India’s NSG prospects not so good

The Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna on India’s membership will be a contestation between US and China to determine the future of the nuclear and world order


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

There is a common perception that the extraordinary plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on 9-10 June in Vienna to consider India’s membership is solely about New Delhi’s non-proliferation record in general and it being a non-signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in particular. But it is not.

In reality, it is a contestation between the US and China to determine the future of the nuclear and world order. China’s public declaration to oppose New Delhi’s formal NSG application is more about keeping India out rather than bringing its “all-weather friend” Pakistan (which belatedly also put in an application) in; it is more about securing the existing nuclear and world order rather than strengthening the non-proliferation regime; and, above all, it is a blatant challenge to Washington’s leadership in shaping the evolving world order.

So far, the indications are that China is likely to win this round, despite its flawed arguments.

Consider the following: China asserts that membership of the NPT is a prerequisite for NSG membership. This was never the case. In fact, one of the reasons the NSG was set up in 1974 was to accommodate France—a nuclear weapon state that had not signed the NPT. Similarly, even Japan was a founder member of the NSG before it ratified the NPT. Later, Argentina and Brazil were also invited into the NSG before they had joined the NPT.

Insisting on this criteria is designed at worse to either keep India out even at the cost of sacrificing Pakistan’s membership or at best to hyphenate India with Pakistan in the hope that Islamabad can piggyback on New Delhi’s membership bid. This effort to allow Pakistan gatecrash the exclusive club along with India is a desperate attempt to fudge Islamabad’s lack of membership credentials.

While India formally applied for NSG membership on 12 May, the process began more than a decade ago with the 2005 US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, passed through the gruelling US Congress 123 agreement test, plus a painful civil-military nuclear separation plan, and was finally vetted by a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pakistan has not accomplished a single one of these steps so far.

Moreover, China’s attempt to portray itself as a NPT champion and exemplar is suspect given that it chose to stay outside the treaty for nearly three decades, even though the NPT recognized its nuclear weapon status. In 2004, the year that China joined the NSG, the annual report to the Congress by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted: “Continuing intelligence reports indicate that Chinese cooperation with Pakistan and Iran remains an integral element of China’s foreign policy.” Indeed, Beijing finalized an agreement with Pakistan to build nuclear reactors just days before joining the NSG.

Even after joining the NSG, China’s behaviour has been a cause of proliferation concern and Beijing’s fingerprints have appeared on proliferation activities from Libya to North Korea.

China’s NSG gambit is only part of a broader strategy to constrain India’s role in the evolving global order. Beijing’s lukewarm support for India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, coupled with its behind-the-scene efforts to derail the ongoing intergovernmental negotiations on council reforms, is also proof of its objective.

Against this backdrop, India needs a three-pronged approach: first, to continue strengthening its non-proliferation credentials and to engage those members of the NSG—countries such as Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and others—who are really concerned about preventing proliferation; second, to encourage Washington to sustain its leadership of the evolving global order, especially in the face of challenges from China; and, third, in case it cannot be accommodated in the existing regime and institution, to consider shaping and building alternative arrangements and institutions with other like-minded countries. So far, India has committed most of its efforts on the first two approaches. It might now be time to consider the third way.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

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