in the year but some of its assumptions during the lobbying process did not pan out.

Judging from the coverage of the Indian media, which often takes its cue from official anticipation, India’s accession to the group was to coincide seamlessly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s travel calendar. First he would persuade the Swiss and the Mexicans to back India and then get the firm public backing of President Barack Obama in Washington to convey to Beijing that it was getting isolated on the issue. Any persuading left to be done would be handled by the PM in Tashkent when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It did not work out that way. The US endorsed India’s case but Obama did not lobby the Chinese and the others as actively as his predecessor George W Bush did in 2008 to secure the India-specific waiver. The Swiss changed their minds and other nations objected to India’s membership as well. China’s opposition to India and its implicit backing of Pakistan’s entry into the group focused minds on the implications for the NPT as a whole, undermining the consensus in the group that India was trying to build in its favour .

Read | India’s NSG attempt was well worth the risk

As analysts are now recognising, India seems to have either miscalculated the extent of American influence or its willingness to act on India’s behalf while Obama’s presidency was winding down. New Delhi was rushing the NSG to decide on India’s membership because it was conscious that if it did not happen during Obama’s time then the process would indefinitely get kicked down the road. But it unfortunately chose to do so when American executive intent and capacity itself were in doubt.

Second, India perhaps failed to fully appreciate how China’s increased assertiveness on the world stage would manifest itself in this issue. Many now profess to be not surprised by Beijing’s hardline approach; China cannot after all give India a free pass to the nuclear high table especially when New Delhi is openly banding with Washington against it. If policymakers were alert to this all along then what was the reason for the rush, especially when it involved changing the structure of a sensitive nuclear group? It is quite striking that a strong government that is unable to overcome the resistance of its own bureaucracy – to dramatically increase the number of Indian diplomats that it sorely needs — should be able to expect quick changes to a multilateral forum through merely a high-powered lobbying blitz.

If the ministry of external affairs (MEA) objects to this representation and reckons that there was a lot of preparation prior to recent lobbying then it must have a different approach to its public messaging when things are not going as planned. Anti-China rhetoric in the Indian media inspired by narrative nudges progressively worsened in recent weeks. Sure, Beijing brought on a measure of it on itself by declaring its opposition to India but there were ways to handle it than feed the media’s appetite. The MEA particularly erred in singling out China for criticism when it pointed to the “procedural hurdles persistently raised by one country”. Obliquely pointing to Beijing, while obscuring the fact that at least seven other countries (nine, according to China’s Global Times) blocked consensus, is to make it more difficult for bureaucrats to make amends with Beijing.

Read | America is committed to India’s NSG entry, says top US official

Some analysts argue that standing up to China is indeed a good thing; they say India needs to send a tough message that it can stand up for its rights in the international system. They might consider the implications of a confrontational approach. Former foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has gently warned that a criteria-based discussion at the NSG that would be applicable to all non-NPT applicants could entail revisiting the terms and conditions of the 2008 India-specific waiver. He has advised that “In case such a threat is perceived, it is better to preserve the substantive gains already obtained through the waiver rather than to push hard for membership.”

NSG membership is useful to India as are close ties with the US but how one goes about policy objectives should not adversely affect India’s other interests or worsen the environment it operates in. The mode of India’s pro-US tilt and its activism on NSG may have buoyed some strategists and Southeast Asian neighbours who look to New Delhi to stand up to China but it will have also hardened Pakistan and China’s resolve to counter India. While India is confident of handling Pakistani tactics it does not help to have elements of the Chinese party-military apparatus bristling to be a nuisance to India.

This is not about appeasing China but about better timing when pushing policy goals, getting our signalling about the US and China right, not worsening an already unfriendly regional environment and being level-headed about both threats and opportunities that Beijing represents.

Read | Can India shape an Asian Century without China?

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