Dual diplomacy for Mission NSG

Illustration: Keshav   | Photo Credit: keshav

Last week, the special meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) held in Vienna, to consider the issue of >India’s application for joining the group, ended inconclusively. The matter will now be taken up at the plenary meeting scheduled for June 21-24 in Seoul. In mid-May, India formally applied to join the NSG, reflecting the political distance it has travelled.

The NSG (initially known as the London Club) came into being in 1974, in response to India’s peaceful nuclear explosion. Its original members were the U.S., U.S.S.R., U.K., France, West Germany, Canada and Japan. Realising that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was not robust enough and in any event, France was not party to the NPT and exporting sensitive nuclear technology (including to Pakistan which it then cancelled), these seven countries adopted stringent guidelines for nuclear exports. Today, the NSG has grown to 48 countries and in order to get away from the notion of a ‘club’, members are called ‘Participating Governments’ (PGs).

After the first few years, the NSG remained dormant and, in fact, did not meet after 1977 till 1991, when concerns about Iraq’s nuclear programme surfaced following the first Gulf war. By this time, the NSG had expanded to 26 countries and moved quickly to expand controls to cover dual-use items and technologies that had contributed to Iraq’s programme. The second key change was that for non-nuclear weapon states, full-scope safeguards became the conditionality for nuclear transfers. Since then, it has had regular meetings, both at the technical and policy levels. Legally though, it remains an informal grouping of like-minded states committed to nuclear non-proliferation, implemented through a system of harmonised export controls. Decisions in the group are taken by consensus.

India’s long journey

Contrary to popular perception, India has never been an ‘outlier state’ and though not a member of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, has maintained an impeccable non-proliferation record coupled with a strong commitment to controlling exports of nuclear materials, equipments and technologies.

After the 1998 nuclear tests when India became a nuclear weapon state, India tightened its systems further by introducing new laws and for nearly a decade, has been a voluntary adherent to the NSG guidelines. For over five years, it has been engaged in a formal dialogue with the NSG before deciding last month to apply formally to become a PG.

Since 1998, the India-U.S. dialogue has gone through three phases. The first phase was to obtain relief from the sanctions imposed on India by the U.S. and other countries. This objective was achieved in large measure by 2003. The emerging green shoots of strategic convergence led to the launch of the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and U.S. President George Bush in the second phase.

Following its conclusion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush decided to move towards restoring bilateral civil nuclear cooperation. This needed changes in U.S. law which, in turn, required waiver from the NSG guidelines since as a nuclear weapon state, India could not accept full-scope safeguards. This challenging third phase took three years and finally, in 2008, the NSG provided an exceptional waiver to India clearing the way for India to enter into civilian nuclear cooperation agreements. Agreements with the U.S., France and Russia relating to setting up of new nuclear power plants and long-term agreements for supply of uranium fuel with nearly a dozen countries have since been concluded.

The exceptional waiver provided by the NSG in 2008 was an acknowledgement of India’s non-proliferation record. Yet, it was also a politically driven decision, backed strongly by the U.S. (and Russia and France) which did the heavy lifting with President Bush and other senior members of his administration making phone calls to persuade the leaders of some of the reluctant NSG members.

Wanting to put an end to the myth of India being an ‘outlier’ to the non-proliferation regime, and as a potential exporter of nuclear, missile and other related sensitive technologies, India declared its intention to join NSG, MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), Australia Group (set up to control exports of chemical and biological agents), and Wassenaar Arrangement (covering exports of munitions and dual-use goods and technologies). The U.S. backed India’s decision and the joint statement issued following President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010 stated “the U.S. intends to support India’s full membership in the four multilateral export control regimes”; this has been reiterated at subsequent summits. The reality is that joining NSG offers political advantage because the 2008 waiver has already enabled India to engage in civil nuclear cooperation. Today, India is a voluntary adherent to NSG guidelines; as a PG, this will become a legal obligation.

Since the NSG is an informal grouping consisting of PGs (and not member states), it has set out five factors for considering applications of prospective PGs. These are — the ability to supply items on NSG control lists; acting in accordance with NSG guidelines; a legally based export control system; support international non-proliferation efforts; and finally, membership of treaties like the NPT that require full-scope safeguards. Evidently India more than fulfils the first four but cannot meet the last ‘consideration’; however, these are not mandatory criteria but factors for consideration.

Games nations play

In 2008, China was unhappy about the NSG decision but preferred to work with other countries like Ireland, Switzerland and Austria who believed that the India waiver would weaken the non-proliferation regime. Once these countries were persuaded otherwise, China joined the consensus. This time since Pakistan put in its application a week after India, >China has been open in voicing its opposition. China maintains that an exception for India would weaken the non-proliferation rules; since there is Pakistan’s application too, a criterion-based approach should be developed; and finally, nothing should be done in hurry that would upset the South Asian balance. The first argument is designed to appeal to some of the smaller countries who had resisted in 2008; China’s real objective is to delay India’s joining, keep it hyphenated with Pakistan and restricted to South Asia.

China joined the NSG in 2004; at that stage it had two power reactor projects in Pakistan, Chashma I and II, of 325 MW and 340 MW capacity, respectively. Chashma I was already operational and Chashma II went online in 2011. After the India-U.S. agreement was announced in 2005, China declared that it would also be building new reactors in Pakistan. Since this was a clear violation of NSG guidelines (Pakistan does not enjoy a similar exception like India got in 2008), China ‘grandfathered’ the announcement by citing an earlier commitment that it had omitted to mention in 2004! A contract for Chashma III and IV was signed in 2009 and an announcement for Chashma V made in 2013. Given its proliferation record, Pakistan is unlikely to obtain nuclear cooperation from other NSG members but China would find Pakistan a useful ally in the NSG.

Two-track diplomacy

In Vienna, knowing that the meeting would be inconclusive, India’s objective was to gauge opposition and ensure that the matter be discussed in Seoul. Meanwhile India needs to pursue two diplomatic tracks simultaneously. One track should focus on those countries that reportedly raised concerns about the impact of an India exception on the regime. Ireland, Switzerland and Mexico have been brought around; South Africa, New Zealand, Austria and Turkey still need to be persuaded.

The second track should focus on China. The reality is that Pakistan is not ready to join the NSG. It has not separated its military and civilian nuclear programmes; safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency for its civilian programme are yet to be negotiated; and accession to the Additional Protocol is pending. China knows this and is employing dilatory tactics. The question is whether an assurance that India would refrain from blocking Pakistan’s subsequent bid will work. An indication to this effect is there in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s letter to NSG members urging them to support India’s bid and adding that with respect to other applications (read Pakistan), “India would take a merit-based approach and would not be influenced by extraneous (read bilateral) regional issues”. Put simply, India could be admitted this year at Seoul and Pakistan’s application would be considered on merit after it completes the necessary requirements thereafter.

In a move reminiscent of the old Chinese strategy game Go, India also >pushed through its MTCR membership earlier this month. China’s application has been on hold since 2004 on account of its missile proliferation activities with North Korea. This would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

As a Chinese diplomat once explained, major powers do not seek favours from each other nor do they push each other into inextricable corners; they extract favourable outcomes by blocking moves of others. Beijing realises that the Asian century cannot be China’s alone. The Go board is interestingly set and needs skilful and sensitive play to ensure a positive outcome.

Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 7:40:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Dual-diplomacy-for-Mission-NSG/article14420489.ece

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