Hindu gods spike Chinese dragon
India's National Security Advisor M K Narayanan made an astounding claim in a television interview on Saturday that "divine intervention" might have secured for the country a "waiver" from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG). The "waiver" allows India to have global nuclear commerce without formally signing either the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and paves the way for the US Congress to ratify a potentially lucrative civilian nuclear deal with India.
The NSG "adjusted its guidelines" for India on Saturday. Narayanan was reacting to the news. He then went on to launch a tirade against China, alleging Beijing tried to spoil India's party at Vienna. He said India was taken by surprise by the Chinese doublespeak since Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had assured the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Beijing would play a constructive role when the issue of the "waiver" for India came up for consideration in Vienna.
He lamented India's misfortune to have countries like China as neighbors. "We cannot choose our neighbors. We have China and Pakistan as neighbors and with both of them we desire to have the best of relations," he said. Narayanan added, "The Chinese foreign minister will come here and we will, of course, express disappointment. We will say that we did not expect this from China." (Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was due to arrive in Delhi on Monday.)
The timing of the broadside is intriguing. It stands to reason that Yang's visit would have provided a splendid opportunity for Delhi to do some plain-speaking with the Chinese one-to-one. India's veteran External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee could have ably done that. Yet Delhi chose to go ballistic. Curiously, Mukherjee took the first opportunity on Sunday to somewhat moderate his colleague's savage attack on the Chinese, but without quite disowning him. When asked about China's stance at the NSG, Mukherjee told reporters, "I don't want to comment on what role was played by which country at the NSG. This is their internal matter. Every sovereign country has its right to express its own sovereign will."
A spate of Indian media reports have since appeared based on government "leaks", thumb-sketching behind-the-scene efforts by Chinese diplomats to somehow scuttle a NSG consensus decision on Saturday. Any delay in Vienna would have been lethal. It would have thwarted the efforts by the US to pilot the NSG "waiver" and the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement to the Capitol Hill on Monday. A tight schedule lies ahead to obtain the approval from the US Congress before September 28 when its session ends.
It remains unclear where it was that the Indian special envoys sent to Vienna to canvass for the waiver were rubbed so badly by the Chinese diplomats. Actually, Beijing had never hidden its unhappiness over the presumptuous fashion in which the US first erected the NSG to punish India for its nuclear explosion in 1974 and then shepherded the world community to isolate the Indians. Now, the US has unilaterally decided otherwise and sought to amend the rules so as to accommodate Delhi. As recently as last Monday, the People's Daily lambasted Washington in no uncertain terms for its "multiple standards" and inconsistencies apropos of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
But the Chinese commentaries took care to focus criticism on Washington. They left open the possibility that when the crunch came, China, after having said its piece, would move on rather than exercise its prerogative to block an NSG consensus. Indeed, senior American officials have more than once expressed optimism that rhetoric apart, Beijing wouldn't obstruct an NSG waiver. In fact, at the crucial NSG session on Saturday in Vienna, China, like many other NSG member countries, absented.
All said, therefore, the Indian government's decision to whip up a degree of public frenzy over China has been deliberate and well-conceived. To be sure, a powerful imagery has been conjured up: Hindu Gods spiking the Chinese dragon. The thesis is that China worked hard at the NSG to obtain a similar waiver for it close ally Pakistan. As proof, the government has given to the media a statement by Yang, "It is also China's hope that the NSG would equally address the aspirations of all parties for the peaceful use of nuclear power while adhering to the nuclear non-proliferation mechanism." The corporate media eagerly lapped up the China-bashing. The large anti-China lobby in the strategic community in Delhi promptly acquiesced with "expert" opinion.
The government's purpose has been well-served. The public attention has been almost entirely deflected from the core issue: What is the additional price that Washington has extracted from Delhi for obtaining this NSG waiver? The government struck with immaculate timing just as misgivings were beginning to be voiced in India that Delhi paid a high price to get the NSG waiver.
An explicit Indian commitment not to resort to nuclear weapon-testing ever again formed the "basis" of the NSG waiver. Indeed, on Friday morning, quite out of the blue, Mukherjee made a formal statement in Delhi ostensibly regarding India's commitment to disarmament. The statement contained an innocuous reference to India's commitment to observe a moratorium on nuclear testing. At first glance, it seemed Mukherjee was only restating India's stance. But as it turned out, the resonance was directed towards Vienna and the NSG waiver was forthcoming on its "basis".
Clearly, the NSG waiver was neither "clean" nor "unconditional" as Delhi claimed but instead signified yet another surrender of national sovereignty. The waiver has converted India's voluntary moratorium on testing into a multilateral commitment. Effectively, India has now agreed that any fuel supply agreement for its imported reactors will be subject to regular NSG review, while restrictions remain on India gaining access to uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies and India's nuclear facilities come under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in perpetuity.
In other words, India has been virtually brought within the ambit of the CTBT and NPT. India has given an open-ended commitment to abide by all NSG guidelines, including any future changes that the body may make in its guidelines, while India cannot participate in the NSG decision-making as such. In overall terms, India's nuclear program will be brought under US monitoring and control. Unsurprisingly, there is a sense of disquiet that the government is keeping away from public purview the full details of the negotiations over the nuclear deal with the US.
Overarching all this is the reality that the US-India nuclear deal forms an integral part of a broader strategic relationship. Indeed, in the past three-year period, while the nuclear deal was under negotiation, Indian foreign policy already moved onto a trajectory harmonizing with the US regional policies. There has been masterly inactivity with regard to building up relations with Russia; a distinct cooling is apparent vis-a-vis the Russia-China-India trilateral dialogue format and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; ties with Israel have assumed a pivotal nature within India's Middle East policies; relations with Iran have been curtailed; close coordination with the US is apparent in regard of regional security in South Asia and India Ocean.
Delhi keeps up the pretense that the nuclear deal is all about India's energy security, but it has succumbed to US-Israeli pressure against proceeding with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, which had a much shorter gestation period and would have been a far cheaper source of energy. The heart of the matter is that the nuclear deal eases the flow of US military technology to India, paving the way for the "interoperability" of the two armed forces and making India a potential ally in coalitions that the US might assemble from time to time as part of its global strategy.
This is where an orchestrated diversionary tactic becomes useful for the Indian government. By projecting China's perceived unfriendliness, Delhi insinuates that India has been left with no option but to proceed on the present track of forging a strategic partnership with the US. The Indian government's submission to the domestic opinion is that Chinese unfriendliness as manifest yet again at Vienna last weekend provides the raison d'etre for what Delhi has embarked on with the US.
Indians are a deeply nationalistic people. When a Chinese threat is invoked - and, that too, in combination with the Pakistani - as the rationale of US-India strategic partnership, the Indian public really has no choice but to rally behind the government's current policies. Dissenters will be simply branded as "anti-nationals" - or worse still, "Chinese agents". It is a shrewd strategy, as it deflects criticism regarding the matrix of US-India relationship as such, which is an unequal partnership where India is bound to end up playing the role of a junior partner.
The government has reason to be nervous that once the nuclear deal moves on to the US Congress on Monday, a new dynamics takes over. Americans have a nasty practice of indulging in open discussions and public revelations of dark secrets on sensitive issues that may cause discomfort to the Indian leadership. Any searchlights by inquisitive American legislators or public watchdogs on the full range of hidden Indian assurances and commitments to the George W Bush administration could be extremely damaging politically to the government in Delhi. Hopefully, the jingoism that has been drummed up in Delhi will deflect attention.
What would Beijing make out of this entire spectacle? The Chinese are realists. They would most likely show tact. Jingoism isn't new to them, either. Yang, in particular, had a hugely successful tenure as ambassador to the US. He would recollect that American politicians almost routinely indulged in grandstanding, while Sino-American relations continued to expand. China is already India's No 1 trading partner, and it seems bilateral trade will exceed the $60 billion target by 2010.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.