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Business News/ Opinion / India’s NSG bid: China in the way

India’s NSG bid: China in the way

Membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group will be the final step in India's inclusion into global nuclear order

Photo: PTIPremium
Photo: PTI

As President Pranab Mukherjee engages his hosts in China this week, India’s entry into the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose members can trade in and export nuclear technology, has emerged as the latest battleground in the growing Sino-Indian contestation. With India’s push for admission into the NSG gaining momentum ahead of the annual plenary session of the group next month, Beijing is making it clear that it intends to make life difficult for India. China has relied on an obstructionist argument and called for further discussion on whether “India and other countries" that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can join the NSG.

While the US and other supporting members have called for India’s inclusion based on New Delhi’s non-proliferation track record and the US-India civilian nuclear accord, China has made NPT signature its central argument to scuttle India’s entry. Beijing is claiming that a “compulsory" requirement for NSG membership is that “the NSG members must be signatories to the NPT". Apart from the rhetoric about the NPT, China has also encouraged Pakistan to apply for NSG membership so as to link New Delhi’s entry with that of Islamabad’s, knowing well that there will be few takers for Pakistan’s case. The US state department, for its part, promptly came to India’s defence by reaffirming the view that “India meets missile technology control regime requirements and is ready for NSG membership." The US has been declaring its support for India’s full membership since 2010.

The Modi government is investing a lot of diplomatic capital in seeking NSG membership. It has reached out to the New Agenda Coalition, a group of states in the NSG that includes Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland, which remain committed to disarmament, and has been able to secure their support. The NSG chairperson, too, visited India last year to take this process forward. Membership of the NSG will be the final step in India’s inclusion in the global nuclear order.

It is not surprising, therefore, that China is taking such a strong stand on this issue despite the fact that its own non-proliferation track record remains abysmal. In fact, it was China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme that led the way for India’s overt nuclearization. China has played a major role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure and emerged as Pakistan’s benefactor at a time when increasingly stringent export controls in Western countries made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology from elsewhere. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is essentially an extension of the Chinese one.

Despite being a member of the NPT, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear materials and expertise and provided critical assistance in the construction of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. The Sino-Pakistani nuclear relationship is perhaps the only case where a nuclear weapon state has actually passed on weapons-grade fissile material and bomb design to a non-nuclear weapon state.

After the 2008 US-India civilian nuclear pact, China made it a point to further enhance nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, despite criticism from other nuclear powers. When the NSG was approached for a waiver for the passage of the US-India pact, China was the last state standing in opposing it. When it failed to scuttle the deal, China quickly moved to sign an agreement with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors at the Chashma site, in addition to the two that it was already working on in Pakistan. This action was in clear violation of NSG guidelines that forbid nuclear transfers to countries not signatories to the NPT or adhere to comprehensive international safeguards on their nuclear programme.

China suggested that there were “political reasons concerning the stability of South Asia to justify the exports," echoing Pakistan’s oft-repeated complaint that the US-India nuclear pact had upset stability in the region by assisting India’s strategic programme. And now China and Pakistan are working together to block India’s NSG bid.

India was able to get a one-time clean waiver from the NSG in 2008 as it was able to convince the group of the effectiveness of its export control regime, which was deemed to be in line with global standards. The Bush administration in the US lobbied for India extensively with president George W. Bush himself talking to his Chinese counterpart after Beijing refused to budge till the last minute.

Today, India wants to be part of the decision-making at the highest levels of global nuclear architecture. As a rising and responsible nuclear power, it should be a part of this structure and it will also be good for the NSG if India is part of the decision-making process.

China has taken a hard line on this issue and it seems unlikely that it will change its opposition to India’s entry. To many in India, this will further reinforce the perception that China is willing to sacrifice a long-term strategic partnership with a rising power for the short-term objective of trying to scuttle its rise. This won’t be helpful for Sino-Indian ties, but Beijing wants to go down fighting. New Delhi should brace itself for a bumpy ride ahead.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

Comments are welcome at

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Published: 26 May 2016, 12:36 AM IST
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