The Enemy Within


India’s hopes of entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group remain uncertain. The US appears optimistic but the basis for that optimism is not clear. China has given no indication it will relent on the criteria for India’s admission BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

Some months ago, an Indian academic attending a seminar in Hong Kong was told by a Chinese academic, that if there was one country China would ‘love to teach a lesson to, that would be India’. He added that this also reflected China’s pragmatism: Taking on Japan which was covered by the US security umbrella, was too risky! Not that an attack of some kind on India is imminent, but in the aftermath of Delhi’s abortive bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which saw China identified as Delhi’s main opponent, there’s a sense that the two countries have entered uncertain terrain. The masks are off on both sides. The Ministry of External Affairs may now dispense with the pretence that China’s intentions are good; China, for its part, has made it clear that India is an adversary.

The Chinese point of view was driven home recently during a meeting with Indian academics and diplomats at a Delhi think tank. The Chinese hinting that in their view, their idea of a good neighbor and friend was Pakistan, which backed them on most if not all issues important to Beijing. India needed to do the same if it was to win cooperation from China and refrain from ‘knocking on various doors’.

Given the perception on the part of many Chinese that Pakistan is their client state, it would seem an India bowing to Beijing is the only benchmark acceptable to the mandarins. That India will not go down that road is pretty clear. So what happens to the NSG?

“India is waiting for the dust to settle from the NSG bid,” said Raji Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation, a private Delhi think tank. “There will be some stock taking, some re-doing of sums but there will be no lessening of our efforts to join the NSG.”

India could mount another bid in November but before that, Indian diplomats say they will renew the dialogue with friends and partners on NSG membership. They will also reach out to those countries whose echoing of China’s stand on criteria for membership, stymied India’s bid.

Could the US take on a more proactive role in the run up to the November NSG meeting? A US official did give that impression, sounding an optimistic note: “We are confident that we have got a path forward by the end of this year. It needs some work. But we are confident that India would be a full member of the (NSG) regime by the end of the year.”

Such remarks have led some in India to believe the Americans will not let the Chinese slap in their face to go unchallenged. Only eight years ago, all it took was a phone call from President Bush to get then Chinese president Hu Jintao to agree to an NSG waiver for India to do nuclear trade. Clearly, much water has flowed down the Yangtze since then with Beijing not only more confident of its strength but also willing to test it.

The confidence was on display in Delhi last month when China’s charge de affaires in India Liu Jinsong, was quoted in an interview to an Indian daily as saying: “As the Indian Prime Minister said, NSG is only one of the questions between China and India. Our two countries have a long list of questions to talk about. We attach great importance to the NPT as the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime. I believe our Indian friends can understand China’s position on this point. India’s membership in the NSG is not a low-hanging fruit.”

Indian nuclear scientists warn that if India remains outside the NSG, it puts in doubt the agreements signed with a number of countries including Australia and Kazakhstan for the supply of uranium. These are needed for the indigenous 700 megawatt reactors being scaled up to generate 1000 megawatts of power.

The NSG is also important as it frames the rules governing the international trade in nuclear materials and technologies. An interesting case in point here is that although India got a waiver from the NSG for nuclear trade, rules regarding enrichment and transfer of reprocessing technology were tightened in June 2011 to ensure countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty do not benefit.

As India refuses to sign the treaty because it divides the world into nuclear haves and have-nots, the new NSG rules may hit India. Also, when one looks at the background of the NSG, as an institution created by the US with the specific aim of putting the brakes on India’s nuclear programme, it’s evident that being a part of this 44 nation charmed circle is critical for India.

“It rankles that some of the countries in the NSG have no interest in nuclear trade, no worthwhile domestic nuclear power programme or industry to speak of, yet retain the right to question and stop India,” a scientist closely associated with India’s nuclear power programme observed.

On the face of it, nothing stops India from engaging in nuclear trade. It has the technology and the expertise to export its 300 megawatt reactors, which are considered ideal for small to mid-size countries. But with no voice in the NSG, this could be a risky proposition.

  • India’s hopes of entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group have hit the China block and the way forward is uncertain
  • The US appears optimistic but it’s not clear on what their optimism is based
  • India will have to reach out to China but falling in line with Beijing’s expectations would be deeply humiliating
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