NSG: A tale of a diplomatic faux pas

  • Jyotiraditya M Scindia
  • Updated: Jul 01, 2016 21:30 IST
Indian activists shout anti-Chinese slogans as they burn Chinese products during a protest in New Delhi on June 25. India has blamed China for blocking its entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (AFP)

Print Intro: India’s unsuccessful bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group underscores the point that statecraft needs to be calibrated, more often than not behind closed doors, built on groundwork, conviction and astuteness

India’s application to become a member of the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) suffered a humiliating setback last week. Coming as it did on the back of PM Narendra Modi’s grandstanding attempts at diplomacy, it merits a deeper look at the government’s foreign policy tactics. The government made grand overtures to one and all, and mounted a campaign with a lot of fanfare, only to have it come a cropper!

Read | Will work with other members for India’s entry into NSG: US

The bid has exposed the fault lines in the government’s attempts at backroom diplomacy. Consider this: in a press briefing post the plenary, the ministry of external affairs cited “one country” that scuttled India’s bid, an oblique reference to China. This, days after another presser in which external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj claimed China was not opposed to India’s bid, only to have it publicly shot down by a Chinese foreign ministry official who stated that India’s application did not feature on the agenda. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, minister Swaraj dismissed any objection to Pakistan’s entry to the NSG, leading to the hyphenation of Pakistan and India as NSG aspirants on an equal footing, despite their contrasting proliferation records. This holier-than-thou attitude has once again left India looking embarrassed, because it has now emerged that Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif made a concerted effort to block India’s entry to the NSG by writing to no less than 17 of his counterparts. Is this the “warmth and ease of relations” between the two nations that minister Swaraj also boasted about? That in exchange for our PM’s unscheduled stops at Lahore and Iftar party invites, India will receive attacks in the form of Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Pampore?

Read | The perils of rushing in

The doublespeak and lack of clarity within the government are a worrying prospect because they threaten India’s position in the global order. It is clear that China was not alone in its opposition to India at Seoul, and prevailed upon fence sitters like Switzerland and Ireland, both of which PM Modi visited in the last year. His exhibitionism in each of these countries has drawn a grand total of nothing.

So what are the lessons for PM Modi? First and foremost, that substance and finesse, and not fanfare, yield credible foreign policy returns. Diplomacy requires relationships to be built through thoughtful leadership, a mature meeting of minds and serious negotiations that yield tangible outcomes. The UPA government, under PM Manmohan Singh’s measured and tactful leadership, dismantled the discriminatory nuclear architecture without any histrionics, pomp and ceremony. In 2008, India made a watertight case for itself with dignity and sobriety, and secured us a clean, one-time waiver from the NSG with no sunset clause. This waiver ended years of nuclear isolation after convincing member states of India’s exemplary record of non-proliferation, finally allowing it to engage in full civil nuclear commerce. Back home though, PM Singh had staked his government and personal integrity to ensure that the India-US nuclear deal and waiver came through, in the face of fierce opposition, not least by the BJP, which accused him of selling out national interests to America. The same BJP, which in 2008 unsuccessfully moved a no-confidence motion against the UPA, with typical hypocrisy, now hails the India-US nuclear deal as a “centrepiece” of the new strategic partnership between the two countries. But the NDA government has neither a sound understanding of diplomacy nor a proper plan of action, and being on first-name terms with President Barack Obama will only get you so far. PM Modi needs to ensure that there is synergy enough among India’s allies to win over its naysayers.

Second, tackling China will require more than just a last-minute outreach to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit. In 2008, US President George Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had both taken a personal interest in securing India support for the waiver, making it hard for China to stand its ground in the face of US pressure. The US had intervened and lobbied on India’s behalf, commending its commitment towards non-proliferation as a responsible state. President Bush had himself lobbied extensively for India, even speaking to his Chinese counterpart to convince him to drop opposition to the India-specific waiver. In contrast, now there is a conspicuous lack of high-level American support for India, with neither President Obama nor secretary of state John Kerry personally lobbying for India. As a result, a far more aggressive China, with help from fence-sitter countries, has successfully thrown a spanner in the works. One cannot help but hark back to the visual of PM Modi and President Xi Jinping sitting on a swing at the Sabarmati riverfront. In a nasty turn of events, China has now left India hanging on the seesaw in midair, cheered on by its state media for taking a “morally legitimate” stand against “smug”, “spoiled” India.

India has an impeccable record of non-proliferation, having worked hard to harmonise nuclear and dual-use export controls with NSG guidelines and implement all Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments despite being a non-signatory. But the government’s ill-advised bid has left it looking insecure and vulnerable, undoing the UPA’s efforts to ensure peace and stability in the region. The government must clarify its stand. What is its position on Pakistan? Will it continue its NSG bid as a public spectacle, or will it make a sincere effort to win confidence and rally support among member states? Ahead of the NSG’s special plenary, India must concentrate on strengthening its relations with all countries. Will India stand up to China or allow itself to be bullied? Now that India has managed to secure membership to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it can use it as a bargaining chip to make China, whose application has been languishing since 2004, fall in line.

PM Modi would do well to remember that statecraft needs to be calibrated, more often than not behind closed doors, built on groundwork, conviction and astuteness.

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

Jyotiraditya Scindia is an MP and the Congress party’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha

The views expressed are personal

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