India has been striving for the last seven years for admission into the world’s most exclusive cartel, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), but the prospect of its membership grows bleaker as time passes.
The story of India’s elusive bid for entry into the NSG begins in 2008, when the infamous Indo-US nuclear deal, signed in July 2005, came into effect three years later after IAEA approval and US Congressional endorsement. Anxious to give India the full benefit of the deal, the Bush administration lobbied forcefully with key members of the 48 nation cartel to allow India a waiver to contract civil nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries of the group in much the same way as it could with American businesses.
Under US pressure, the NSG granted a waiver to India in 2008, which enabled it to contract new power plant agreements with French and Russian companies, but the NSG stopped short of granting India regular membership, and for good reasons. What the US and India both overlooked was the fact that the NSG abides by a cardinal principle, that any entrant in the group must be a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The principal objection of the NSG countries to Indian membership is that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has no intention of doing so. The other requirements of the NSG were Indian adherence to the CTBT and signing of an Additional Protocol with the IAEA, as committed by it in the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Since then India has been knocking at the door of the NSG with no success. In 2014, India pressed its case for membership in the Buenos Aires Plenary Meeting of the NSG, in the belief that President Obama’s expressed support for India’s membership on a number of occasions, especially in his epochal visit to India in 2010, would make the cartel open up membership for India. But the NSG remained unmoved. In fact the Buenos Aires meeting imposed a new condition on India, calling upon it to take a leading role in halting the spread of nuclear weapons, and more specifically, demonstrate serious efforts of working towards nuclear restraint measures and open negotiations with Pakistan and China to end the regional nuclear arms race in the region.
Thus, though India even signed an Additional Protocol with the IAEA immediately before the Buenos Aires meeting, its bid for NSG membership remained unsuccessful. In January 2015, President Obama, in his second trip to India again expressed unequivocal support for India’s entry into the NSG (as well as its entry into an expanded Security Council), and the British prime minister and the French president endorsed the idea on various recent occasions. Nevertheless, the 2015 NSG Plenary held in Bariloche, Argentina, in June this year, did not change the position that had been taken in Buenos Aires last year.
The NSG membership remains deeply divided about allowing entry to India and there are apparently three groups in the cartel. One group is governed by what is described as ‘mercantile interests’, and consists of countries like the US, France, UK and Russia, which have advanced nuclear industries and want those industries to benefit from the business that would be generated from Indian nuclear expansion in the power sector. The second group is of certain small states with a deep attachment to non-proliferation, countries like Austria, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland and New Zealand which are totally opposed to admitting India, which has not signed the NPT. The third group is of those countries which are equivocal and reluctant, and include Germany, Japan, Canada and Australia.
As the NSG decides by consensus, the Indian bid for entry has to be acceptable to all its members. The NSG waiver granted to India in 2008 was only due to intense US pressure. American diplomats were quoted as saying that ‘Condoleeza Rice (then secretary of state) made at least two dozen calls to lean on allies to allow for the India-specific waiver’. As time passed, the US desire for pushing the Indian case diminished, perhaps due to the fact that the Indo-US nuclear deal did not produce added business for US nuclear industry, and the position of the NSG members opposed to India’s entry hardened. The Indian aspiration to enter the NSG remained unfulfilled.
In a new development, China, which had reluctantly agreed to the waiver granted to India in 2008, has now come up with a clear position on the question of India’s entry into the NSG. In the meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi in Ufa last month, the Chinese president noted Indian desire to enter the NSG but significantly remarked that ‘Pakistan is also in talks with us (in this regard)’. After some time, the Chinese spokesperson, Hua Chungying, said in a press conference the following: ‘China has noted Pakistan’s aspirations for NSG membership’. He further said: ‘Pakistan has taken steps towards its mainstreaming into the global non-proliferation regime. We support Pakistan’s engagement with the NSG …’
The Chinese logic is that if one non-NPT member is accommodated by relaxing the rules, another country with the same credentials should also be given similar concession. It also is in accord with Pakistan’s long-standing position that NSG entry should be criteria-based rather than country specific. Since the NSG works by consensus, the Chinese stance is highly significant, as a decision by the NSG to admit India can only be taken if Pakistan is also given membership.
The wheel seems to be coming to a full circle, as the asymmetry that resulted from the Indo-US nuclear deal may eventually correct itself by the entry of both India and Pakistan into the NSG. this is not likely to happen till a consensus emerges in that body regarding how this question is to be handled. This obviously means that the Indian aspiration for entry into the NSG will remain a distant dream.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for International Strategic Studies.