It was an astounding misread of the international political situation for the BJP government to believe that just having Prime Minister Narendra Modi do rounds of his now trademark personalized diplomacy would get India a ticket into the Nuclear Suppliers Group at its two-day plenary in Seoul. It is one thing for Modi to be convinced about his own persuasive powers. Quite another thing for the Ministry of External Affairs mandarins, with Foreign Secretary K. Jaishankar in the lead, to go along with the PM’s conceit without alerting Modi to the near insurmountable barriers in place visible to any level-headed analyst and made perfectly plain by Beijing’s repeated negative pronouncements.
Did Modi really think that a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tashkent and Jaishankar’s attempts at changing the minds of the other holdout states — Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Brazil, and Turkey, would prove anything but futile? Two days back Sartaj Aziz, PM Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy adviser, had telegraphed this with his statement that Pakistan had succeeded in firming up the opposition to India’s NSG membership. As usual, he was taking more credit than was due his diplomatic efforts. The problem was/is with the different reasons for their holdout by the six countries. Let’s see what these are and decide whether India’s chances will brighten with time.
China WILL NOT budge until India begins seriously to strategically discomfit it with counter-leverage and counter-pressure. Such leverage/pressure has come its way with India formally becoming a participating state in the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime). China has been seeking an entry into MTCR since 2004. New Delhi can hereafter veto China’s membership in MTCR, and should do so. Secondly, it should fast-track the sale/transfer of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile not just to Vietnam that has desperately desired it for years, but also the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei the states disputing China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. MTCR membership means that India’s Brahmos transactions with these states and any other country that has any problems with Beijing and wishing to acquire this deadly and indefensible missile, are instantly legitimated, and will not draw sanctions for either India, the supplier, or any of its customer states.
And then India should resist all initiatives for an exchange Beijing may propose — its lifting NSG veto for India’s doing the same in MTCR. Because the fact is NSG is not all that important for India considering it has already secured a waiver in 2008 as part of the nuclear deal and can engage in nuclear commerce and trade without let or hindrance. As to why MEA is set on NSG entry and has pushed Modi into making such a big deal of it, resulting in the PM getting a whole lot of egg on his face is a mystery. A well-connected commentator attributes this entire diplomatic mishap to the “devious” view of many in the MEA that pushing Modi into canvassing China, would up the stakes and Beijing’s formally resisting India’s NSG membership will confirm its status as an adversary country and justify to the domestic audience the government’s policy of siding with the United States to contain it in Asia.
But such an undiscriminating slide towards the US will actually lose New Delhi leverage with Washington. The more India holds back and joins the US only sporadically — so the US govt does not take India for granted as it is inclined to do, the better it will be in terms of serving and furthering the national interest in the long run. Moreover, the more agilely New Delhi manipulates its security cooperation with dibs and dabs of military-to-military linkages with the US, the more Beijing will feel impelled to accommodate India as a means of preempting/preventing New Delhi’s going over more fully to America’s corner. That’s how the game of great power politics is played, and was so done by Nehru in the Fifties. But since then and especially in the new Century MEA seems to have lost that ability abetted in recent years by Modi’s personal West-leaning preferences.
As regards Brazil — envy and jealousy are very much part of its stance towards India. Brasilia did not have the wit or the strategic wisdom to not sign the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and hence its passage to weapons status has been for ever barred. Now it confronts India as a nuclear weapon state, and cannot stomach it considering its nuclear programme too is pretty advanced. As regards Ireland, Austria and New Zealand, the Indian govt had obviously hoped they would take their cues from the US and fall in line at the Seoul plenary. That has not occurred because they feel unwooed and therefore unmoved. Switzerland got the full treatment with the Permanent Mission in Geneva at the cutting edge (not the embassy in Berne) and yet the Swiss did not follow through on promised support. Its position at Seoul that it still had to liaise with Berne hints at second thoughts or cussedness. In any case, it reveals, as does Modi’s confabulatory procedure with Xi, the limits of personalized diplomacy.
Then there’s Turkey and India has hit a brick wall. Like China, it has hyphenated India and Pakistan and has opted for joint entry into NSG. And, by the way, it will not relent even if China ever does.
Considering all the factors laid out above, can anyone make a convincing case that India needs to expend an additional iota of diplomatic-political capital on trying to get into NSG? The answer is a resounding NO. But Modi and MEA seem bent on it. Figuring that out will tell you just why India is where it is and points to the Indian government’s lack of understanding of what hard power is and how it works. It is not a coincidence that some 52 years after India reached the nuclear weapons threshold in Feb/March 1964 but decided deliberately not to speedily acquire a nuclear arsenal, New Delhi still thinks its abstemiousness in not proliferating indigenously developed nuclear materials, expertise, should win India rewards!!!
That’s not what the harsh world of international relations is about, I am afraid. One had hoped that with Modi’s advent there would be an injection of realism in our foreign policy approach and attitude. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Modi seems to have fallen in — as he has done elsewhere in government by relying on civil servants, with the old MEA way of doing things: Depending, in the sadly famous words uttered by a character in Tennessee Williams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire”, the needy Blanche Du Bois — “on the kindness of strangers”. Except, in the external realm, all countries are strangers and never kind.