Many Indian and US diplomats involved in the 2008 denouement of the nuclear deal had a sense of déjà vu as the events in Seoul took place. The 2008 NSG meeting in Vienna also saw fierce opposition from China. Vienna ended with the NSG lifting decades of technology sanctions against India. Seoul ended differently.
These diplomats gave a number of reasons why the two nuclear dramas ended differently.
The primary difference, most of them agreed, was that Xi Jinping’s Middle Kingdom is not the same creature as Hu Jintao’s China. “This China is much more assertive,” said an Indian diplomat who was involved with the original nuclear deal. “And their equation with the United States is not in a good place right now.”
This is a China, said a number of them, which is flouting international laws and making overt territorial grabs with little regard for the fallout on relations with Southeast Asia or even the US.
Evan Feigenbaum of the Paulson Institute, who was a State Department official in the thick of the action in Vienna, agreed: “I would have expected China to dig much harder on Indian membership than it did on Indian exception [from NSG sanctions]. Membership will be a tough slog with Beijing.”
Which ties into a second key difference between Seoul and Vienna: the stakes regarding NSG membership are much greater than those for a sanctions waiver.
China understands that if India is allowed into the NSG without a roadmap for Pakistan’s eventual entry, Islamabad’s chances are less than zero.
“They don’t want to permanently entrench Pakistan’s exclusion from the NSG by admitting India without agreeing to a set of rules that would eventually admit Pakistan too,” says Andrew Small, subcontinental analyst at the German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis.
The Indian diplomat concurred. “Indian membership would shut the door on Pakistan for good, so Beijing will be a lot less amenable.”
While Beijing has supported India’s membership into other multilateral organizations, the NSG is a lot more problematic for China. “The Chinese have enabled a larger Indian role globally in institutions where China can exercise serious leverage, like the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and so on. The NSG is qualitatively different, as India would have a less constrained hand to play there, once admitted,” argues Feigenbaum.
Finally, while the reigning US administration of the day supported India in Vienna and now in Seoul, there was a consensus that George W. Bush’s campaign was far more intensive than Barack Obama’s. Others simply argue that Washington’s leverage with Beijing is simply less today.
“China will be less amenable to pressure from the US and others on this issue now because it sees a much closer military relationship between India and the US than in 2008 which it perceives as threatening,” says Anja Manuel, who worked on the nuclear deal in the Bush State Department and recently authored a book This Brave New World on US-China-India relations.
Indian officials privately say their US counterparts left a lot of the heavy lifting to them, unlike in Vienna where US officials swarmed the conference, the US secretary of state personally travelled to recalcitrant governments and success came after Bush personally phoned Hu. With the Obama administration, no one higher than an assistant secretary involved themselves in the NSG lobbying.
Remembers Feigenbaum, “We had a capital by capital strategy that included specific people and specific officials at specific moments. You cannot replicate that by just making a call here or there. I wonder if the Obama administration gamed this out ahead of time. We approached like a military campaign and had a campaign plan.”
But a retired Indian ambassador who spearheaded the 2008 nuclear deal campaign said President Bush’s commitment to India was unusual, “We won’t get another president like him and we shouldn’t expect one.”