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India into SCO, how far from NSG?
In the face of persisting dilemmas, India's NSG strategy will receive an adequate boost if it attempts to evaluate the scope for an alternative economic corridor that is also alluring to China
In the recently held 27th Plenary Meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Bern, Switzerland, China once again registered strong opposition to India’s NSG membership bid. On the other hand, India continued scrambling for like-minded partners, renewing hopes for entry into the elite group. Its push for NSG membership is driven by the agenda to boost nuclear trade as well as its desire for a legitimate nuclear power status. Meanwhile, India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) opened the gates to Central Asia. Indeed, these institutions are significant status-marker for those states participating as members as well as for outsiders.
At the recent SCO summit, the highlight of the event was the inclusion of archrivals, India and Pakistan, with a promise to engage for the greater good. Though India made a mark by avoiding China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) jamboree, the SCO admission offers fresh hopes of partnership between India and both, China and Pakistan. Placing this alongside the NSG, the dynamics of India-China relations and behaviour in this institutional domain are worth scrutiny.
While India’s drive towards the SCO was a cakewalk, aided by China’s affirmative stance, the scene at the NSG is very different. In the last multilateral consultations over India’s NSG candidature in Seoul, China lurked as a prominent opponent. Suggesting instead a criteria-based membership for countries like India, China covertly hinted at its all-weather friendship with Pakistan. This has been the scenario at the NSG ever since India sought a seat at the high table preceded by an exceptional waiver from the NSG. It can be rightly inferred that China has not only flagged a technical difficulty but also has hefty political concerns behind not allowing India into the NSG. Among other factors, status concerns relating to India’s accession of a ‘legitimate nuclear power’ status become profoundly important. Interpreting China’s behaviour towards India, status concerns complement its security unease.
In the economic realm, by contrast, China sees India much less as a competitor than a collaborator. Accordingly, China’s support for India in the SCO signals its positive regard for India as an economic partner. China has, however, given equal weight to Pakistan, including in but not limited to its drive for economic collaborations. In a similar vein, China has heaped mounting pressures on India to accede to its giant OBOR plan. India has, however, resisted, owing to its grave concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiatives which trample upon its territorial sovereignty. With the SCO, China has bestowed India with the status of an economic power house, NSG opposition is driven by suspicion and mistrust.
Previously, India’s indulgence at the NSG was marked by constant support from the United States. The US’s insistence, led by on India’s NSG candidature, has ultimately facilitated its entry into the elite group. Yet the Trump Administration, although providing overt support to India’s NSG membership bid, is yet to articulate its position. At the other end, India has made bold attempts to negotiate with China on its own as well as through third parties such as Russia. However, as of now, nothing of major consequence has resulted. On the contrary, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang maintained: “On the issue of NSG, I can tell you China’s stance on the accession of new members into NSG has not changed.” This signals China’s unchanged stance on India’s membership and in all probability, it will remain the most prominent opponent of India’s NSG candidature. Although the incoming chair, Switzerland, has lent support, the Indian top-tier officials will have a tough time persuading their Chinese counterparts.
This unrestrained opposition from China can be comprehended in terms of the enveloping status and security dilemma between the Asian giants. A security dilemma, as understood in realist terms, is a ‘spiral model’ where actions taken by states to ensure greater security for themselves, such as increasing military strength and Naval presence, as a side-effect, propel other states to reciprocate such as in making alliances, leading to an upward spiral of action and reaction. A security dilemma can be understood as both competition over military or Naval capabilities and threat perceptions within states which cannot be equated with status perceptions. However, the security dilemma persisting between India and China is affected influenced by a status dilemma. For instance, since 2005, the year when talks on the US–India Civil Nuclear Agreement were initiated, China renewed its claims to the Province of Arunachal Pradesh after deployment of two military divisions by New Delhi in the territory. In 2006, a Chinese Envoy to India insisted, a week before the visit of the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, that “the whole State of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory”.
In 2009, after the NSG waiver for India was obtained, the dispute gathered additional momentum as China aimed to block a $2.9 billion loan to India from the Asian Development Bank on the grounds that China was responsible for development in Arunachal Pradesh. This almost certainly prompted India’s announcement some months later of a reinforced military posture, a deployment to the North-East of two divisions of mountain units and a squadron of Sukhoi SU-30MKI fighter jets. The then Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, Deepak Kapoor, acknowledged that intrusions were a matter of perceptions. China’s incursions into the disputed territory have been a signal to India of China’s growing anxiety over territorial integrity. Indeed, territorial disputes are, to a greater extent, manifestations of states’ perception of one another in relation to self perceptions. Thus, a security dilemma is inter-woven with status perceptions and is as inter-subjective and relational as perceptions of status.
Status dilemmas, as opposed to security dilemmas, are notable for systematic factors that provide maximum opportunity for strategic uncertainty and misperceptions. In many situations, misperceptions in the regional as well as international domain develop into status dilemmas with catastrophic implications for international peace and security. Thus, the NSG membership held out to consolidate India’s position in the group, endowing India with the recognition of a nuclear power, is conceived by China as a challenge to its ‘hegemonic’ status. This builds a status dilemma between the two states where one state in the quest of acquiring greater status inevitably stimulates another state to do likewise.
In the face of persisting dilemmas, India’s NSG strategy will receive an adequate boost if it attempts to evaluate the scope for an alternative economic corridor that is also alluring to China. In doing so India has an urgent need to step away from suspicion and mistrust and make genuine advances towards understanding the cultural sensitivities and strategic concerns of China. True, China’s expansionist projects, including, but not limited to the Indian Ocean region, have to be addressed with greater caution. Nonetheless, there is a silver lining in the burgeoning regional economic institutions such as the SCO and the Asian Development Bank. At the same time, China’s advances in building up a rule-based order suiting its interests have to be met with circumspection. In doing so India needs to secure a seat for itself at the high table, not just as a status quo state, but as an agenda-setter, accruing genuine collaborators and adeptly dealing with potential challengers.
(The writer is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
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