India is treating the Seoul plenary as one more step in a long diplomatic journey into the heart of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. New Delhi is not certain if it will succeed in its goal of becoming a member “before the end of 2016”, but believes circumstances require India must try now.
The immediate Chinese plan is not to let the NSG’s Seoul meeting to even take up the question of India’s membership on June 24, say sources familiar with negotiations. Washington, however, is known to be working overtime in India’s favour.
New Delhi, for its part, is seeking to lower domestic expectations about NSG membership and dilute the media’s portrayal of this as an India vs China battle. This would make it easier to work towards a consensus within the NSG on Indian membership.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has already spoken to her counterparts in 23 countries and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking up NSG membership at his meetings at the highest level. Eventually this will include President Xi Jinping as well.
India’s strategy towards China is to soft pedal in areas of sensitivity to Beijing. There was no mention of the South China Sea in the last India-US joint statement and no reference to “freedom of navigation” in Swaraj’s annual presser on Sunday.
Calculating that much of China’s opposition to Indian membership is driven by its desire not to anger its ally Pakistan, India is not raking up the proliferation record of its neighbour. Thus Swaraj on Sunday said India, as a non-NSG member, doesn’t have any view on new members joining the grouping if they have the right “credentials”.
This more or less echoes the position India took in 2008 when it was seeking an exemption from NSG sanctions. Its calculation then, as it is now, was that Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation was so appalling that Islamabad would find no takers among the other NSG members, other than its allies China and Turkey.
The Modi government, nonetheless, has surprised many by going full out for NSG membership though success is not guaranteed. The prime minister believes India has reached a point in its development that it should no longer fear foreign policy failure. If India sees an opportunity, New Delhi should be prepared to seize it even if there are risks involved.
NSG membership has always been an Indian policy goal as its current exemption runs a risk of being overturned if China or another unfriendly regime comes to dominate the NSG. It would also help allay concerns of overseas buyers if India is to become an exporter of reactors and nuclear components, a Modi goal that parallels similar plans by his predecessor Manmohan Singh.
The decision to push for NSG membership this year came about when President Barack Obama agreed to work the phones on behalf of India. At the very least, this would “lock down” US support for Indian membership with a Hillary Clinton presidency.
In the case of a Donald Trump presidency, New Delhi has no idea what to expect on NSG membership, in which case making a push under Obama made even more sense.
Obama’s support helped make India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime painless, even though it was a technology regime long seen as beyond India’s reach. That alone is being seen in official circles as an accomplishment that has made the present policy drive worth doing.
NSG is the larger prize but one that will be a greater test of Indian diplomatic mettle and one that may not be held to just 2016.