In committing itself to supporting India's full membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other multilateral export control regimes, the Obama administration has finally opened a door for the country to transcend the legal confines of a treaty that has defined global attitudes towards nuclear weapons for over four decades: the NPT.

The American decision to support India's membership in the NSG, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australian Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement was made public on Saturday by Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman and is conditional on these clubs deciding, by consensus, to change their rules on who can join.

“As the membership criteria of these four regimes evolve,” said Mr. Froman, “we intend to support India's full membership in them. And at the same time, India will take steps to fully adopt the regime's export control requirements to reflect its prospective membership.”

The current membership rules of the NSG, though not formally stated, require adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or a regional nuclear weapons free zone (which in turn requires NPT membership). And the same treaty requirement applies in the case of the MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement — a cartel of 40 states which governs the export of conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technologies. But Mr. Froman said the U.S. would “encourage the evolution of a membership criteria of these regimes consistent with maintaining their core principles.”

Asked how the United States and India hoped to square the circle of compulsory membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the NSG and other cartels insist on, a senior Indian official told The Hindu: “We are constructing a paradigm beyond the NPT.”

Though President Barack Obama and his senior officials had upset India over the past year by signing on to calls at the United Nations and elsewhere for the universality of the NPT, Washington is acutely aware that India's accession to a treaty which would require it to give up its nuclear weapons is an impossibility. It is in this light that Mr. Froman's reference to new membership criteria acquires enormous significance.

The Bush administration's initiatives from 2005 to 2008 saw the U.S. helping to peel away export restrictions that were never originally a part of the NPT itself. That is why the NSG was able to give India an exemption from its export restrictions without getting into the trickier issue of what India's legal status in relation to the treaty actually was. But with NSG membership essentially tied to the NPT, any new joining criteria will effectively establish for nuclear-armed India — in clearer legal terms than anything else so far has done — a parallel status equivalent to that of the five nuclear weapons states which are part of the NPT.

Apart from easing Indian access to sensitive high technology items, membership of these clubs — “which will come in a phased manner” — will give New Delhi a say in their rule-making process. Under the terms of the NSG's 2008 waiver, India is today in the anomalous position of being obligated to abide by future guidelines that NSG and even MTCR members may adopt without being part of their formal decision-making process.

The MTCR deals the export of missiles with a range greater than 300 kilometres while the Australian Group regulates the export of materials that could be used for manufacturing chemical and biological weapons.

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