Shahid M Amin
China blocked India’s bid to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in a meeting held in Seoul (South Korea) on June 24, 2016,. Since the discussions were held under closed doors, it is not clear what exactly happened in the meeting. Chinese circles said that the meeting did not discuss the accession to NSG of any specific country. But a top U.S. official asserted that India had failed to get entry in NSG due to China-led opposition. Prior to the Seoul meeting, India was claiming that it had overwhelming support in the 48-member group, but it has since transpired that as many as ten member countries had reservations against Indian membership of NSG.
India’s rejection at Seoul is a big setback for Prime Minister Modi who had canvassed personally with many heads of states during his recent whirlwind tours of several countries. He had also talked to Chinese President Xi Jinping who reportedly said that China would play a ‘constructive’ role. But the net outcome is that India has been kept out of NSG. This should be an eye-opener for Modi. He is a novice in international diplomacy and needs to understand that highly-publicised summitry cannot be a substitute for quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Modi is drawing criticism in India not only from the opposition but also from independent observers for causing embarrassment to India, as also earning a personal rebuke, by conducting a high-profile campaign that ended disastrously. This also showed the perils of seeking a diplomatic success abroad to secure domestic popularity for the forthcoming elections.
What has China achieved by blocking India’s membership of NSG? Exclusion from NSG hinders uranium supply to India to some extent, and access to the latest nuclear technology. It denies India a seat in the nuclear trade group. In political terms, it shows China’s support for its ‘iron friend’ Pakistan. It weakens India’s claim to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council by virtue of being an NSG member. It is a snub not only to India but also to the USA, which had strongly espoused India’s membership of NSG. And it is an assertion of China’s clout as an emerging Power and its say in global politics.
China has said that its stance in NSG was based on principles. India is not a signatory to the NPT and wants rules to be bent in its favour to enable it to join NSG. This is true but the real reasons for China’s stance on Indian exclusion from NSG are political. The Seoul episode highlights the rivalries of three neighbouring countries in a wider geopolitical context. The bitter relationship between Pakistan and India is no secret. But there are also abiding differences between China and India who see each other as rivals for leadership of Asia. This is not something new, but goes back to the 1950s. India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, had sought to woo China. But at the 1955 Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian countries, a competition between the two countries came to surface. China and India next developed serious differences on their boundary, erupting in a brief war in 1962, in which India came out the loser. The border issue still remains unresolved, though both India and China have worked to improve their bilateral relations, particularly in trade. But the NSG affair shows the continuing underlying rivalry.
Pakistan sought good relations with the People’s Republic of China since its formation in October 1949. When India shut down trade with Pakistan in 1949, due to a dispute over devaluation, Pakistan turned to China as a substitute for export of its cotton and jute and import of coal. In 1950, Pakistan became the first Muslim country to recognise Communist China and to establish diplomatic ties with it. Pakistan’s calculation was that it already had problems with a large neighbour (India) and could not afford to have unfriendly relations with another big neighbour (China). Policy planners in China foresaw a long-term rivalry with India, and considered Pakistan as a potential ally because it had deep differences with India. At Bandung, Premier Chou En-lai met with Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra and stated afterwards that he had been assured by Bogra that “although Pakistan was a party to a military treaty (SEATO), it was not against China.” In 1956, the Prime Ministers of China and Pakistan exchanged visits. Chou declared that although Pakistan was a member of SEATO, there was no reason why China could not be friendly with her. Prime Minister Suhrawardy went on to declare in 1957 that “I feel perfectly certain that when the crucial time comes, China will come to our assistance.”
The above narrative shows a consistency of policies in which relations between Pakistan and China have grown from strength to strength. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan War was no doubt the high watermark of this relationship, but the passing of time has not affected their strategic alliance. More recently, a qualitative upgrading in relations has taken place with the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) where under the strategic and economic interests of the two countries would become inextricable. CPEC is also a response to the Indo-U.S. axis that has been evolving following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which used to have a special relationship with India. Its successor Russia is watching with anxiety India’s growing ties with USA. Russia has improved relations with China and is looking to come closer to Pakistan. A new alignment of forces is clearly taking place.
There is some anxiety at present that Pakistan is becoming isolated internationally. Pakistan is having problems in its neighbourhood not only with its traditional rival India but also with Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and even with Iran and Central Asian countries. Pakistan continues to have a roller-coaster relationship with the USA. At the root is the issue of terrorism that has adversely affected Pakistan’s relations with many countries. What these countries should realise is that Pakistan itself is the biggest victim of terrorism. The gap in communications needs to be bridged through proactive diplomacy. The military success of Zarb-i-Azb must also be supplemented by a strategy to eradicate the sources of violent extremism in religious institutions and elsewhere. This is the best way to overcome Pakistan’s relative isolation.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.