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The third dimension

New Delhi should not expect Moscow to risk enraging China by supporting something that Beijing may view as an India-US axis aimed against Chinese interests, writes Dmitri Kosyrev.

india Updated: Aug 21, 2007 23:39 IST

Exactly to what extent is Russia going to support India in its evolving Nuclear Suppliers Group diplomacy? This is the million dollar question, first, for Russia itself, where the experts community and political circles have been seriously divided on the subject of all kinds of exemptions from the global non-proliferation regime.

The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, is currently talking to key members of the NSG where New Delhi is going to take the 123 deal for approval as the next and decisive step on its way to building more nuclear stations and obtaining nuclear technologies. Moscow was Saran’s first stop in the recent trip and the general Russian response had been well-known even before the envoy’s visit. It was a ‘Yes’. India does have the Russian voice in the NSG. But this is no news. It is the small print below this ‘Yes’ that matters now.

A source at the Centre for policy Studies in Russia (PIR) in Moscow states that the Russian government is split on the subject between people who have vested interests in — or at least some understanding about — India, and the neutral minds who tend to focus on non-proliferation itself and not on any particular country. PIR specialises on the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It publishes the magazine Security

Index, formerly Nuclear Control.

The split, reportedly, does not mean any fierce debate. It is more about the natural reaction of this or that person when asked. The fear of creating precedents of proliferation in the framework of a regime that does not hold water anyway is strong. You have to remember the 1998 Pokhran tests and the Russian reaction of bewilderment to it. And that was the government of the very pro-Indian Evgeni Primakov. The undercurrent of that reaction, says the PIR source, was Russian fears of further irrevocable changes in the post-Cold War world.

The new Russian self-assuredness in the 21st century has helped it to take global matters more calmly. The non-proliferation lobby inside Russia is now reluctant to show its inherent conservatism and inability to accept change. As for the Indo-US 123 deal, the key people in Moscow have liked it from the start, having high hopes for more nuclear station contracts in India. With too few legal loopholes to use, Russia could not hope for new big contracts unless something like the 123 deal cropped up.

There is a letter of intent signed between Delhi and Moscow on four future stations to be set up by Rosatom, Russia’s State company handling all non-military and nuclear facilities in Russia. True, America — or France — may get more contracts than Russia as a result of the deal. But it is better to share a pie with friends — or at least partners — than to sit hungry alone. That’s the economic foundation for the future Russian ‘Yes’ in the NSG.

But there is a litmus test for the Russian position. Would Moscow and a friend or two be ready to skirt around the NSG if some of its 60 members block the agreement to make India a nuclear exception? According to my information, if the dissenting member is China, the answer is ‘No’.

Not only can Russia not press China into anything, but there’s only a limited number of smaller nations that can be pressed by Russia, sometimes without any success at all. And China is not among them. The fact of the matter is that Russia and China are facing similar problems, and a possible — or probable — Indo-US alliance is one of them. I have spent quite a few hours trying to understand if there is anything else behind the Indo-US nuclear deal that may make it more than just ‘nuclear’ in the future.

The labours of Indian diplomacy keen on establishing India’s record of being independent and minding its own interests have not been in vain. To be used by Washington as a pawn to check China’s growth is, to put it mildly, not on India’s agenda. But then there is always the other side of the coin, and there has been no lack of statements from American experts on the subject of India as a “democracy naturally allied with American interests in Asia”. These statements have done much harm to the Indian cause.

One may add that Russia’s discreet and not-so-discreet debate on its own relations with China is not over. Gone are the days when people with no previous knowledge of China but with American grants protruding from their breast pockets were trying to scare the Russian public about Beijing being a natural threat to Moscow. That, by the way, is another reason for Moscow being sceptical about Washington’s understanding of the true nature of the 123 deal. The similarities are just too obvious. It’s always a good idea to make someone else promote your interests and face the consequences.

Russia did not become an anti-Chinese front for anybody else’s interests. But New Delhi should not expect Moscow to risk enraging China by supporting something that Beijing may view as an India-US axis aimed against Chinese interests. Yes, Russia can talk to China and Russia can go on helping to improve India-China ties. But we cannot stop that meaningful jingle of keys in China’s pocket — the keys to the NSG and many other locks.

So, in the end, the 123 deal is not just about nuclear power and technologies. Like it or not, the deal will have to be the centrepiece of India’s new model of relations with major global powers, the US being just one of these.

Dmitri Kosyrev is political columnist for RIA Novosti