By Abanti Bhattacharya
In the run-up to the plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group—comprising of 48 members—in Seoul on June 23–June 24, China, as expected, vehemently resisted India’s bid for membership in the grouping. To this effect, on 20th June, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying revealed that India’s membership in the NSG was not on the agenda. She also confirmed that the NSG is still divided about the entry of non-NPT countries in the group. On 21st June, she further added that the “door is still open” for non-NPT members but the consultations should not focus on individual countries.
China’s obduracy is not new and apparently echoes its similar stance at the Vienna meet held in 2008. In that event, China was the only country that tried to scuttle India’s bid for nuclear commerce exemption till the last moment. China’s position, then and now, grew out of its solidarity with its all-weather friend, Pakistan. This time around it advocates that if India gets membership, so should Pakistan. Clearly, it suggests that for China its friendship with Pakistan far outweighed its ties with India. Whether it is in China’s national interest to block India’s bid for membership in the NSG.
Strengthening Indo-China Ties
At the outset, the NSG issue is far more important for India than to China. Thus, India has been attempting to woo China at various levels. To begin with, India has relaxed key security conditions for China. For instance, it has removed most of the visa categories for Chinese nationals from the Prior Referral Category (PRC) list. Also, it exempted Chinese nationals—coming to India on conference visas—from mandatory security clearance. Furthermore, India has granted security clearances to as many as 21 Chinese companies. Fast-track clearance processes have also been initiated for the Chinese industrial parks to come up in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Apart from these initiatives, taking cognizance of Chinese national interest, India cancelled the visa for German-based Uighur leader “Dolkun Isa” in April. He was to attend an international conference on democracy at Dharamsala, which was organized by the Tibetan government in Exile.
While most analysts saw this as India cowing down to Chinese pressure, it was indeed a pragmatic step by the Indian government; as the Uighur issue does not matter to India as much as to China.
At the same time, India retained its position on not identifying good and bad terrorists. More importantly, India did make a point that it could prick China’s vulnerabilities easily if it wants to do so.
South China Seas Dispute
These steps were all to keep India’s larger interest in mind that is to obtain China’s support for India’s membership in the NSG. For India, membership in the NSG is crucial as it would open up the international market for energy. As a energy-starved country, India is targeting at meeting 63,000 MW of energy through nuclear programmes by 2030. Apparently, India is not averse to Pakistan’s membership in the NSG. It is a different matter altogether, if Pakistan qualifies for such a status at all.
For China, opposing India would tantamount to losing India’s support in its vital national security issues. There is a range of issues for which India’s co-operation would serve Chinese interests better than playing the Pakistan card. To begin with, the South China Seas issue has acquired the topmost priority in Chinese foreign policy considerations; especially ahead of the UN Tribunal verdict in a case lodged by the Philippines. At the Russia-India-China trilateral meet in Moscow in April 2016, the joint communiqué reflected India’s sensitivity towards China’s position on the South China Seas dispute. The communiqué stated that “disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned.” This was interpreted by China as India’s stance against internationalization of the South China Seas dispute. Also, Prime Minister Modi in his June visit to the US avoided outright mention of the South China Sea.
One Belt, One Road
Secondly, China under Xi Jinping has launched its most ambitious foreign policy initiative of the “One Belt, One Road”. Essentially, India considers the OBOR as Chinese unilateralism shorn of multilateral dialogue and consultation process among countries. However, real success of the OBOR in South Asia is contingent on India’s support, if not direct participation. This is because, India is a bigger economy than the combined South Asian economy. The BCIM corridor of the OBOR would not see much success if India remains noncommittal.
Prospective Indo-US Alliance
Thirdly, India has not entered in an alliance partnership with the US yet, much to the advantage of China. The Chinese state-controlled nationalist magazine Global Times suggests that China is not really concerned about India’s tilt towards the US. Responding to Modi’s US visit and his speech at the joint session of the Congress, Chinese observers iterate that India would not waiver from its traditional Non-alignment policy. They infer that, India under Modi is essentially trying to find a balance between the US and China. There is, therefore, no cause for worry. Chinese optimism is also validated by India’s refusal to the American proposal for joint patrol of the South China Seas.
However, if China does not support India in its crucial nuclear energy security, India is likely to make a clear tilt towards the US. And this would happen in a situation, where China would see increasing pressure on its periphery. Already the US relations with Pakistan have touched a new low, with the US Congress making its military aid conditional to Pakistan’s crackdown on the Haqqani network. In that scenario, it will be China’s headache to tame its recalcitrant all- weather friend in its southern periphery. Also, with the US looking at India for assuming a greater role in Afghanistan, coupled with India’s concomitant expansion of economic interest with the development of Iranian Chabahar port, a specter of India’s dominance in the region looms large. It certainly offsets some of the Chinese gains at Gwadar.
The North-Eastern Threat
China also has its other headache—North Korea—in its northeastern periphery. China and North Korea, in contrast, are increasingly alienated—which (despite shared revolutionary origins and China’s major sacrifices in the Korean War) represents an increasing liability to Chinese interests. Apparently, China’s close allies are more a nuisance than strategic partners. China is also embroiled in a protracted East China Seas dispute with its arch rival Japan—located in its North eastern periphery. However, India has a strong vibrant bilateral relationship with Japan, that would grow by leaps and bounds in the event of China’s anti-India stance.
China’s Southeastern periphery would not see much peace either, given the strong claims of Philippines and Vietnam on the South China Seas islands. Added to this, is the growing US defense relationship with the Philippines and Vietnam. With the defeat of the Guomindang party, Taiwan has now come under the Democratic Progressive Party, that has no appetite for closer economic integration with the Mainland. Taiwan is also a rival claimant to the South China Seas disputed islands. Further, if the US-led quadrilateral partnership with India, Japan and Australia, for maintenance of a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific region becomes a reality, then China’s security situation would be tenuous.
Clearly, China has real vulnerabilities both inside its territory (Uighurs and Tibetans) and outside along the major part of its periphery.
Damaging its relations with India, with which it has much to gain in economic terms than Pakistan, would not be a pragmatic foreign policy step. Especially at a time, when its economy is undergoing major re-balancing. In sum, it would be in China’s national interest to support India’s membership in the NSG. Also, without the NSG membership, the 2008 NSG waiver still allows India for nuclear commerce. So eventually, it is not a great loss for India.
Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is an Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.