Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  India and the Wassenaar Arrangement

India’s entry into the Wassenaar Arrangement in the first week of December made headlines. The Wassenaar Arrangement, or WA, is one of the world’s four major export control regimes, the other three being the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Australia Group. 

For India, becoming the 42nd member of this group—the other participating states of which include Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US—is a boost to its non-proliferation credentials, and will open doors. But what exactly does the WA do? 

Origins of the Wassenaar Arrangement 

The WA was conceived in a high-level meeting in 1995, in the Dutch town of Wassenaar. This was just after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Wassenaar Arrangement is seen by many as a successor to the erstwhile Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or COCOM. 

COCOM was created in 1949 for the purpose of preventing Western companies and countries from selling strategic goods and services to the Eastern bloc countries behind the “iron curtain". The founding members of COCOM were the US, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK; several other countries joined later, including Spain, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan and Turkey. 

COCOM was “originally conceived in postwar discussions between the United States, Britain, and France", according to a document published by the Office of Technological Assessment under the United States Congress and titled “Technology and the East-West Trade". “By 1948," it says, “the U.S. Government had begun to enlist the cooperation of its West European allies for a coordinated embargo policy against the Communist bloc." 

“Early negotiations on this matter were private and informal, but they were lent impetus by the events of 1945-49: the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Berlin crisis, the Tito-Stalin split, and the explosion of the Soviet atomic bomb. As East-West tensions grew, the coordination of export controls took on increasing importance," it adds. 

Once the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the East-West standoff petered out. The members of COCOM then agreed to terminate the group and establish a new multilateral arrangement, temporarily known as the “New Forum". The participating states, however, agreed to continue the use of the COCOM control lists as a basis for global export controls on a national level until the new arrangement could be established. 

On 2-3 April 1996, the inaugural plenary meeting of the Wassenaar Arrangement was held in Vienna. 

What is the Wassenaar Arrangement all about? 

Multilateral export control regimes are blocs set up with the aim of restricting and/or monitoring the trade of dangerous goods: arms—nuclear, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction in particular; the materials and technologies used in the manufacture of weapons; and so-called dual-use goods, which have both civilian and military purposes. 

The WA is one such export control bloc. As per its website, “The Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) has been established in order to contribute to regional and international security and stability, by promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing de-stabilizing accumulations. The aim is also to prevent the acquisition of these items by terrorists." 

The Arrangement is based on five crucial principles: 

1. It contributes to regional and international security and stability. 

2. It promotes transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies. 

3. It complements and reinforces the export control regimes for weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. 

4. It is not directed against any state or group of states. 

5. It uses export controls as a means to combat terrorism. 

The founding document of the WA is referred to as “initial elements". This landmark 20-page text provides a glimpse into the purposes and scope of this non-proliferation group. It highlights the crucial fact that “all participating member countries to WA will seek, through their national policies, to ensure that transfers of these items do not contribute to the development or enhancement of military capabilities which undermine these goals, and are not diverted to support such capabilities". 

While the purposes of the WA are broadly outlined in nature, its scope puts certain limits into the ambit of this arrangement. Under the WA, participating states meet on a regular basis to ensure that transfers of conventional arms and transfers in dual-use goods and technologies are carried out responsibly and in furtherance of international and regional peace and security. 

Participating states agree to maintain national export controls on items included in the WA’s control lists. These controls are implemented via national legislation. Members are also guided by agreed best practices, guidelines and elements. Further, all 42 countries have agreed to report transfers and denials of specified controlled items to destinations outside the Arrangement. And finally, all the participating countries exchange information on sensitive dual-use goods and technologies. 

India as the 42nd member 

The 23rd plenary session of the WA, held over 6-7 December 2017, concluded with India being admitted as the latest member of this elite group. 

Even though India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons, it has managed to make its entry into the Wassenaar group, which would enhance its credentials in the field of non-proliferation. India has managed to do that by updating its export control lists earlier this year, to bring it in line with international standards, including those required by the WA. 

To be precise, India adopted the control list for SCOMET (special chemicals, organisms, materials, equipment, and technologies) items, mandatory under the Wassenaar Arrangement. Through the revised list of items, India also seeks to send a message about its larger commitment to non-proliferation. 

India’s entry into the WA is also an acknowledgement of its rise as a powerful nation by major powers in the international system. With this, India’s image has been considerably burnished among the comity of nations, in so far as that is achieved through treaty memberships. 

In June 2016, India had gained membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR; its entry into the WA in December and into the Australia Group last month means that India is now a member of three of the big four export control groups. Gaining membership of these blocs is not just about becoming a part of an important grouping—it also changes other nations’ perception of India. 

The Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, is the only one left for India to join; last year, China had practically stonewalled India’s entry into the group. China is not a member of the WA (or of the MTCR or the Australia Group). And there is little doubt that had China been a member of any of these groups, it would have stood in the way of Indian membership. 

India can use the fact that it was made a member of the WA as well as the MTCR, without signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as leverage to gain entry into NSG in the next plenary session in June. China and others who argued against India’s entry into the NSG, citing the country not being a signatory to NPT, would now find it relatively harder to continue arguing successfully on the same lines. 

China, in fact, had insisted that Pakistan be made a member of the NSG if India were to be permitted to enter the group. The argument being that both nations are non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

India’s entry into important international groupings like the WA has raised eyebrows in Chinese diplomatic and political circles. Also, India’s candidature to the Australia Group had got a big push after India’s entry into the WA. The Australia Group is an informal bloc of countries that works for the harmonization of export controls to ensure that the export of critical chemicals doesn't lead to the development of chemical or biological weapons. Set up in 1985, the group is the oldest of the four major export control regimes today. 

The international community of late has realized the importance of bringing India into these multilateral groups. More than a diplomatic win, India’s Wassenaar entry is symbolic of India’s acceptance as a major power and a responsible state by its peers. 

The way forward 

India is looking forward to make its mark as a significant member in various non-proliferation groups. India already follows a no-first use policy when it comes to nuclear weapons. This year may prove to be the turning point for its efforts to gain membership to the NSG. 

If India does manage to join the group, its stature will rise manifold. With gaining entry into the WA, India is expected to acquire critical technologies which will boost its defence as well as space industry. In this light, India’s efforts to join these groups can be seen in line with its earlier efforts to sign civil nuclear deal with countries such as the US France and Russia. 

To sum up, the entry into Wassenaar Arrangement is a stepping stone to India’s ultimate ambitions of becoming a global power. 

India still has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to match China’s capabilities, but in international relations, relative power is much more significant than absolute power. Any state that wants to become a hegemon or a powerhouse in a region wants relative power gaps with other countries to be very high. In a sense, India’s rise as an important player in the system acts as a check to China’s ambitions. 

The real assessment of India’s entry into the WA, and the implication that ensue, will be clearer in time to come. History, after all, is best judged in a rear-view mirror. 


1. “Introduction", WA

2. “Origins", WA 

3. “How the WA works", WA 

4. Office of Technological Assessment Report, 1979, “Technology and East-West Trade", Chapter VIII, Multilateral Export Control Policy: The Coordinating Committee (CoCom)

5. “What is Wassenaar Arrangement", The Hindu 

6. Rajiv Nayan, “Indian Chemical Export Controls System and the Australia Group" 

7. Anilesh Mahajan, “How Wassenaar Arrangement can help India enter Nuclear Suppliers' Group"  

8. Deep Pal, “China-India Relations after the NSG Plenary"

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