Negotiations at the Seoul Nuclear Suppliers Group special session threatened to stretch to midnight, as sources said "several" countries remained opposed to the possibility of non-signatories to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being admitted to the group.
Earlier in the evening, India recieved a major boost to its chances when the NSG had agreed to hold the discussion on its candidature, as The Hindu had reported.
Government sources claim the "key meeting" had seen some clarity, with a "consensus minus one", indicating that China was the only holdout.
Even so, the meeting, that began at 9 p.m. with all heads of delegation present, has stretched far longer than diplomats expected. While concerns from Turkey, Ireland, Austria and New Zealand had been voiced in the past as well, even Brazil is believed to have spoken at the session opposing a change to what are seen as a "core value" of the 48-member NSG.
India has maintained that signing the NPT is not a pre-requisite for becoming a member of the NSG. Significantly, the Indian team here led by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar had met with the Brazilian delegation in a series of meeting on the sidelines of the summit earlier in the day.
A source privy to the closed door consultations told The Hindu that although the membership application from India was specifically on the agenda of the meeting, "deliberations have not moved beyond the NPT question, and we are yet to discuss India's case specifically."
The news of the impasse follows a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tashkent, which failed to bring a positive statement of support from China for India's candidature.
China has taken a more nuanced position at the NSG, arguing for a "criteria-based" process to be evolved for all non-NPT applicant countries i.e. India and Pakistan. During the meeting Mr. Modi urged Mr. Xi to make a "fair and objective assessment of India's application and judge it only on its own merit," according to MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup.
Although the meeting of the 48-member NSG is a strictly closed-door affair, diplomatic sources from several countries have confirmed their delegation head will attend the session convened by Argentinian Chairperson Rafael Grossi. Both Argentina and host South Korea have been supportive of India’s case for a membership in the past year, and delegates from both countries are understood to have worked on setting up a special formal session on Thursday evening.
In a series of statements this week, China has maintained that the issue of non-NPT countries like India applying for membership is not on the agenda in Seoul. But several countries are understood to have raised India’s case during the first day of the two-day plenary on Thursday. Japan is understood to have even “welcomed” India’s application, calling for it to be considered.
Diplomats cautioned against any optimism on the basis of the convening of a special session, pointing out that there may be several possible outcomes from the session. The NSG could agree to put off the decision until the next plenary next year, or at a special plenary later this year. In addition, the NSG could agree to China’s demand for a “criteria-based process”, and refer it to a committee that could involve delays as India and Pakistan’s current applications are considered, as well as the possibility of other non-signatories like Israel applying in the future.
The final decision may not be known until Friday, when the NSG is expected to issue a statement on the plenary.
Besides Mr. Jaishankar, an expert in nuclear issues himself and who has served in high profile positions in Indian missions in the US, China, Russia and Japan (key countries in the NSG), the Indian team includes its top official on nuclear issues Amandeep Singh Gill, who has negotiated the details of India’s civil nuclear agreements and MoUs with countries including Canada, US, Australia and Japan in the past few years. Also in Seoul is India’s Ambassador to South Korea Vikram Doraiswami, who has served in the PMO’s of both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, and handled the America desk during the crucial phases of the India-U.S. civil nuclear engagement.
US, UK, France proclaim support
In the past few days, countries like the U.S., the U.K. and France have made public proclamations of support to India’s bid, calling on other members to follow suit, while Russian President Putin said that India’s case was “special” and must be supported within the ambits of international law. The U.S., in particular, has been working the phones to canvas for India.Hosts South Korea and the country chairing the session, Argentina, have both been pushing India’s case as well, and have ensured several rounds of unofficial talk between the NSG members this past week.
Diplomats rejected criticism that India’s timeline was too “ambitious.” “What we are asking for is immediate membership”, a government source said on Wednesday, making it clear that India was not pursuing a compromise solution or a deferment of the decision as an option either.
“NSG members have discussed the question of non-NPT (countries that haven’t signed the Non Proliferation Treaty) several times since 2011, including up to the special session convened in Vienna on June 9-10” said a senior official, indicating that the time to bring it on the group’s formal agenda was now. China has been couching its opposition to India’s accession by calling for “criteria-based” process for entry of all non-NPT countries.
However, the criteria process has thrown up other problems in the past few days. While India has said it would not object to other non-NPT nations joining the NSG, it may not be as simple to convince others. China and Turkey have been keen to bring Pakistan into the NSG-fold along with India, but given Pakistan’s record in illicit nuclear trade, non-proliferation hardliners like Ireland, Austria and New Zealand would possibly disallow that.
Even countries like the U.S. have made it clear that Pakistan’s membership application isn’t ready, until it puts many more safeguards in place. Israel is the other non-NPT contender, although it has not yet applied for membership, and no doubt will raise opposition from some of the other members.
At present, unless China shifts its position, only Namibia, which is a signatory of the NPT and has applied this year, is likely to be considered, officials said.
If the membership issue is not taken up or discussed in the plenary, it would not mean an end to India’s hopes, however, and the issue may be taken up at another special session later this year.
India has been keen to complete the process during US President Barack Obama’s tenure, given that he had made a commitment to help India with the NSG during his visit in 2010.
When asked about the consequences of a loss in Seoul, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had compared the NSG campaign to running a Lok Sabha election campaign. “You close your ears to the possibility of defeat,” he said.
According to a seasoned diplomat privy to the campaign, it was like “learning to ride a bicycle”. “You wont know if you succeed until you get on the bike. You may get hurt the first few times, but you have to get back on and keep trying.”