Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summits with President Barack Obama are usually about bilateral affairs and the progress made or yet to be made on a vast dossier of issues, that investment climate, defence acquisitions, interoperability, access to high technology and so on.
Geopolitics and strategic considerations provide the context for discussions but rarely impinge directly on events as they are now. Modi’s visit to the US and countries like Switzerland and Mexico has been specifically timed just ahead of the June 9 meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that will consider India’s application for membership in the group.
India’s application is part of its objective to secure membership in the four multilateral non-proliferation export control regimes: NSG, Missile Control Technology Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. Accession to these groups will afford different benefits to India. An NSG membership will provide India greater access to nuclear fuel and technologies, enhancing its energy capacity, reduce the quantum of its dependence on hydrocarbons over time and help meet future climate change obligations. MTCR will enable India to import sophisticated weapons like Predator drones while allowing it to export its missiles to friendly countries (like Vietnam, a prospect neighbouring China is wary about). New Delhi seeks membership of the other groups to influence global non-proliferation efforts concerning dual use technologies, armaments, chemical and biological weapons.
Membership in these groups will clearly enhance India’s international leverage and it is therefore no surprise that China is attempting to block it even though the US supports India’s membership. Beijing argues that signing the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a prerequisite for NSG membership, a claim India contests. China also reckons that if the international community makes an exception to India, then that privilege should also be extended to Pakistan – an argument that is unlikely to have traction in Western capitals given Islamabad’s proliferation record (via AQ Khan who sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya).
The NSG deliberations on June 9 where member countries will discuss new applications (including Pakistan’s), followed by a plenary session at Seoul during June 20-24 will provide a sense as to how China will handle its relationship with India in the context of the latter’s pronounced tilt towards the US, with the signing of “joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific” in January 2015, which Beijing views as a balancing agreement geared to challenge its claims in the South China Sea.
All this is about jockeying for position in Asia’s changing security landscape, with the US trying to work with India, Japan, Australia, Singapore and like-minded countries to balance China, while Beijing uses its financial clout and international institutional processes to contain emerging powers like India.