China’s campaign to put the US down, bring Pakistan in, and keep India out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at the crucial meeting of the group in Seoul this week received profound support from some of the high priests of non-proliferation. In a letter reportedly sent to Ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi, who was chairing the extraordinary plenary meeting of the group in Vienna on 9-10 June, the 17 Western experts presented a litany of objections to argue against India’s membership bid.

These included claims that, apart from being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), New Delhi’s behaviour does not meet the present standards of NSG members, nor does it believe in the NSG’s basic non-proliferation motivations, including efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear fuel cycle technologies to others that could be used for a nuclear weapons programme. Additionally, the letter allegedly asserts that India has refused to accept disarmament responsibilities and practices followed by the NSG nuclear-armed states, including a commitment to not conduct nuclear tests, halt fissile material production, and reduce its nuclear and missile arsenal as well as support nuclear weapon-free zones.

Moreover, the letter argues that India’s Additional Protocol (AP) agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which allows the agency access to all civilian nuclear facilities and activities, is weaker than those of the other NSG nuclear-armed states.

These arguments simply do not stand up to scrutiny when compared to the reality of the behaviour of the NSG nuclear-armed states. Consider the following:

China, which maintained a small nuclear arsenal before joining the NPT in 1992 and the NSG in 2004, began to qualitatively and quantitatively improve its nuclear weapons and missiles after joining the NPT and NSG in contravention of its legal treaty obligations.

Similarly, China’s 1998 AP agreement with the IAEA was criticized by the US as being restrictive, limited in its declarations and eliminating almost all IAEA access. Yet, China was allowed into the NSG. Besides, Brazil, which has not signed an AP, also remains a member.

Moreover, China has not only blocked reports on North Korea’s proliferation activities in the UN Security Council but has also challenged NSG provisions in dealing with Pakistan.

Additionally, none of the NSG nuclear-armed states have signed the Bangkok Treaty to establish the South-East Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (which India is willing to sign).

Finally, the NSG has also been found wanting in its primary objective: to control exports and prevent horizontal proliferation among the NPT non-nuclear weapon states. For instance, the nuclear weapon programme dossier submitted by Iraq to the UN Security Council in 2002 read like a who’s who of NSG members.

Based on this overview, it is clear that the NSG is unlikely to curtail or restrict the weapons programme of its nuclear-armed members or nuclear-armed aspirant members like India. Indeed, the pace and progress of weapons programmes of all nuclear-armed states will be determined by the unfolding geopolitical competition, particularly between the US and China, rather than their legal obligations. It is this harsh geopolitical criterion that the non-proliferation purists fail to acknowledge.

At best, the NSG can try and become more effective in preventing further horizontal proliferation among the NPT non-nuclear armed states. Here, while India’s non-NPT nuclear-armed status poses a quandary, it has to be seen in the broader evolving global geopolitical context as well as New Delhi’s non-proliferation record.

India’s voluminous 300-page application for NSG membership (which provides details on how India can strengthen non-proliferation norms and practices) coupled with New Delhi’s desire to play a greater global governance role is a sound basis both for its membership and for strengthening the group’s objectives. Blocking India’s entry by endorsing Beijing’s specious criteria will mark a victory for China and a defeat for the cause of non-proliferation.

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

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