This much New Delhi’s surround-sound play for the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership has demonstrated: India’s brave new diplomacy remains just as much in thrall to personality cults and ideological predilections as the much-reviled tired old diplomacy. Following weeks of visits to world capitals by top diplomats, some by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar is now in Seoul, hoping a pro-India caucus of 20 countries will somehow persuade China to allow a discussion of India’s membership bid. New Delhi hasn’t even allowed itself to be daunted by a public snub delivered by China after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that the superpower had no in-principle objections to the country’s membership of the NSG. The privately-stated reason for the extraordinary investment of energy India has made this summer in pursuit of NSG membership is a simple one: Come November, Donald Trump might be the leader of the free world, with little interest in helping it realise its geostrategic destiny. Leaving aside minor quibbles — such as the very long odds of a Trump victory — India has long ago secured all that it needs from the NSG, bar the prestige of a place at the high table.
India’s diplomats often like to cast themselves as players in a geostrategic version of Go — the elegant and supremely complex Chinese board-game which involves occupying as much of an adversary’s territory as possible. It’s worth asking, however, if India’s NSG play in fact showed much grasp of the principle of zero-sum games — the essence of Go. In the course of the last 12 months, India has irked China by involving one neighbour with whom it has testy relations, Japan, in its Malabar naval exercises; offering to sell ballistic missiles to Vietnam, another neighbour with whom it is engaged in occasional hostilities; and cultivating an ever-deeper strategic relationship with arch-rival America. India’s actions are rational: China has, after all, needled India along the Line of Actual Control, and coddled Pakistan on terrorism.
Truth be told, it’s hard not to sense ambition and its close relative, hubris, in play in this spectacle. Large and showy foreign policy successes, no matter how insubstantial their gains, have seduced prime ministers and bureaucrats before. The sad truth, however, is that there will be a price for failure: The substantial one that will have to be paid to a China that has learned India is desperate for a bauble in the shop-window.