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NSG and China’s Grand Strategic Flip-flops: Some Plausible Explanations

A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 24, 2016

    When India responded cautiously to the international tribunal’s rejection of China’s claim over the South China Sea (SCS), many commentators construed it as India ceding crucial ground on an issue where a tit-for-tat response would have been more appropriate to China’s ‘sabotage’ of India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). For South Block mandarins, a low-key diplomatic reaction to the tribunal’s verdict was an opportunity to not ruffle Beijing’s feathers and keep a window open for engagement with China on the NSG affair. The latter tactic seems to have been effective with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India– ostensibly to prepare for the upcoming G-20 and BRICS summits in Hangzhou and Goa, respectively – opening the space for dialogue on both the NSG and SCS. While Beijing evidently wants to buy New Delhi’s silence on the SCS at these summits, the possibility of a quid pro quo on the NSG was highlighted by the conciliatory voices in the Chinese media.

    A commentary in Xinhua noted that India had ‘wrongly’ blamed China for the NSG episode, and that New Delhi should not be “downhearted as the door to the NSG is not tightly closed.”1 This apparent toning down of rhetoric is a far cry from the days when the Chinese official media spewed vitriol on India’s NSG quest, to the extent of warning India against letting “its nuclear ambitions blind itself.”2 Is a quid pro quo possible or tenable for India, especially since the SCS and NSG have emerged as strategic arenas for both powers to grapple with each other in their power balancing quests? The answer may lie in understanding China’s recent grand strategic behaviour, including why it blocked India’s NSG bid.

    The ‘hedge’ finally takes-off

    When the India-US nuclear deal was announced through a joint statement on 18 July 2005, followed by the NSG waiver of September 2008, the dominant perception was that the US was providing India with this special privilege as a means to counter-balance China. Though factors like India’s burgeoning nuclear energy market and the need to strengthen non-proliferation by including a country with a good record were espoused, that the US simultaneously talked of making India a ‘major power’ underlined the realpolitik that drove the deal. Both the Chinese and Indian strategic communities had then rejected this notion. Nor has India substantially added to any American effort to contain China or the Chinese sphere of influence in the subsequent years.

    Things seem to have changed, however, with the advent of new dispensations in Beijing and New Delhi, with Xi Jinping showing signs of aggressive Chinese international posturing and Narendra Modi pursuing a proactive foreign policy agenda. The increasing strategic proximity between the US and India since Modi assumed office – including India’s consent to the logistics and communications agreement,3 firmly placing it in the US strategic ambit – seems to have convinced the Xi regime of India beginning to play a hedging role. Beijing could have seen the redline being crossed when India took the unprecedented step of issuing a joint statement4 with the US on SCS, and also espousing their common strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region – zones where China is beginning to engage in a contest for dominance with these powers. China’s NSG action has a clear message– that the hedging role will come at a cost for India.

    A power transition in the works?

    Another explanation for China’s behaviour could be linked to its larger strategic outlook – on the roles China wants to assume for itself on the global stage. This may be shaped by two key aspects: (a) Xi Jinping’s perception about the world order and the potential space for Chinese leadership in global affairs; and (b) the strategic imperative of countering the US rebalancing strategy in its periphery and securing its interests in the Asia-Pacific littorals. As the power transition argument goes, when a rising power is dissatisfied with the status quo maintained by a ruling hegemon, it could seek to challenge this condition through contestation, aggression or realignment. China’s evolving economic crisis and America’s Asia Pivot are developments that could undermine Beijing’s prominence as an economic and military power. The need to reverse these conditions, and thereby reduce the US hegemonic grip, might be the rationale for Beijing’s belligerence in its current global postures, be it on the SCS or at the NSG.

    The NSG episode, in fact, suitably fits into this dimension as a calculated attempt to challenge US dominance of the non-proliferation regime. The US as the sole hegemon leads a group of guardians (described as a liberal security community, owing to its western domination)5 to lord over the regime and its normative structures. While Russia had figured in this group thanks to the superpower consensus that led to the creation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, China, having termed the guardians as an ‘imperial’ grouping in those formative years, later became a palpably incompatible partner in this framework. Beijing, hence, sees its NSG role as a means to restore its pride of place among the guardians, and also by virtue of being a nuclear weapon state and a leading nuclear energy producer. Well before India’s membership episode, Beijing had expanded the scope of its ‘grand-fathered’ nuclear agreement with Pakistan to newer facilities as a symbolic response to the India-US deal, thus demonstrating that it too could flex muscles within the regime– a posture further reinforced by blocking India. However, it needs to be seen whether these actions will elevate Beijing’s standing in the regime or instead further its image as an irresponsible actor.

    Beijing’s dented image

    At the core of China’s current problems is its inability to project itself as a responsible global player or one that is peacefully rising on the global scene. Its recent actions –the saboteur role at NSG and sabre rattling over SCS –only aggravate concerns of an authoritarian state seeking to further its hegemonic ambitions. Added to this dimension is China’s own shady record of indulging in or aiding proliferation and the strategic deception it pursues in its international behaviour. From Mao’s terming of nuclear weapons as ‘paper tigers’ and subsequent change of tack to develop a nuclear arsenal, staying out of NPT negotiations calling it an instrument of imperialism and ending up with the current “care about NPT,” 6 and from the activism on the Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and subsequent pursuit of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capability, examples abound on how words and actions hardly match in China’s grand strategic posturing.

    While currently attempting to assume a guardianship role, Beijing’s record of supporting many clandestine nuclear programmes7 had not just invited numerous sanctions from the US,8 but also underlined its own struggle for legitimacy as a nuclear-armed great power. In fact, China was nowhere involved in the initial construction of the non-proliferation regime, and was kept out for long years from the affairs of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).9 Though it managed to join the IAEA in 1983 and sign the NPT in 1992, Beijing’s failure to get into groups like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), thanks to its proliferation history, reflects its frustrations on India gaining greater recognition in the system, despite being a non-NPT state.

    Is a quid pro quo needed?

    Though the reference to NPT and full-scope safeguards is cited to deny membership to India, the unprecedented India-specific waiver of 2008 and the possibility of devising new criteria for non-NPT states refutes any element of sanctity for this framework.10 Relevant to this aspect is the different set of parameters employed to endow the India-specific waiver, which illustrates the scope of flexibility that this grouping has to determine its membership rules.11 However, formulating criteria for non-NPT states with the objective of also including Pakistan will imply that the grouping has diluted its fundamental philosophy of non-proliferation. Such a criterion could also mean that the NSG may not deny a similar claim by even North Korea in the distant future.

    Accordingly, it could be argued that the NSG may not be able to withhold the India membership question for long, in spite of China’s inconsistent positions. Given that, it would be unwise on India’s part to forfeit any advantage it has on the SCS issue. Therefore, India should emphasise upon freedom of navigation in the high seas at the forthcoming multilateral summits in order to convey the message that Beijing needs to perfect its behaviour if it seeks a respected global standing.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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