Trust Manmohan Singh’s Congress government to take an axe to India’s feet. This country has suffered from an absence of a strategic mindset for so long that decisions are taken these days without a thought to their ramifications on India’s own interests and options in the future. The latest manifestation of this short-sightedness is New Delhi’s making a capital case out of the sale of the Chinese ACP 1000MW pressurised water reactors (PWRs) to Pakistan, by charging Beijing with violating strictures in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) restrictions.
Why is this position hurtful to India’s interests? For several reasons: One, because we are trying to be more loyal than the king, acting as a guardian of the NPT—drawn up principally to keep India out of the weapons club—and which has been a thorn in India’s side. The Chinese sale does two things—it sets a precedent for India to sell its own 220-700MW PWRs to any country that wants it, especially on China’s periphery, on precisely the terms and conditions Beijing has set for the Pakistani purchase. Nothing stopped us all these years from peddling our heavy water moderated PWRs to energy-deficient states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America except lack of strategic imagination. Using our PWR technology as the cutting edge of an export drive would have energised and vastly expanded our nuclear industry, increased the skilled labour pool, stamped India’s nuclear presence the world over, and amortised the Nuclear Power Corporation’s debts, putting it on a self-sustaining growth curve. But because India is always a follower and not a leader, the Chinese sale will hopefully wake us up to pushing exports of indigenous nuclear products.
The second strategic reason to not oppose the Chinese reactor sale is the long-term interest in seeing a stable Pakistan. The reactors will address the severe electricity crunch there—the main cause for the industrial stagnation and rocketing unemployment in that country. It is in India’s interest to ensure Pakistani youth find gainful employment in factories and workshops, rather than picking up the gun for jihad.
Even as his government has made this strategic error, Manmohan Singh himself will soon be winging his way to Russia and then China, after returning from trips to the US and Southeast Asia. But having logged thousands of air-miles travelling to distant points on the compass, his exertions had no discernible impact except in terms of giveaways to big powers that the country cannot afford. Every time he has headed west, he surrendered ground in any country that wanted to fete him and in return receive goodies—usually multi-billion dollar contracts for high-value technological hardware (weapons systems, nuclear reactors and the like), and concessions such as on the fluorocarbon refrigerants and wilful disregard of the 2010 Civil Nuclear Liability Act to please Washington, even as president Obama shrugged his shoulders at Indian concerns on the H-1B visas.
The lame duck Indian PM is now headed Moscow-wards followed by a jaunt to China. Due to Singh’s sojourns eastward, instead of transforming the “Look East” policy from a slogan into actual progress on the ground to restore the historical Indian presence in “Indo-China” by speeding up substantive security co-operation with local states and with Taiwan, South Korea and Japan farther east, owing to his spirit-sapping diffidence, India has been marking step. With recent foreign trips resembling tours superannuating heads of government departments and senior military commanders undertake as a valedictory drill before demitting office, Singh reaches China, one last time as head of government carrying giveaways to please Beijing in the face of provocations (a liberalised visa regime for Chinese visitors in exchange for stapled visas for Indians!). Then again, Chinese emperors have historically done as they wished, welcoming tribute from lesser states as their due.
India has been losing ground to a relentless and focussed China bent on minimising Indian initiatives in Central Asia and elsewhere, which last saw its stake in the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan being sold to a Chinese company. Apparently unfazed, Singh is offering Beijing an easier investment route for Chinese infrastructure companies without discriminating civil construction firms building highways, ports, and airports where India could do with Chinese funds and expertise, and investment by the PLA-linked Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE, which is avoidable. The telecom entry would be the gateway for Chinese cyber command to inject logic bombs, bugs, traffic monitoring and diversion software, to potentially gain control of the power grid, financial institutions, banking regimes, air traffic control and railway transportation and signalling systems, etc. and disable Indian national capability ere hostilities even begin. The Chinese have always relied on Indian foolishness to secure an edge, and now they have in Manmohan Singh a willing accomplice.
This context endows the PM’s consultations with the Kremlin with critical importance. Russia too fears the accrual of comprehensive power to Beijing, but finds the need to concert with China to contain the US and recover lost ground, inescapable. For Washington this is the nightmare of the Chinese monster the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger duo created in the 1970s coming back to stalk America. But Moscow in its efforts to recover some of its old status is reasserting its hold on the Central Asian Republics. Unfortunately, in places like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan central to Indian plans for pursuing its econo-military interests in that region, Moscow has successfully muscled India into a corner, pressuring these former Soviet republics to constrain Indian activity.
PM needs to tell president Putin that partnership with India is needed to trim China’s sails, reminding him of a sparsely-populated Russia being at the mercy of an unstoppable “demographic creep” by China, and about the vulnerability of the Russian military high-technology sector to Chinese theft and reverse-engineering. Moscow needs to be counselled against going overboard where China is concerned. The problem is how can Manmohan Singh be convincing when he has been in the forefront of buying peace with China by any and all means?
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com