It is significant that the first international call that Narendra Modi received soon after taking oath as Prime Minister was from Premier Li Keqiang of China. This has been quickly followed up with the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, within weeks of the new government assuming charge in New Delhi. While there is no denying that such visits are planned well ahead and would have taken place irrespective of the government in power, the tone and tenor of the meeting has been distinct. The nuclear issue did not come up for discussion, but the implications of how India-China relations develop under the new Indian government will be felt in the nuclear domain too.
The installation of every new government provides an opportunity for a productive new beginning in inter-State relations. Of course, India has since independence largely followed a broadly pre-set foreign policy that has never seen major swings or deviations. Changes have largely been confined to shifts in focus and priorities. But, as Mr Wang Yi said during his visit to India, China wanted to "cement our existing friendship and explore further cooperation."
The exploration of this further cooperation must include the nuclear dimension too. Until now China has been closed to this idea on the ground that India is an illegitimate nuclear weapons power. However, over the last sixteen years, now that India has consolidated and operationalised its nuclear strategy, its 'legal' status is really a non-issue. Slowly, India will have to 'chip away' at traditional Chinese objections on this front and convince it of the benefits of starting a nuclear dialogue that can gradually explore the possibilities of nuclear confidence-building measures and even arms control at a later date.
Of course, India would first have to convince itself of the need for these. As a State under denial from Western-crafted arms control regimes, India is itself wary of this concept. However, it would be foolish to eschew the possibility of India being in the driver's seat on nuclear CBMs and arms control. These are effective tools that are used by nuclear-armed countries to stabilise their deterrent relations and avoid situations of crisis and arms race instability. India should find ways of doing the same. Prime Minister Modi made a statement in a completely different context when he said, "If India has to compete with China, the focus should be on skill, scale and speed." The same could be equally applied to the nuclear context too. We need to skilfully find areas of nuclear CBMs and arms control (a joint no-first use agreement, an anti-ballistic missile treaty, control over multiple independently retargetable vehicles could be some ideas worthy of being explored) and do it with speed. It would be in India's interest to find ways of avoiding being sucked into an offence-defence nuclear arms race.
It has been evident for a while that a relatively well-armed and economically powerful China is in an increasingly assertive mood and is looking to play a larger role in Asia. India is well conscious of this. However, it is essential that India shows assertion of its own on issues that are of supreme national interest. Unfortunately, the previous government, despite the many good tasks that it undertook in strengthening India's nuclear capability and position, suffered from the perception of being low in resolve. Modi's personality type is different and it reflects positively on the aspect of political resolve, at least in case of India's foreign policy. China respects this and it is not surprising that the Chinese Foreign Minister praised Prime Minister Modi for showing the world “resolve and courage” by setting an agenda to push reforms and development and for injecting “vigour and vitality” immediately after taking charge.
India has many issues that can serve as useful leverages in its relations with China. The consistent upswing in bilateral trade, totalling close to US$70 billion, is a positive development even though New Delhi has to work towards reducing its trade deficit with China. Terrorist incidents in China have exposed the dangers of extremist radicalism that continue to brew in the country that Beijing claims as its close friend. It would be naïve to believe that China will let go of its special friendship with Pakistan, given that both perceive this relationship as useful to keep India unsettled. But, it would still be in India's interest to try and expose the nuclear dangers for all if Pakistan continues down the path of sponsoring and supporting terrorism and China continues to shield its misbehaviour. China must be 'made to understand' that it cannot escape from existential nuclear dangers such as an unauthorised or mistaken nuclear launch or one caused by miscalculation.
Wang Yi was consistent in reminding India to follow a "one-China" policy. Sushma Swaraj nattily retorted with the need for China to respect a "one-India" policy. Both, however, must equally recognise the fact that nuclear dangers bring another kind of one-ness to the neighbourhood that we would all ignore at our own peril. It behoves the two largest nuclear armed countries of Asia to join hands in reducing nuclear dangers to the extent they can. The new government must seize the opportunity to initiate nuclear-speak with China.