At the same time, some diplomats questioned the suggestion that China was out to block the deal, with one European envoy who took part in the three day meeting describing the Chinese interventions in the plenary as "careful and moderate".
In multiple interviews conducted by this reporter with a number of diplomats who took part in the NSG's deliberations, the picture which emerges is one of a cautious Chinese strategy of remaining in the shadows going awry and eventually running aground on the second day of the three-day plenary meeting of the nuclear cartel. If China overestimated the capacity of the six-likeminded countries and Japan -- described pejoratively by one European country as the 'seven dwarfs' -- to resist the juggernaut of US pressure in the eleventh hour, Beijing, say the diplomats, also erred in underestimating India's ability to hold firm to its demand for an unconditional waiver.
The accounts given by the participants provide a fascinating, if sometimes contradictory, ringside view of Chinese attitudes and actions at the NSG that the diplomats said were driven as much by a desire to condition or even block the India waiver as by resentment at Washington's attempt to change the rules of the international system without due consultation with Beijing.
In the early hours of September 6, India issued a demarche -- diplomatese for a formal representation -- asking China to back the consensus. The message was delivered by telephone to the Chinese ambassador to India. And after the waiver came through, the Indian government made its displeasure at Beijing's role publicly known as well.
In remarks at a public function in New Delhi on Tuesday, China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said he was "shocked" at reports that his country had stood in the way of the NSG's decision. "Our policy was set from a long time," he said. "I can tell you that we conveyed to India in a certain way our support for the decision, period, before consensus was reached within the NSG."
Yang's statement was factually correct, in that consensus was established at 11:56 am, Central European Time, and China had already informed India that it was going to approve the waiver as finally tabled at the NSG plenary. But the Chinese decision only came at 1 pm China Standard Time, barely four hours before the final bell was sounded on the 45-nation supplier group's extraordinary proceedings.
Earlier on Friday, the unity of the Group of Six spearheading the opposition to the American proposal to allow nuclear commerce with India crumbled when Netherlands and Norway backed off following the incorporation of a reference to the Indian foreign minister's statement on nonproliferation in the waiver text. Switzerland, too, conveyed its assent to the US by 1 am on Saturday.
But when the NSG adjourned for the night soon after, Austria, China, Ireland, Japan and New Zealand were still holding out. Tokyo was the first to come on board, followed by Beijing, and then the last three. The fact that the Chinese decision was so late coming is at variance with the idea that its policy had been set "from a long time". Unless, say diplomats, its policy itself was to play for time in the hope that the seven countries would do the heavy lifting. And face the maximum flak, in case the waiver was successfully blocked.
"It is my view that China was hoping the exemption would be delayed to such an extent that India might walk away," a diplomat from one of the G-6 countries told me in an email message. "They did not wish China to be blamed for doing this but hoped the group of six would do it for them. Ultimately, when it became clear that [we] would not block consensus on the exemption, they also made sure that they would not be blamed in any way for holding up progress." The diplomat, who represented his country in last week's NSG meeting, added: "Our group was always wary of China's role, knowing that their interests were very different to ours."
But if the G-6 was "wary" of China, diplomats from other countries say the group actively sought Beijing's help when it became clear on September 4 that the mood within the NSG was largely in favour of granting India the waiver. "The six approached a number of bigger countries," said one diplomat. And though Australia, Canada and Germany refused to be dragged in, China did step forward.
According to the diplomats, China acted in two distinct ways, though at least one of this reporter's sources admitted it was "hard to say what exactly China's strategy was". "The Chinese did manoeuvres in a procedural way in order to support the six. But they didn't want to come out in the open. They wanted to remain in the bushes rather than come on to the battlefield," said one diplomat from a European country that backed the waiver with reservations.
A G-6 diplomat described this phase as one where the Chinese "offered quiet but clear support for a number of proposals put forward by the like-minded group of six." This support, he said, continued "right up to the last moment." But when it seemed to China that the G-6 was standing resolute, the Chinese delegates also began putting forward amendments and sentences of their own. "They suggested a lot of minor changes to the text during last Friday, seemingly with the intention of delaying progress," the diplomat said.
Though these changes were more often than not unacceptable to India, the diplomats said the Chinese suggestion to include language which might open a door for "other States" (ie, Pakistan) to seek a similar waiver met with stiff resistance by virtually all NSG members, including the G-6. This idea was a complete non-starter, said one diplomat. Another described it as part of a tactic of "procedural procrastination".
As the evening wore on Friday, the Chinese, by all accounts, grew increasingly impatient. The US was running multiple consultations in parallel steering groups, which were yielding incremental changes in the draft language. After going through an Indian filter, these changes were then taken to the plenary and incorporated into the main text. Either irritated by the slow pace or by the fact that the redrafting process was making serious headway, the Chinese delegation began calling for an adjournment. "During the day, everyone's assessment was that we were going to be deadlocked," said an East European diplomat. "By the time it was apparent that there would be no deadlock, the Chinese started saying they had to wait for instructions from Beijing."
It was at this point, said many diplomats, that the US started paying attention to the Chinese stand. The two countries went into consultation and remained closeted for a long time. One European diplomat recalled a conversation he had with another colleague that night when he was wondering whether he had time to slip outside for dinner. "Oh yes, he said, you have plenty of time. The Chinese are meeting with the Americans, mad that they were not consulted by them earlier and determined to let the US pay the price -- it will take at least two hours. We went down to eat, and he was right that several hours passed." It was this diplomat's assessment that the reason China held out for so long was because the US had not bothered consulting with it earlier in the day. And that the reason the US delayed doing so was precisely because the Chinese had struck a more moderate tone throughout the day compared to the G-6.
Though the Chinese eventually yielded on the drafting language, they continued to hold out for more time. Most delegates did not find the Chinese plea for an adjournment to be credible. "When we broke at 2 am, it was already 8 in the morning in Beijing. There would have been no problem getting the requisite authorization," said a diplomat. Matters were further complicated by a semi-'walk-out' by the Chinese at midnight on September 5. Though some Chinese officials remained in the small consultations run by the US till 1:30 am, its two senior diplomats in the plenary left the main room leaving behind only "a rather junior" official "presumably to pick up the final draft".
"Many delegates felt there was a certain gesture," a west European diplomat said. "It was not clear that it was a walkout, for that would have meant the NSG might have adopted the waiver without their presence. But it was more of a signal that we can't take this for much longer."
Days later, participants remain divided about what exactly China was trying to achieve. If the G-6 diplomats were clear the Chinese were firing from their shoulders, others without a dog in the fight tended not to see China as a country that was blocking consensus. "My sense is that they were balanced, and not in the limelight," said a diplomat from the former Soviet bloc.
"We believe China did not try to block the deal and never wanted to block it alone, although the opposition from the six and others may have suited them well Certainly it would have been very late in the day for them to block the deal at the last minute given their earlier moderate posture," said a European diplomat who undertook to discuss this reporter's questions with his colleagues in order to get a more accurate assessment. "But that is speculation. We are pretty certain, though, that the Chinese were dissatisfied with the way the issue was handled at the meeting and made it clear in their own way to the US Perhaps they just cooked the US a little to teach them not to neglect China."
Asked whether he agreed with this assessment, one of the G-6 diplomats said no. "It is hard to decipher China's attitude at times, but I would be very certain that their behaviour was based on more than simply a desire to teach the US a lesson not to neglect them," he said.
Either way, Indian officials feel it is significant that when China eventually came on board, it communicated its decision not to the United States but directly to India. The Manmohan Singh government's handling of an awkward situation was correct but firm. But having issued a demarche and secured the NSG waiver, it is important for the country to move on. Beijing -- and New Delhi -- are sure to have come away from this entire episode the wiser, and in diplomacy that is ultimately what counts.
(The author is Associate Editor of The Hindu and was in Vienna to cover the NSG meetings of August 21-22 and September 4-6)