The China-India divide is clearly visible. But China’s ban on India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at Seoul will do little more than hurt India’s pride and sharpen domestic criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unrealistically high expectations and flabby handling of a hostile China.
At another level, Beijing’s “no” to India also snubs the US, which pushed for India’s membership of the NSG, and underlines the necessity for closer ties between Washington and New Delhi.
Beijing’s argument that India cannot join the NSG because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is flimsy. For instance, France was a founder member of the NSG in 1975 although it did not accede to the NPT until 1992.
In 2008 the NSG, which sets global rules for international trade in nuclear energy technology, judged that India’s controls on nuclear exports adhered to international norms. So membership would legitimize India’s nuclear program. India would also have a say in framing the norms of the global nuclear order without having signed the NPT. The U.S. and many other countries back India’s full membership because India has an unblemished nonproliferation track record. And India will join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – one of four nuclear export control programs – this week.
Membership of the NSG would enable an America-friendly India to acquire the latest nuclear technology and global status at a time when the US and India are strengthening strategic ties and when the US remains pivoted to Asia with the intent of balancing the growing military power of China.
This would not be to the liking of India’s allied archrivals, China and Pakistan. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Naseer Janjua, sees global power politics at work: India and the US are shaping a ‘greater design’ to contain China and prevent the resurgence of Russia. (Since Russia backed Indian membership of the NSG it would disagree with him).
China’s own record on non-proliferation is blemished. After it joined the NSG in 1992 it broke NSG rules by supplying nuclear power plants to Pakistan and helped the Pakistani military to develop their country’s nuclear facilities. Consequently Pakistan’s nuclear program is an extension of China’s.
Beijing defended its nuclear exports to Pakistan by repeating Islamabad’s specious allegation that that the U.S.-Indian nuclear pact had upset stability in South Asia. That allegation alone made clear that China’s reasons for transferring nuclear technology to Pakistan had nothing to do with respect for NSG norms.
China stalled India’s bid on the additional pretext that Pakistan should be allowed to join the NSG if India was. But China knows that Pakistan’s clandestine supply of nuclear weapons technology and designs to Iran, Libya and North Korea rule out its entry into the NSG. China’s assertion that Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist – not the government- was responsible for exports to North Korea cut no ice with the countries that supported Indian membership. Such exports could not have been made over several years without the knowledge and approval of Pakistan’s politically dominant army. And once General Pervez Musharraf assumed power in 1999, that of the President himself.
What India can do now
First, New Delhi must accept that China’s objections to India’s membership of the NSG are entirely political. India is a rising economic and military power and the main Asian counterpoise to China even if Beijing blocks its entry into the NSG. So Beijing sees Washington supporting New Delhi’s nuclear ambitions to strengthen India against China and will do its best to prevent India from enhancing its global prestige by joining international clubs.
Some in New Delhi wrongly say that India should not lose sight of the gains India can make through Chinese investment by moving too close to the US. Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 China has assured India of investments amounting to some $ 20 billion, which is a lot less than the investments promised by the US, Japan (about $ 40 billion each).
More generally, trading ties can coexist with political rivalry: China itself is a strong trading partner of the US, whose primacy it challenges in Asia.
All told, the advancement of India’s economic and strategic interests highlights the importance of closer collaboration with Japan and the US.
There is no reason why India should keep the US at a distance to cultivate China. In 1962 China invaded nonaligned India – in violation of their 1954 agreement on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panch Sheel). Those principles included mutual respect for territorial integrity and non-aggression. Significantly China’s claims to the territory of India and many other Asian neighbors also go against the professed commitment of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO ) – which met in Tashkent from 23-24 June- to the territorial integrity of states. Continual military forays into Indian turf show that China violates that principle as and when it pleases.
That is precisely why China’s bellicosity has driven some often anti-American Indian strategic policymakers into mulling an alliance with the US.
India – like Pakistan – was accepted as a member of the (SCO) at Tashkent. And at the SCO meeting India and China voiced confidence in the continuation of their political and economic dialogues.
Nevertheless, the Sino-Indian gap is there for the world to see. China’s duplicity on nuclear issues and its territorial acquisitiveness will strengthen the bonds between India and the US. “Post-Seoul”, Washington has announced India will be the only country apart from America’s formal treaty allies that will gain access to almost 99 per cent of latest America’s defense technologies after being recognized as a ‘Major Defense Partner’.
The lesson will not be lost on other countries in the Asia-Pacific, some of which also face Chinese threats to their sovereignty. The Chinese hurdle to India’s participation in the NSG, together with China’s bellicosity, will persuade India and other neighbors to reinforce their military and economic ties with the US.
[So the 21st century may not turn out to be “China’s Asian century” after all.]