India wants to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Photo: iStock
Some say Australia's nuclear submarine deal is opening the way for nuclear power in the country, but the prime minister disagrees. Photo: iStock

Since 2016, India has been making efforts to attain membership of the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) , a nuclear technology control organization created to prevent misuse of nuclear technology and proliferation of nuclear materials. As a rule, prospective members have to be signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a prerequisite. Effective since 1970, the international treaty is considered either discriminatory or non-advantageous by the three countries that have not signed, namely India, Pakistan and Israel. Interestingly though, the NSG was formed in 1975 in direct response to India’s first nuclear weapon test as the latter utilized plutonium produced with nuclear technology from Canada and the United States.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-signatory of the NPT, India would like to be part of the NSG. Needless to say, China and some other nations have disapproved of India’s entry as under the present circumstances it could lead to a nuclear arms race. Feeling concerned, Pakistan also applied on May 20, 2016, based on the premise that its inclusion would further non-proliferation objectives under NSG guidelines, as it has nuclear supply capabilities and an excellent nuclear safety record. On principle, Beijing put forward a two-step approach stipulating that all NSG members decide a set format for admission of non-NPT states into the fold first, then consider any individual “country -specific” applications for membership in the second step.

Having had the support of the Obama administration, India expected to be accepted as member at the last plenary session in June and it blamed China for the delay, a view supported by outgoing US assistant secretary of state Nisha Biswal, who remarked that China was the “one outlier” standing in India’s way. Countering this, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying replied, “It is worth pointing out that the NSG membership is not something to be given privately between countries as a farewell gift”.

Not to be left out, India’s then external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup stated that “India is not seeking NSG membership as a gift. India is seeking it on its non-proliferation record,” adding that, “I, of course, cannot speak for other applicants,” in an obvious reference to Pakistan.

Looking for a loophole, India rejected China’s condition that it must sign the NPT on the grounds that France had also joined the NSG while remaining a non-signatory for some time.

Due to its political rivalry with Pakistan, India is in extraordinary haste to become a member first and make sure the latter stays out

Due to its political rivalry with Pakistan, India is in extraordinary haste to become a member first and make sure the latter stays out. There seems to be no other reason for such a huge rush over the matter. In its haste, it is ignoring the real circumstances behind the membership rejection as it expects all the members to set aside the impediments.

For starters, it is not just China that ‘blocks’ its candidature and the sooner that India realizes that the better. At the last plenary session at least 10 countries, including Russia, Brazil, Austria, New Zealand, Ireland, Turkey and China, opposed its membership, even some nations that had initially pledged support backed out at the meeting. Not only that, a senior Carnegie Endowment associate, Mark Hibbs, tweeted that about a quarter of the 48-member NSG raised issues about Indian candidature. Members of the NSG are obviously critical of India for remaining a non-signatory of the NPT, notwithstanding its commitment while getting an NSG waiver in 2008.

Having made no progress towards the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, India did not even separate its civilian and military nuclear reactors as per requirement, and it continues to run the largest un-safeguarded nuclear program, with a fissile production capacity 7.7 times greater than Pakistan. India should be bringing its entire civilian program in line with safeguards laid out by the International Atomic Energy Commission but it refuses to submit to checks by the IAEA. Such circumstances do not bode well for maintaining strategic stability in South Asia.

Having said that, India’s chances of entry in the group remain as bleak as they were last year unless it signs the NPT or shows progress in nuclear security protocols. The next plenary is to be held in Bern, Switzerland this month, and achieving consensus remains improbable as the technical, legal and political aspects of non-NPT states’ participation were discussed at the last NSG meeting in November without result.

Reiterating China’s stance,, Hua Chunying stated last month that “China maintains that any formula [for membership] worked out should be non-discriminatory and applicable to all non-NPT states; without prejudice to the core value of the NSG and the effectiveness, authority and integrity of the international non-proliferation regime with the NPT as its cornerstone; and without contradicting the customary international law in the field of non-proliferation.” In China’s view, the two-step solution remains the best solution, and it wishes to tackle the issue “in an open and transparent manner.”

However, India also had no plans to give up, as announced by Gopal Baglay, the Ministry of External Affairs’ spokesperson: “Our efforts for an NSG membership will continue. We will continue to be engaged with member countries.”

As the NSG 2017 plenary in Berne edges closer, India’s prospects regarding NSG membership are getting even trickier as China has re-enforced its continuous stance by saying that the membership bid has now become “more complicated” under “new circumstances.” On its part, it has absolutely ruled out India’s entry in the forum on the grounds that there should be a non-discriminatory solution applicable to all non-NPT signatory countries.
China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Huilai said at a media briefing in Beijing that, “China supports the NSG to have consultation for reaching a non-discriminatory and universally applicable solution, applicable to all members of the NSG, about the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) it is a new issue under the new circumstances and it is more complicated than they previously imagined.” The matter promises to be the hot topic at the approaching plenary session, whilst the prospects of India securing NSG membership seems poor as the group depends on consensus.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst.
Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue
Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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