India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is at a tricky juncture if last month’s NSG plenary in Seattle, U.S., is any indication.

Indian diplomats will have to do some deft footwork despite Washington’s efforts to convince NSG members of the need for giving “like-minded” New Delhi membership. But developments on other fronts are now coalescing in a way that has a section of the NSG questioning the need to expand membership.

The first of the concerns is the emergence of Customs Unions such as the ones taking shape in Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council of six Arab countries, and the one between some Eurasian countries. Members want to know that if one member of a Customs Union is an NSG member, would the others also be considered bound by export control obligations and restrictions on dual-use and trigger-list items?

The second concerns Israel and Pakistan. Like India, both have the nuclear bomb but refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And after the NSG made an exception for India in 2008, both want similar treatment.

The U. S., during high-level conversations with Israel, had said the complication of dealing with the ire of Arab countries was not worth the trouble. But Pakistan, with China’s assistance, has been trying to beat the current regime. The China-Pakistan tango, abhorrent though it may appear to Indian strategic analysts, appears to mirror the Russian-Indian strategy that led to the setting up of the civil nuclear plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

Answering non-proliferation critics, Russia and India agreed that though the NSG had expanded its restrictions in the mid-1990s, the two had decided to build civil nuclear power plants in the future under an agreement signed in the late 1980s – called “grandfathering.” When challenged by the U. S., at the 1998 NSG plenary, to produce the agreement in which this “grandfathering” was implied, Russia reportedly did not do so, and the deal was reluctantly allowed to proceed.

While seeking to build two nuclear plants in addition to the two it has already constructed in Pakistan, China has taken the same argument as Russia — the exports are “grandfathered” by a previous agreement that led to the construction and operation of Pakistan’s Chashma I & II civil nuclear plants.

As was the case with Russia’s deal with India, the U.S. has contested the Chinese claim of grandfathering. Many countries feel that the Chinese assertion could be accepted if Pakistan is forced into signing the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). In addition to Islamabad claiming parity with New Delhi on the question of setting up new nuclear power plants even though it does not meet the NSG guidelines, the next step for Pakistan would be to claim membership on the same grounds as India.

Along with the issues posed by Customs Unions, this Pakistan-China tangle has led to calls at the Seattle plenary for evolving criteria for new membership. This implies that an exception need not be made for India and the whole exercise of having new members could be put on hold until some benchmarks are prescribed.

So far there has been no consensus in the NSG. But the mood may be shifting in favour of India after it seemed to be meeting the promise of providing civil nuclear business to the U.S., France and Russia, in return for the heavy lifting they did to grant New Delhi an exemption from full-scope safeguards. But with the complications setting in, thanks to the Customs Union issue and Pakistan’s claim, Indian diplomacy has a lot of hard work ahead.

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