Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar recently visited Beijing for what was billed as a new round of the India-China Strategic dialogue. Expectations that the talks would lead to a reset of the troubled India-China relations have been belied. Only a hardened optimist expected forward movement on the issues bedeviling their relations, especially India’s demand that China support its Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) membership and effort to designate Masood Azhar a terrorist under UN rules. And now, the Chinese have signalled that if India goes ahead with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, things could get much worse.
The reason why Sino-Indian relations are in a bad state has a lot to do with the way India conducts its foreign policy, rather than their much talked up geopolitical rivalry.
The Chinese perspective is apparent from the comment of a Chinese diplomat that India was “behaving like a kid in a candy store” in loudly clamouring for membership of the NSG. He had a point. India already has a waiver on civil nuclear trade since 2008. And in 2011, the NSG added a rule which will deny us the one thing we want—enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Is this hollow prize worth the price we are paying in derailing our relations with China?
Let’s look at the problem another way. Assume the government has good reasons for India to be a member of the NSG, the question then is: What price are we willing to pay for it? The US has not backed us for free. Not only did we agree not to conduct any more nuclear tests, we also gave verbal assurances that we would make significant purchases of US nuclear equipment. The French and the Russians, too, were promised nuclear sales. Unfortunately for the Chinese, they are being asked to support New Delhi for free.
India seems to be demanding that Beijing support India’s entry into the NSG and lift its hold on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 committee, on a matter of principle. The only thing on offer is Indian goodwill, a currency that has little value with the hard-headed Chinese, who like most other nations, believe that international relations are about give and take.
Now with a President with a “What’s in it for me and America?” ethos in the White House, India has cause to worry. In recent times Indian foreign policy leaned on American indulgence leavened with generous conventional military purchases. At some point, the Trump Administration could ask for something new in exchange for America giving so many jobs to Indians, or the diplomatic support on Masood Azhar and the NSG application. Whatever it is, the terms of engagement could become clearly transactional.
India is not quite used to this world. We’ve been a free rider on the international system by declaring that we were a poor, but a non-aligned Third World country. Our preachiness was irritating, but we did extract considerable economic assistance from both the US and the USSR. We have been the largest recipients of foreign aid from the US — $ 65 billion. Yet, we did not support them in the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and did Bangladesh despite them. The Americans came to come to our aid in the dark days of November 1962, but we haven’t even bothered to name a road after John F Kennedy, though we have named them after Nasser, Olof Palme, Nkrumah and Dubcek.
The Soviets didn’t get anything more. Though much poorer, they helped us with things that the West was reluctant to provide — steel and machine tools technology, our first submarines, a licence to manufacture the Mig-21, their frontline fighter at that time, political support on Kashmir and military backing in 1971. But they didn’t even get verbal support for their adventure in Afghanistan.
Being a poor and high-minded about-to-be-great nation has stood us well till now, countries have been willing to invest politically and financially in India in the hope of recovering their cost handsomely when we strike it big. So we have demanded and got concessions on emissions criteria, IPR and trade regimes. When the US sanctioned Iran in 2010, we got a waiver. But in today’s troubled times when even the US feels victimised by the international system, the appetite for accommodating India is wearing thin. Actually it has been for a while.
In fact, the signs have been evident for some time now. After the Soviet collapse, a contrite New Delhi went to the Americans demanding technology as a price of better relations. They did not offer much by way of exchange except the usual IOUs encashable in the future. The US has refused to unbelt and has, instead, focused on our lucrative market for their military equipment. As for technology, they have their own IOUs, offering it always in some unspecified future.
The one big power that has never quite fit into this paradigm is China. They offered to swap their claim on Arunachal Pradesh for the Indian territory in Aksai Chin, New Delhi did not bite in 1960, it didn’t do so again in 1981. So they have gone back on the offer and now call Arunachal “southern Tibet.” The non-aligned preachiness did not help because Beijing was even better than New Delhi in feeling entitled, first as the vanguard of the revolution, and now as a country recovering from “a century of humiliation”.