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Home > India > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

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Inscrutable China

September 18, 2008

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I lost a friend the other day when I told him on television that he was trying to whitewash China on the NSG waiver issue. But now that the full facts of China's diplomacy in Vienna [Images] are out in the open, it is clear that no amount of white paint will suffice to hide the Chinese designs. But one did not have to be a rocket scientist to know that China would have liked to sabotage the deal, if it could. The only mystery was that India believed at the highest levels that China would play ball and was surprised and enraged when it did not.

I had said in these columns (IAEA and NSG will be no cakewalk on August 24, 2007): 'China's position will be the most crucial in the entire NSG exercise. At the first NSG meeting after the India-US Joint Statement, China had pressed for a similar deal with Pakistan. China has been lying low, but it has made no secret of its opposition to the deal. But China tends to be eminently reasonable in the international arena, and, therefore, may point out that the exception should be criteria-based rather than country-based. If other countries adopt similar measures as India has done, they should be treated in a similar manner.'

At the elementary level, there was never any doubt that the deal was anathema to China as it symbolised a strategic alliance between the United States and India, regardless of its other merits or demerits.

The popular interpretation that this was a part of the grand strategy of the United States to contain China must have added fuel to the fire. For a country which went to war in 1962 to teach India a lesson in humility, the minimum course of action was to scuttle the deal.

But the only argument it had was that the deal was a hard blow to the non-proliferation regime and this was stated unequivocally in October 2005 itself. The same argument was voiced more forcefully in September 2008 by the People's Daily, making it clear that the party line had not changed whatever pretty sentiments the Chinese government leaders may have whispered in the ears of their Indian interlocutors.

An apologist for China pointed out that the Chinese attack was against the commitment of the United States and not of India. This was no gracious gesture on the part of China. China could hardly have accused India of violating the non-proliferation regime when it had not signed the NPT.

China was hoping against hope that someone else would scuttle the deal and thus save it the odium of having to dirty its own hand. First, the hopes were pinned on the non-proliferation Ayatollahs in the United States. The opposition was serious and it looked after the separation plan was approved that the deal would run into the rocks of testing and reprocessing.

But when these issues were out of the way when the 123 Agreement came to light, China's hopes shifted to the stiff opposition of the Left parties in India. The Left parties delayed the deal for more than a year and brought the government to the verge of collapse. When the government survived and moved to the IAEA and the NSG, China found new hope in the non-proliferationist 'mini-states' in the NSG.

Now there is sufficient evidence to show that China kept urging these states to persist with their opposition till the very end. China would have staged a victory if only the 'mini-states' had managed to postpone the waiver for a few days. But when the cookie crumbled, China had to either fight it alone or adopt its favourite diplomatic ploy of not participating in the vote. In the face of US pressure, and not any consideration for India, China refrained from using its veto.

China has developed abstention, absence from vote and non-participation as tools of its foreign policy at the United Nations. Although the position of a permanent member not concurring in a decision should be a veto according to the UN Charter, China has established that abstention is not a veto as far as the Security Council is concerned.

In the early years in the UN, China did not participate in many votes even when the Chinese representative was present. Story goes that the Chinese representative was out of the room when a particular vote was taken. When he returned, having discovered that the vote had taken place, he explained his position as follows: 'Mr Chairman, my delegation was out of the room when the vote took place. I would like to have it recorded that if I was present, I would not have participated in the vote!' The Chairman recorded accordingly.

The Chinese foreign minister's visit to India soon after the NSG meeting was a real test of his diplomatic skills and he acquitted himself very well. He did not shy away from the visit and went about his business as though nothing had happened even after he was told in appropriate terms what India thought of the whole affair.

China even went to the extent of welcoming the nuclear deal with the caveat that it was very attached to the non-proliferation regime. The foreign minister said the Chinese policy was set for a long time and it was conveyed to India in a certain way, implying that India misread the message.

Regardless of whatever may have happened, China still sticks to its position of its allegiance to non-proliferation and it is here that China lacks credibility. The most recent revelation by the IAEA that bomb designs were even sent electronically by A Q Khan should be sufficient to show how China has undermined the non-proliferation regime by giving nuclear technology to Pakistan. China was in the supply chain of A Q Khan's nuclear Wal-Mart.

It is claimed on behalf of China that it was hesitant about the setting up of the NSG with the purpose of denying technology to India. China initially joined the Zangger Committee and not NSG simply because China was, at that time, in the process of supplying a reactor to Pakistan. Since the NPT does not require full scope safeguards as a condition of supply, China's membership of the Zangger committee did not prevent it from supplying the reactor to Pakistan.

By joining the NSG at that time, China would have forsaken its right to supply nuclear equipment to Pakistan. A US representative at the NSG revealed this when China applied for NSG membership subsequently. But for China fans in India, the Chinese hesitation to join the NSG was a favour to India, not to Pakistan.

Indeed, India cannot choose its neighbours and we have to deal with the inscrutable China till eternity. Lessons of each experience should be learnt rather than wished away.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna

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