China may have put a full stop to India’s aspirations to becoming a serious power by effectively blocking its bid to join the world’s exclusive nuclear club, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but in the debris of self-examination that will now follow in Delhi, only one question remains to be seriously asked : Was it political hubris on the part of Narendra Modi’s government that prevented it from seriously evaluating the ground beneath China’s feet?
The morning after the extraordinary session on Thursday night of the NSG plenary in Seoul, Korea, China’s arms negotiator Wang Qun declared to the press, “We don’t back India or Pakistan until they follow the rules.”
Wang was, of course, dismissing India’s application to the NSG, on the grounds that it could not become a member without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India believes the NPT is a discriminatory document which limits the definition of nuclear weapon states to only five powers – the US, China, Russia, France and Great Britain – which are also the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
A disappointed spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, said, “We understand that despite procedural hurdles persistently raised by one country, a three-hour long discussion took place last night on the issue of future participation in the NSG. An overwhelming number of those who took the floor supported India’s membership and appraised India’s application positively.”
While Swarup’s reference to “one country” blocking India’s ambitions was to China, the Middle Kingdom’s negotiator had other things to say.
Delhi must wait, Wang was effectively pointing out. Any pretensions it may have had of joining hands with that other global power, the US, to gate-crash the NSG and try and change the world’s nuclear architecture would not be allowed to succeed.
Certainly, India’s most ambitious bid to become the world’s newest big power, has failed, if only for the time being. Fact is, the NSG plenary has confirmed the arrival of China as a pre-eminent power on the world stage. By standing up to the US, which was said to have exercised its diplomatic muscle in persuading other NSG members to approve of India’s application, the Chinese have put the rest of the world on notice.
This is a significant moment in global power relations. It also shows how the world has changed since 2008, when then US president George Bush called then Chinese president Hu Jintao and requested him not to stand in the way of the NSG waving the rules for India so it could participate in international nuclear commerce.
In 2008, Hu Jintao acceded to America’s request. In 2016, Xi Jinping turned down Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plea as well as ignored America’s diplomatic initiatives on India’s behalf.
Some will argue that China’s rejection of India’s application was done on behalf of its “all-weather friend and ally” Pakistan (when leaders from China and Pakistan meet, they begin their conversations with the mantra, “our friendship is higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas”), which had also applied to become a member of the NSG.
Both China and Pakistan realized that the rest of the world would certainly not accept Pakistan’s application, because of its inadequate non-proliferation record. So if Pakistan couldn’t get in, India shouldn’t be allowed to either, must have gone the thinking in Islamabad and Beijing.
In fact, Pakistan’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz – the same man who came to Delhi in the middle of the Kargil conflict in 1999, one day before he flew to China – has been publicly chortling to the international press these last few days that Islamabad and Beijing have succeeded in stopping India in its NSG tracks.
But the nay vote in Seoul means much more than China’s simple defence of its client state. It also signals a weakening of American pre-eminence.
Meanwhile, as the rest of the world began to see the shifting tides of global power, countries like Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland and even New Zealand decided that it was important to stand up, assert their own non-proliferation credentials – and signal to China that it was willing to kowtow to the arrival of a new power on the horizon.
Just look at the gallery of nations which stared India down. Brazil is a card-carrying member of BRICS – the conglomeration of aspiring powers,Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – while New Zealand is a stated ally of the US.
Perhaps the unkindest cut has come from Switzerland, which Modi visited only a few weeks ago, and whose President, Johann Schneider-Ammann, told the Prime Minister that Switzerland would support India’s bid at the NSG.
So the question is, did Narendra Modi’s India indulge in some spectacular hubris by pitching for a seat on the NSG in the first place? Did the Prime Minister really think that by personally requesting Xi Jinping, on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Tashkent two days ago, Xi would simply smile and courteously say, “Pehle aap?”
Foreign policy, for those who came in late to the party, is a brutally cold and calculated exercise of power. Narendra Modi has certainly charmed the world with his extraordinary drive and ambition these last two years, but the fact is that there’s only so much his own magnificent oratory can do. The global NRI or Indian-origin hordes which support NaMo on Twitter cannot be expected to change policy in their chosen countries of adoption.
Let us say it, clearly. Narendra Modi believed that he would pull off an Indian membership at the NSG because he thought that he had the backing of the still-most powerful nation in the world, the US. The Prime Minister over-extended himself and India’s case. He simply didn’t realize the extent to which the Chinese had succeeded in shifting the ground beneath its feet.
So how and why did Modi end up make such an extraordinary strategic blunder? After all, his own Foreign Office, led by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and several other officials have the institutional memory of those nail-biting days days and weeks in 2008, when Delhi mounted an enormous campaign to get itself an exception at the NSG.
Truth is, Modi didn’t talk to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and discuss the political and foreign policy implications of such an important move. If foreign policy is above partisan domestic politics, then the Prime Minister should have reached out to his predecessor, who in fact had wagered his own government at the time to raise India’s nuclear profile – in China’s face.
Perhaps it is not kosher to slam Modi’s breathless foreign policy manouevre at the NSG. After all, there’s nothing like confronting your opponent – nay, enemy, as several decision-makers in Delhi currently describe China – and telling him that you now know exactly what he’s thinking.
Brajesh Mishra, National Security Advisor to Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, had had the exact same argument when India went nuclear, when he invoked the “bitter hostility” from the neighbour in the north for India’s reasons to go nuclear.
It seems some things haven’t changed that much, 18 years later.
As Modi returns from Tashkent and Jaishankar from Seoul, a post-NSG examination will show that the world has changed. But it would be a mistake for Delhi to think that it can gang up with the US to take on Beijing. Or try and punish the Chinese by withdrawing from trade and economic arrangements and initiatives. The BRICS nations are meeting in Goa in October – that will give Modi the opportunity to play the perfect host and create a new strategy to allow India to rise from the ashes.
Perhaps Delhi should go back to conducting a much quieter foreign policy and focus on the other world-changing events at hand, including the UK’s exit from the European Union.
When Modi became Prime Minister two years ago, he gave fair warning that he believed in the Chinese metaphor, “May we all live in interesting times.”
Perhaps he should have paid equal heed to the other Chinese saying: Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.