Picking up the pieces from Seoul

In the NSG context, India cannot wish away China’s power, nor can China wish away the support and goodwill India enjoys in the group.

June 28, 2016 01:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:13 pm IST

The writings of Chinese strategist Sun Tzu ( The Art of War ) and India’s Chanakya (Arthashastra ) hold several remarkable similarities, especially when it comes to their advice on war and diplomacy. Both spoke of the need for ‘strategy’ rather than ‘tactics’, for quiet diplomacy over the need to pick one’s battles carefully, and to fight them only when one is sure of winning.

Discarding the cautious line In the run-up to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Seoul, it was this sagacity that the government seemed to be channelling as it carefully worked through speaking to members of the 48-nation nuclear club and tackled the issue of China, which seemed to be openly challenging India’s efforts. “China is not a problem,” explained a senior government official to a select group of mediapersons, “but if we keep demonising it, and saying it will be a problem, it may decide to become one.” The advice was followed up a few days later by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who said confidently, “China is not blocking India. There is a consensus building [in India’s favour], and no country will break the consensus.”

Just four days later, both the confidence and the restraint were abandoned, after the discussion on India’s membership application >failed to come to a conclusion despite a special session on the issue of taking in non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — mainly India — that stretched for hours. As it emerges, the NSG wasn’t a complete washout despite a perceived loss of face. The full details of what happened behind closed doors at Seoul’s Shilla Hotel may not be known, but despite China’s claims to the contrary, it is clear that a process, >albeit an informal one , has been started, that could >lead to progress on India’s membership application later this year.

As a result, India must pick up the pieces, and move on from South Korea to Switzerland, the country that assumes the NSG chair this year. What is apparent is that the path is more difficult and nuanced than the government had calculated earlier, and many in the group apart from China have raised questions on both the criteria and the principle of accepting >India as a non-NPT state , which must be answered.

What is surprising is that instead of recording the progress made, officials have chosen to build just the narrative they had warned against earlier, blaming China for being the “one country” that derailed India’s bid. India’s reaction is understandable, as China’s aggressive stance during the NSG meeting, and its lead negotiator’s tone at a press conference in Seoul, were out of line and provocative. It was also out of line with the sense of the NSG other members gave. But for the government to issue a statement from Tashkent aimed at China even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were sharing the stage at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit was also bad form.

Allaying apprehensions at home Given that NSG membership is not an event but a consultative process, it is extremely likely that India will need to go into negotiations with every country not completely convinced of its special case and the need for an exception (remember, Pakistan was not discussed at all), and China is only the most vocal of those countries. This will entail the use of quiet, persuasive diplomacy rather than vigorous handshakes or strong arm-flexing in the arc lights of press conferences.

Some of that diplomacy must be done internally as well. In the past few weeks, many have questioned the government’s desire for membership of the NSG, and asked why it has betrayed such unnecessary haste. India has all it needs to conduct nuclear trade with the >2008 waiver already granted by the NSG, says this group, raising other valid questions on the concessions India may need to give to get what they call a “second-class membership”, that of a non-nuclear weapon state. What also worries many is that >Pakistan , a known proliferator, may simply walk through the membership door opened for India in a “criteria-based” manner. It is necessary for the government to address this domestic debate and explain the need for its NSG efforts instead of dismissing the doubts without any consideration as it has done these past weeks.

Going forward, both New Delhi and Beijing must repair the ruptures between them that the past week has caused. Fortunately, both their diplomatic teams will have more than ample occasion to meet and clear up their differences in the coming months, as China hosts the G-20 in Hangzhou in September, and India hosts the BRICS summit in Goa in October. Relations between India and China have reached new lows in the past two years over several issues, including tensions at the Line of Actual Control and over the South China Sea, but it is an escalating war that hurts the Asian neighbours themselves the most, given the trade ties and the major border they share. In the NSG context, India cannot wish away China’s power, nor can China wish away the support and goodwill India enjoys in the group.

“The welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy,” counselled Chanakya in the Arthashastra , “If the end can be achieved by not fighting, I would not advocate conflict.” In the same vein, said Sun Tzu, “To fight and win all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Diplomacy, both wise men would agree, not protracted dispute, is the order of the day.


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