NEW DELHI: A sense of deja vu has overtaken analysts in the capital who were either part of, or watched, the earlier Manmohan Singh government rush around in the same desperate manner trying to secure a seat at the high table of nuclear member nations. Perhaps the two most noticeable differences are one, that China is now the principal opposition to the Indian ambition and two, while former Prime Minister Singh relied on the direct telephone call, PM Narendra Modi is making a personal dash to states like Switzerland and Mexico for their support.

In the process, however, relations between India and China have touched a new low with the government moving, at a fairly fast pace, into a US-centric foreign policy. This visit by PM Modi to Washington sealed this, even for doubters who had credited the government with following a relatively more distant policy viz a viz the US, as compared to Singh.

It is not clear why, till the nth hour as it were, the Ministry of External Affairs has kept insisting that NSG membership is possible despite China’s very clear cut statements---not one but three in quick succession---that this Seoul meeting most certainly will not resolve the issue. China used the official media as well as its foreign office spokesperson to make it very clear that:

  1. This ongoing meeting of NSG nations does not have India’s membership, or otherwise, on the agreed upon agenda;
  2. That despite the Indian plea that the credentials of applicants and not the criteria set by the NSG be taken into consideration, China is very clear that a discussion on criteria is necessary before any doors are opened for India and other non-NPT applicants. It has been making its position clear over the months that a waiver for non-NPT nations cannot be for individual nations, but for all after due discussion within the elite nuclear club;
  3. And that in its view Pakistan should also be considered along with India.

New Delhi, strangely has pulled out all the plugs for this membership. Not only did the Prime Minister change his schedule to sandwich Washington between stops at Switzerland and Mexico, two countries that were opposing India’s membership, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar was sent to Beijing in a last bid for support.

Ambassador M.K.Bhadrakumar is amongst the Indian diplomats who are not particularly convinced that the US is going to push its case for NSG membership beyond reason. In that while it was President Barack Obama who put this NSG thought into New Delhi’s head from where it has grown into a fantasy for both Singh and PM Modi, Bhadrakumar believes as he has written recently, the heart of the matter is that the US too faces a predicament on the NSG issue insofar as by “pushing” India’s case, it would be not only undermining a non-proliferation regime it founded in 1975 while creating the NSG, but also triggering downstream consequences for the entire non-proliferation agenda by discriminating against the other non-NPT nuclear weapon states – Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.”

As he and others have pointed out the US will have to restructure the NSG architecture first, adding, “It beats my imagination how all this elementary truth went beyond the understanding of the professionals in South Block. Instead, they chose to make the NSG issue the stuff of some more China-bashing. The stunning part is that today we need China’s help and understanding and yet we also have pundits who advocate that to punish Beijing, we should flood China’s neighborhood in the South China Sea with BrahMos missiles.”

New Delhi has turned away from key China initiated projects, like the One Belt One Road that it is rather proudly pushing. South Block has criticised this, even as it earlier indicated its complete unwillingness to join the Silk Route of development and cooperation. Obe Belt One Road is an initiative taken by President Xi Jinping and India’s dismissive and critical approach is certainly not going to endear it to the Chinese dispensation.

Over the last several months in particular New Delhi seems to have given up on strengthening ties with China. In a foreign policy that seems to be increasingly shedding diplomatic nuances for a black and white approach, China is being pushed away with a series of almost hostile signals from India. The range covers the visas to Chinese dissidents for a conference in Dharamsala on Tibet, a position from which the government had to rescind under pressure, to visible sympathy for the US-Japan position on monitoring the South China Seas, to the opposition to One Belt One Road that has made China recognise through its official media that it is being seen as an “irritant” now by India.

This is not good news for the region, something that Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognised. Unfortunately, the Indian media eager to please the establishment here, insisted that at his press conference recently President Putin had supported the government’s bid to enter the NSG club. Whereas, in actual fact, he had said quite the opposition: “Of course, we (Moscow and Beijing) must discuss issues such as these (India’s NSG membership). We discuss all issues very openly. Our Chinese friends and we have no secrets from each other. We make it our general rule to always discuss things openly, all cards on the table… Of course, we must take everyone’s concerns into account because if we do not do so in a timely fashion, otherwise we would not solve problems but only create new ones. Can we resolve problems in this way? I think that we can, provided we are careful in our actions and work to reach agreement with each other”.

With this statement Putin underscored the relations between Russia and China…”we have no secrets from each other”... and in polite diplomatic language made it clear that India’s membership was open to discussion. He made it clear that there was no need for discussion on this issue, and everyone’s concerns needed to be taken on board, otherwise the problems will not be solved and instead new ones created. Looking at this from a “I, me, mine” prism that the Indian establishment seems to be using these days, the words could be read as Moscow pushing New Delhi’s case. But if the remarks are seen more accurately in the light of the NSG meet and China’s insistence on following criteria, it is clear that Moscow too is going along with Beijing on this issue.

Post Seoul, India will have to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attending soon to build relations with China in its immediate vicinity. This will take some work, but clearly Russia is willing to help cement relations. It might be recalled that when the SCO came into existence, one of the first countries invited to sit on the table as an equal partner was India. Manmohan Singh was reluctant because the US was reluctant, and ignored the invitation. By the time New Delhi under his instructions decided to move on this front, the founding nations of SCO namely Russia and China, had reduced its leverage to one of many, rather than the one amongst an original three.

It now remains to be seen that apart from the usual atmospherics whether PM Modi will mend relations with his big neighbours at the SCO meet, or whether the semantics will once again take over the substance.