China says it does not like India’s song about joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But India has rightly decided to play it again. Undeterred by Chinese opposition in Seoul, India is getting ready for Vienna, where the NSG might meet in a special session to consider India’s membership later this year.
If something is worth doing, it deserves a second try — after absorbing the lessons from the complex manoeuvre in Seoul last week at the 48-member club that was set up in 1974 to curb India’s nuclear program following its first atomic test. India’s quest for the membership of the NSG is neither whimsical nor desperate. It is the last step in a bold and sustained effort that began after the 1998 tests to make India a part of the global nuclear management. Until then, the world insisted India either give up its nuclear weapons or face an ever-tightening regime of high-technology sanctions. In 1998, Delhi declared itself a nuclear weapon power and demanded an end to the sanctions.
The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, working with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, explored ways to resolve the irreconcilable contradiction between a non-proliferation regime built around the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and an India that can’t sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.
The Clinton administration lifted many of the sanctions imposed after the 1998 tests and discussed removing those from 1974. President George W. Bush launched the historic civil nuclear initiative that carved out an exemption for India from American domestic non-proliferation law and the rules of the NSG.
The Obama administration took the next step of supporting India’s membership of the NSG and other export control groups like Australia group (chemicals), missile technology control regime (space) and the Wassenaar arrangement (conventional weapons and dual-use technologies).
Obama’s decision was founded on the belief that bringing India, a leading producer of advanced technologies and a major economy in the world, into these groups would help strengthen the non-proliferation regime. In Seoul, an overwhelming majority of the members agreed with this proposition.
For India, this is about reclaiming its centrality in shaping the global order on arms control and the regulation of advanced technologies. While India was the natural leader in shaping these debates in the 1950s, it lost ground in the 1960s when it failed to conduct a nuclear test before the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was formalised in 1968.
In a bizarre move in 1974, India conducted a nuclear test and declared it “peaceful”. Its refusal to build a nuclear arsenal in the 1970s put India in the worst of all situations — of demonstrating capability without following through and inviting expansive sanctions. Indian diplomacy believed that denouncing the “discriminatory” NPT and calling for universal disarmament was all that Delhi needed to do. Its “moralpolitik” seemed to have little interest in ending the punitive sanctions against Indian science, technology and industry.
If Vajpayee broke the mould by declaring India a nuclear weapon power and seeking reconciliation in 1998, the Singh government negotiated the nuclear deal in 2005 but was slow in implementing it. The Modi government is trying to overcome the consequences of the past errors and lethargy, and make India a rule maker in this critical arena.
Many have argued that India should be satisfied with the exemption and that there is no need press for the NSG membership. This lack of ambition has indeed long been the norm in India’s foreign policy after Jawaharlal Nehru’s exuberance in the 1950s. Since Nehru, India has invited the charges of conducting a “reactive foreign policy” and “punching below its weight” in the international arena. For generations of diplomatists grown up in this era, Modi’s foreign policy certainly looks shockingly activist. But for those who recognise the recent expansion of India’s material resources and future potential, it is about time.
While the foreign policy conservatives may be out of touch with a new India, the realists have asked an important question: Has not China’s “principled” stand on the NPT doomed India’s quest for the NSG membership?
If you are not an Indian diplomat pushing for the NSG membership, you might be on the floor rolling over with laughter at China’s talk of nuclear “principles”. After all, no major power has violated the norms of NPT more than Beijing, both before and after signing the treaty. But that should not detain us here. The more promising fact is that China has a very impressive record over the last six decades of changing its “principles” according to political convenience. That is probably the reason why Delhi has refused to react peevishly to China’s brazen opposition in Seoul.
In the end, there is one thing we definitely know about Modi’s diplomacy: His government is not easily rattled by disapproving noises at home or abroad. Delhi renewed efforts to persuade Beijing to change its mind on India’s NSG membership should, therefore, be an extraordinary exercise in realpolitik that is well worth watching.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Raja Mandala: Play it again, Sam!’)