Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a subdued tone on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) when he told a TV channel, “The process has begun on a positive note. Everything is governed by its own rules. Things will move forward as per rules”. The rules were clear and gave China a veto to scuttle an early positive outcome to India’s membership application. There was no dearth of signals that China would not allow India to succeed in Seoul. Then why was the PM not advised against embarking on a diplomatic misadventure to get a green light at Seoul?
Before and after the Seoul meeting, there has been a chorus hailing what is being characterised as India’s new assertive diplomacy. The statement of the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA’s) spokesperson typifies this attitude. “Today Indian diplomacy does not fear failure,” he said. However, nothing can detract from the fact that the Seoul NSG fiasco was entirely avoidable. Verbal defiance rings hollow in the face of such criticism. Diplomacy does require calculated risks at certain times but when they do not succeed, cover-ups must not obscure failure.
India’s desire to become an NSG member is a valid objective. There can also be no quarrel about putting in a formal application and then pursuing it diplomatically. But why was it pursued in such a ham-handed manner?
The government needs to spell out if there was a gap between what the Chinese said publically and what they conveyed privately? The foreign secretary met China’s top diplomats in May and then a few days before the Seoul meeting. Did they offer hope that led Modi to raise the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping?
In the bad old days of “timid” diplomacy the PM was always advised against raising an issue with a peer unless there was adequate groundwork.
The rationale for Modi’s pitch with Xi is found in the foreign secretary’s speech of July 18 2015. He said, “personal chemistry has emerged as an important tool in our diplomatic kit”. In another speech in Singapore, he said that the constructive model of relations between India and China was not only at the conceptual level but also reflected in the demeanour of Xi and Modi. Indian diplomats would do well to reflect on the role of personal chemistry especially after the indirect response to the Prime Minister’s intervention by a middle-level Chinese diplomat who gratuitously offered his country’s help in addressing India’s energy requirements.
The urgency is now being ascribed to US President Barack Obama’s support to India’s NSG membership. There is no certainty if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will accord the same priority to the matter. This raises troubling questions about the nature of the Indo-US relationship as it does about India’s position in the world. Inclinations of individual presidents do matter but a relationship that is not rooted in an institutional consensus is not built on firm ground.
The MEA spokesperson recently said, “Nobody in the global economy can equate India and Pakistan”. That, though true, is hardly the point. The fact is that India’s assurance that it would not stand in the way of Pakistan joining the group
did not satisfy China. Indian analysts underestimate China’s need for Pakistani support. Why will China then insist on India and Pakistan joining the NSG simultaneously?