Now that it is clear that India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) will not be easy, the country needs to assess how it will push its case henceforward. Any future strategy must dissect the reasons for our failure and recalibrate it to eliminate the weaknesses that showed up this time. But it is important to remember that this is a stumble not a fall. We misjudged China’s capacity to do damage, but there are several intangible gains from this effort. It is worth noting them and building on them.
One, this is
arguably one of those rare instances where India really used its own clout and
diplomatic sinew to bat for itself, the earlier examples being 1971 (the
Bangladesh war) and 1998 (Pokharan-2). That it was not successful does not take
away anything from the effort and experience gained. Understanding failure is
one step towards success. As Askok Malik noted in a column today (27 June) in The Times of India, the UPA, despite
tomtomming the India-US nuclear deal, did not even put in an application for
entry. Narendra Mod has done that and got 40 out of 48 NSG members to back us
fully. Seven others had different kinds of objections, many that can be
overcome the next time. The only real hurdle is China.
Two, the outing of China as India’s spoiler is also an important gain. Now we know where we stand. Earlier China could hide behind the smokescreen of empty words, but now it is clear who really blocked India. China could, actually, have extracted a few concessions if it had bargained with India. But it chose to declare its opposition to India’s rise. If, after this, our policies don’t reflect the reality of China’s deliberate efforts to block us, we have only ourselves to blame. We must now try and understand the enemy, and look for weak points to retaliate covertly. We have to focus on reducing China to reduce its trade surplus – the pressure must be on them to correct it or face trade barriers, both tariff and non-tariff.
Three, our alliance with the US is now well settled, but we have to also learn that the US does not have much leverage with China. Superpowers have veto powers, and cannot use their size to advantage with other veto wielders. This actually gives us room for strategic manoeuvre even within the embrace of the US. If the US could have finessed China at NSG we would have been more beholden to it than now. In the US’s relative powerlessness against China we can thus have both a useful alliance and a degree of strategic independence.
Four, the Seoul setback tells us that we have to develop better leverage with China itself - both through positive diplomacy and through the power of denial of future economic opportunities in India. There is also scope for more aggressive anti-China diplomacy and economic manoeuvres. Just as China has its “string of pearls” strategy to contain us by building leverage with countries surrounding India, India needs to build political and economic leverage in countries surrounding China, including Vietnam, Japan, Asean, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran. Russia, the Central Asian republics, Sri Lanka and others. Indian diplomacy and economic ties with these countries need to grow faster. None of them is any fonder of the Chinese than us. We need to use our benign, non-threatening ties with them to build counter-leverage even as China tries to do the same. Free trade agreements with some of them on a bilateral basis may be useful. So is increasing defence cooperation.
Every setback forces us to think how to do better next time. India’s Seoul experience will stand us in good stead in future if we learn the right lessons from it. The Congress party made a needless attack on the Modi government over the NSG embarrassment, but it needs to know that it is only when you start doing something you know what you are up against. Do-nothing is not a strategy.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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