India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the UN tribunal’s rejection of China’s claims to the South China Sea have created a degree of bilateral turbulence. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be involved in intense diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the G-20, East Asia and BRICS summit sin September-October this year. Modi will be attending the G-20 summit at Hangzhou on September 4-5, followed by the East Asia summit in Vientiane on September 6-8 and will be hosting the BRICS summit at Goa on October 15, 2016.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj made the Indian position amply clear in Parliament yesterday when she said that India will never sign the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but will continue to engage with China over its opposition to India’s entry into the NSG.
The leaders of the two Asian giants urgently need to sort out their differences after China, diplomatic optics apart, blocked India from becoming a member of the NSG at the Seoul plenary in June. Although the Chinese media called India a “spoiled child of the West” after the NSG bid, the fact is that New Delhi first reached out to Beijing through established diplomatic channels in April 2015 for support to enter the 48-member club. Approaching the US was natural as President Barack Obama had supported India’s NSG bid in 2010.
While PM Modi engaged with President Xi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Tashkent on the day the Seoul plenary began, foreign secretary S Jaishankar reached Beijing the day before to seek its support for the NSG membership. It is understood that Beijing first linked India’s membership to Pakistan despite the fact that Islamabad has still to separate its military and civilian reactors and adhere to the “widely accepted” NSG regime. India had no objections to China’s support for Pakistan’s entry into the NSG, but the bid fell through since no one except Turkey was interested. It was at this time that China shifted diplomatic gears from linkage to blockage at Seoul with three other countries joining the chorus citing process and procedures. Matters apparently reached a head at the Seoul meeting when the French delegate forcefully pointed out to his Chinese counterpart that his country joined the NSG before signing the NPT as an example that there was limited correlation between the two.
While a section of retired Indian diplomats believe that New Delhi should not “irritate” Beijing by raising the NSG issue again with Core Leader Xi, South Block has no intention of giving up on the nuclear club but feels that China is a diplomatic hurdle to the high table of the NSG or even the SCO. During his visit to Uzbekistan in July 2015, President Nursultan Nazarbayev told Modi that had it not been for Russia, India would not have become a member of the SCO as China was supporting Pakistan. He also said other SCO members did not want India-Pakistan affairs to dominate the Central Asian forum.
While the situation along the 3,488 kilometre long Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is stable, boundary resolution talks have been reduced to an exercise in optics with Beijing refusing to yield an inch on the protracted issue. The Special Representative dialogue which was started in 2003 has yielded no results beyond confidence-building with China wanting India to be flexible on its claims in the Eastern Sector with a specific eye on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The ongoing Indian military exercises in Eastern Ladakh are to test its capabilities to deter any September 2014 Chumar-like intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Even though Sino-Indian bilateral trade is heading towards the $100 billion mark, New Delhi wants cooperative mechanisms with Beijing in the political areas of the relationship if the 21st century has to be an Asian century. India is concerned over the China-Pakistan all-weather relationship whether it be in providing five more nuclear reactors, military hardware or building the economic corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The fact that China exercised its veto on Masood Azhar, emir of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group, in the UN speaks volumes about its sweetheart relationship with Islamabad.
Chinese charge d’affaires in India Liu Jinsong has gone on record claiming that New Delhi has supported Beijing’s claim with regard to the International Tribunal Verdict rejecting the latter’s claims over the South China Sea on July 12. But India’s position leaves no ground for ambiguity as it has recognised that the Tribunal had been set up within the jurisdiction of the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that this must be given the “utmost respect.” India believes that the Tribunal award will be legally binding on the Philippines and China since both are parties to UNCLOS. Each state party to UNCLOS has a duty to comply with the ruling under Part XV which deals with compulsory dispute settlement. Article 296 and Article 11 of annexure VII of UNCLOS are relevant in this regard. Armchair strategists believe that the Tribunal’s ruling will cast a shadow over India’s claims to Sir Creek vis-a-vis Pakistan. But land boundary disputes are outside the purview of UNCLOS.
Taking a broad overview of China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea or at the NSG plenary accompanied by crude name calling, PM Modi and President Xi need to bring back the relationship to the 2014 Ahmedabad or the 2015 Xian days as the regional and global aspirations of both the countries cannot be fulfilled without the cooperation of each other. The Chinese notion of a weak India is not a reality in 2016.