India's NSG failure: Why US looked helpless before China

Beijing has been challenging Washington's global supremacy on non-proliferation matters.

 |  4-minute read |   12-07-2016
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Much has been written and said on our abortive bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership. MEA's background briefing ex post facto has shed light on why we pressed for membership at this juncture, why we failed, procedural issues raised by some countries and China's dogged opposition.

This still leaves room for further analysis and reflection.

A disquieting feature of the Seoul setback was the diplomatic victory China scored over the US in a forum established by the US and dominated by it for decades.

Also read - Modi and Jinping shouldn't let their egos come in the way of India-China ties

If China could block the US, here it does raise questions about America's willingness and capacity to checkmate Beijing elsewhere, not only in the South China Sea but also in our region.

Washington is seeking expanded commitment from India against the rising Chinese threat in the Asia-Pacific region. It should normally have reasoned that if its resolve to counter China on an issue such as India's NSG membership, which China was opposing for purely political reasons and its unflinching support for Pakistan, was seen as weak, India would have less confidence in the tenacity of America's rebalance towards Asia.


Washington's public support for India's application and China's equally public opposition to it made the issue of India's NSG membership an open diplomatic tussle between the US and China.

Countries such as Austria, New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico and Switzerland are amenable to firm US diplomacy, but were allowed to play into China's hands and buttress its opposition by raising procedural issues. China was allowed to inflict a diplomatic defeat on India and on the US itself.

As a late entrant, not only to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it rejected as discriminatory for years, but also to the NSG which it joined in 2004, for China to swear by the NPT and project itself as a conscientious upholder of the NSG guidelines compared to the unprincipled approach of the US is quite ironic.

f-xiobama-a-20150927_071216111212.jpg Chinese President Xi Jinping with his US counterpart Barack Obama. (Reuters)

Its nuclear relationship with Pakistan in the past and even now cannot withstand strict NSG scrutiny.

The US has chosen not to confront China on this issue as other differences with China have higher priority in its eyes. Other factors have given China room for its NSG power play.

China is expanding its nuclear sector massively. US, French and Russian companies are constructing several nuclear power plants in China, which makes business considerations very relevant.


China has been offered a stake in UK's Hinkley nuclear power project that requires huge investment.

France's Areva has signed a number of strategic agreements with China in the nuclear sector and now is offering equity in the company to China.

This would explain the reluctance to corner China on its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and on India's NSG membership. China has behaved as a kingpin in the NSG and has got away with it for the moment.

Also read - Failed NSG bid: China is a formidable adversary

Ever since the sealing of the India-US nuclear deal, China has been challenging Washington's global supremacy on non-proliferation matters.

To balance the India-US deal, China decided to enhance its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan by contracting to build two additional reactors without going through the process of seeking an NSG exemption for its protégé.

It has deliberately tagged Pakistan's NSG membership to that of India to show to the US that it can exercise patronage on nuclear matters too, and that too without doing any preparatory legal work that the US did in India's case.


China deliberately fast-tracked Pakistan's NSG membership application to derail a decision in India's case, so that the procedural and criteria argument regarding membership of non-NPT countries becomes more germane.

Through such manoeuvring China wanted to expose the fragility of the US commitment on our membership and demonstrate that the latter could not steam roll India's membership against China's wishes.

The procedural and criteria argument is a red herring though, because there is no queue of countries seeking NSG membership.

Israel is not a declared nuclear power and has no intention to seek NSG membership.

Also read - NSG may be a failure for Modi, but MTCR membership a big win for India

The whole debate boils down to India and Pakistan alone and could have been settled on the basis of the merits of their individual cases.

There is no easy explanation why the US failed to clinch India's membership that has been on the political table for so long.

Even if China relents towards the end of the year, it has demonstrated its clout and conveyed that India has to earn its support and goodwill.

India's public statement that it will not oppose Pakistan's NSG membership politically is a notable diplomatic victory for China, particularly in the background of the political slap it administered on India's face at Vienna and Seoul.

(Couretsy of Mail Today.)


Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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