With the upcoming plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) this June, India’s contentious bid for NSG is making headlines again. Whereas New Delhi sees Beijing as the sole stumbling block in its ambition to be part of the group, this portrayal is far from reality on the ground. Several countries have reservations about India’s entry upon consideration of all they have already lost by waiving nuclear trade with it without any reciprocal nonproliferation commitment. The important question is this: if the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is the cornerstone of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime (NNPR) and the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) have been fulfilling their end of the bargain in the NNPT, why are states outside the NPT being selectively rewarded for behaviour, which cannot be objectively judged as ‘good nonproliferation record’? The waiver given to India in 2008 by the NSG gives credibility to this argument. India did not tangibly fulfill any of the nonproliferation obligations that it paid lip service to while signing the Indo-US nuclear deal, yet received a subsequent waiver for export of nuclear goods and related sensitive technologies.
From a normative perspective, the NSG proves to be a weak link in the nonproliferation regime since priority is given to commercial interests and geopolitics, rather than to non-proliferation criteria. This is one of the critical reasons why the group that governs the dual-use and sensitive nuclear technologies is kept as a voluntary arrangement. Its participating governments decide, based on consensus but in accordance with their national regulations and states’ interest, on the export policy of nuclear material and related dual-use items. This national interest typically champions commercial gains instead of nonproliferation norms.
Consider the case of India. What grounds substantiate its alleged ‘good’ nonproliferation record, except for geopolitics and a market for global nuclear suppliers? This selective application of rules is the chief hurdle in the way of standardisation of a nonproliferation norm; the second obstacle is the non-uniformity of rights and obligations among nuclear possessor and non-possessor states. If the states that propagate the rule-based nonproliferation system interpret and reinterpret rules to suit their commercial interests, they no longer possess the moral high ground to preach nonproliferation to others.
So where is India’s NSG bid now? After doing everything in its power, the United States has failed to force all members of NSG to recommit to the old commitment-free bargain. At the Vienna plenary in November 2016, 12 NSG participating governments called for a criteria-based approach. These included China, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil and Russia.
China’s latest statement from the foreign ministry before the next NSG plenary states that India’s application for membership is “a new issue under new circumstances and it is more complicated than previously imagined”. Although China is not rejecting India’s admission outright, it is seeking a two-step approach, stipulating that the NSG members should decide upon a set of principles for the admission of non-NPT states into the NSG as a first step, followed by discussion in view of country-specific application.
The geopolitics between China and India provide a broader context to where this may be heading. Thus far, India has employed all possible tactics to prevent China from standing in the way of consensus, but Beijing has stood its ground. Beijing’s position is complicated by India’s Indo-Pacific strategy through which it patrols the South China Sea, a territory that China considers its primary area of interest. What is also taken into account is India’s hostile attitude towards China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, the latest evidence of which was New Delhi’s boycott of the recent OBOR summit in China this May. This summit was even attended by the US, a country that earlier showed reluctance over this project.
Nonetheless, Beijing is aware of the geopolitical game being played out against it. With India in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the exports to India by MTCR member states are aiding the development of India’s nuclear capable missiles programmes as well as its military satellite programme. In addition, the export of missile systems by India to East Asia would further complicate China’s perceived threat. The contradicting geopolitical agendas of India and China foreshadow ugly order in Asia and this may lead to competitive security dynamics being pursued.
As far as the NSG is concerned, hypothetically, if an exception were to be made for India again, it may well be the last nail in the ‘global nonproliferation norms’ coffin, as NNWS of NPT are already disgruntled by a lack of compliance with nuclear disarmament.
Saima Aman Sial is working as a Senior Research Fellow and expert in strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. She is a former Nonproliferation Fellow the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sandia National Laboratories.