India and China: Perceptions of Strategic Culture and its role in the NSG membership issue

Kajari Kamal, PhD student, University of Hyderabad.

The debate on whether to include India as a member in the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or not, has brought the India-China-Pakistan dynamics in the limelight again. China’s resistance to India’s membership is seen by the Indians as clearly strategic, targeted at constraining the rise of India as a global power. While some observers of India-China relations believe that factors such as border disputes, power asymmetry, mutual distrust, and most recently, nuclear proliferation issues, are obstacles in the normalization of bilateral relations, some others strongly believe that there lies a fundamental clash of interests, rooted at a strategic culture level, which manifests in China’s determination to play a key role in world affairs, as it has done as a great power and a great civilization, in the past. In a dyadic relationship, the importance of the perception of each other’s strategic culture cannot be overemphasized. Andrew Scobell argues that China’s foreign policy and its tendency to use military force are influenced not only by elite understanding of China’s own strategic tradition but also by their understanding of the strategic cultures of other states.

While the study of the strategic culture of a nation is important per se, it must be supplemented by including the perceptions by other countries, which rank high on its diplomatic map. Strategic culture is useful in assessing the foundational elements that condition the practices and policies of a nation. But, it becomes a definite and potent tool when it is projected in a definite manner and perceived as such by the target audience, in interstate relations. India’s nuclear weapons programme, for instance, spelled out an inherent military objective, but Nehru while keeping the doors of nuclear weapons development open, advocated universal nuclear disarmament. In the light of perceived strategic challenges from both China and Pakistan, India chose a nuclear deterrent. However, it has been scrupulous in ensuring that its weapons material and technology are guarded against commercial or illicit export to other countries. The NPT itself requires only that internationally-traded nuclear material and technology be safeguarded – a condition that India has continually made clear it is willing to accept, even though it declines to disarm and join the NPT as a “non-weapon-state”. In this context, it is not surprising that the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the formation of which was triggered by India’s 1974 explosions, is seriously considering bringing India in its fold.

Juxtaposed to this, is the case of China. There exists a wide gap between its stated policy and its actions in reality. Hu Jintao, in his Report to the Seventeenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Beijing, October, 2007 said – “China should energetically engage in regional cooperation in order to jointly create a peaceful, stable regional environment featuring equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation.” The language is reassuring and in line with China’s avowed good neighbour policy. However, when it is seen in the backdrop of Beijing’s historical, territorial claims, and its readiness to use force, it appears to be less than convincing.

It is often argued that the foreign policy of any country, apart from other variables, is a function of what others think of and believe to be its policy objectives – and therefore, how it might influence their own perceived national interests and their positions in the regional and global power structures. Robert Zervis, in his book, Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Relations, famously wrote that any view of international politics, that fails to take into account the role of perception, is inadequate. It is widely held that perception of a country vis-à-vis the other is generally dictated by the interaction of three factors: the perceived relative capability of the actor, the perceived political culture of foreign policy behavior of that actor and the context of the situation in which the perception is made.

Let us view India’s bid for the NSG membership and China’s resistance to it in this context. While most analysts believe that China has a huge military advantage over India, the latter has stepped up its production of fissile material and has plans to construct ballistic missile submarines. It has taken steps to indicate its willingness to become a first rate nuclear power. The gap in relative capabilities may seem to be decreasing. As far as the perceived political culture of foreign policy behavior is concerned, undeniably, China’s rising nationalism, its willingness to play a prominent role in regional stability and realpolitik strategic-culture-backed military buildup, does make the China threat loom large in the Indian security environment. On the recent ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative by China, connectivity, once seen as helping countries transcend geopolitics, was instead identified by the Indian foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, as having “emerged as a theater of present day geopolitics.” In contrast, despite India’s size and proximity, it is considered by many Chinese scholars as a ‘blind spot’ in China foreign policy. “Among China’s neighbors— Russia, the Koreas, Japan, even as far as Iran—Chinese interest and accumulated knowledge towards these countries is much stronger than it is towards India,” says Yu Longyu, director of the Center for Indian Studies at Shenzhen University. However, India does figure in serious discussions when associated with other, apparentlycrucial countries – The Unites States and Pakistan.

The third significant factor which has a bearing on a country’s perception of the other, is relevant in the context of India joining the NSG. The change in perception of a country’s foreign policy with the change in security environment is best exemplified in the case of India’s “Look East Policy” (LEP). In the initial years of its inception, Beijing viewed India’s attempt to integrate itself with the economies of East Asia in line with the economic reforms and entry into the global market. As India was still an insignificant economy, and military power, China’s response to LEP was rather indifferent or muted, as it doubted India’s capability to exert any major influence on this region. However, India’s involvement and growing role in Asia in recent years, especially in Southeast and East Asia, impinges directly on China as it is viewed in recent times as an attempt by India “to encircle China”. Similarly, India’s increasing ties with the ASEAN has made it a target of criticism from China on multiple occasions.

In the case of NSG, India’s diplomatic investment is evidently huge. It is going all out to garner support from member states. Coupled with this, the American military and diplomatic “pivot” or “rebalance” towards Asia; its announcement of dehyphenating India and Pakistan, underscored by the US-India Nuclear deal, has left China worrying about the emerging US-India axis in its region of interest. In this backdrop, India’s admission into the NSG will not only strengthen the emerging bond between the United States and India, and therefore make them a more significant force to reckon with in Asia, but would also bring India into a well established nuclear market which can help feed its burgeoning nuclear power generation programme. Ideally, though arguably, it will enhance India’s power attributes and put it on among the elite nuclear group of countries in the international political order. In the heightened state of strategic flux and current power transitions, the issue of India’s entry into the NSG, has attracted a strong reaction from China because of the perceived threat.

India and China are the largest countries in Asia. Their choices and actions will condition the policies of their neighbours and of non regional powers that have a stake in the subcontinent. More importantly, their actions will have a bearing on each other’s foreign policy behaviour as well. It is in the interest of both to maintain a peaceful and a stable political environment, based on mutual trust and cooperation. The strategic choices that these countries make, will in turn shape the perceptions of their political cultures, which may well decide the future of Asia’s geopolitics. Asia – if not the world, will await the  Strategic Culture outcome of the confabulations in Seoul.

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