India’s 30-year-old effort to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has been characterised as the pursuit of a diplomatic holy grail. The chance of success in that pursuit has been receding like a mirage, though there have been tantalising signs of progress. A similar, but less intense effort is on to seek admission to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a body which should have included India in the first place. Here again, there is no sign of India being invited, even as the 10-year moratorium on new membership has expired. India has now embarked on another quest, this time to seek membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The Prime Minister himself has travelled to Switzerland to seek support and he will also go to Mexico for the same purpose. It is surprising that India is investing much diplomatic effort on this issue when there is little chance of India being invited to the group.
An American initiative India seeking membership of the NSG is like Russia seeking membership of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: the NSG was invented to prevent Indian advance towards possession of nuclear weapons after the technology demonstration test of 1974. If India joins it, the very nature of the NSG will change and dilute its fundamental position that all members should be signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Though the U.S. has stated repeatedly that it would like to see India in the NSG, it cannot be expected to be a party to the fundamental alteration of the NPT regime.
Interestingly, it was a U.S. think tank which brought up the topic in a Track II discussion with some of us in 2007. The suggestion was not that India should be given membership of the NSG, but that India should join all multilateral export control regimes like the NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime (which it is set to join later this year), the Wassenaar Arrangement for control of conventional weapons and the Australia Group for control of chemicals that could contribute to chemical and biological weapons. It appeared then that the whole proposal was to drag us into Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group by presenting them as a package. We had refrained from joining both, though they were open for us from the beginning, for our own reasons. Our response to the U.S. proposal was guarded as we did not want a bargain on all the groups together. We did, however, emphasise that India’s membership of the NSG would be helpful as it had received an exemption from the NSG guidelines. As a member of the group, we could contribute to the discussion if it sought to amend the guidelines in any manner. In other words, it was not an Indian initiative to press for admission to the NSG.
U.S. President Barack Obama formalised the proposal in 2010, as though it was a concession to India, in his bid to win various contracts, including nuclear supplies. Perhaps, he was aware that a decision on the NSG was not in his hands, but promised to take up the matter with the others just to win some goodwill in the process. As was expected, the fundamental requirement that every member should be a signatory to the NPT was brought up not only by China but several others. There was similar opposition in the case of the exemption from NSG guidelines at the time of the nuclear deal also, but our bilateral efforts and heavy lifting by the U.S., including a final phone call from the U.S. President to his Chinese counterpart, resulted in the exemption. The strength of the argument was that this would be a one-time exemption with no strings attached.
No great gains in the offing Interestingly, the NSG is an informal grouping, which is referred to in the International Atomic Energy Agency documents only as “certain states”, and there is no precise procedure for seeking admission. But since the group takes all its decisions by consensus, it follows that new members should also be by consensus. For those outside the group, there is an outreach programme which is being pursued vigorously. The outreach programme is meant merely for conveying information and not for consultation. New Delhi hosted an outreach meeting a few years ago, but it was found that the exercise was not of much use in influencing the guidelines.
The pursuit of membership of the NSG by India at the highest level has aroused suspicion that India is aiming to be in the group to deny entry to Pakistan. Such an interpretation is the result of lack of any clarity as to the benefits that will accrue to India by joining the NSG. In fact, membership of the group will not immediately open up nuclear trade as India has already pledged not to transfer nuclear know-how to other countries. If we attempt to dilute the guidelines to liberalise supply, it will be resisted by the others. Membership of the NSG will only mean greater pressure on us to sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and commit in advance to a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would impose restrictions on existing stockpiles of fissile material.
China has given scant attention to the NSG guidelines and has violated them in the case of Pakistan by claiming to act under an agreement reached before China joined the NSG. Unlike India, Pakistan has not even sought an exemption from the NSG. To say, therefore, that India and Pakistan should be equated on nuclear matters is unreasonable, to say the least. But the NSG did not even challenge the supply of two new reactors to Pakistan by China. The NSG’s ineffectiveness in countering proliferation makes it even less attractive as a group India should join.
The green signal for India to join the MTCR came when Mr. Modi was in Washington purely by coincidence, as the last date for filing objections happened to be that day. Italy had held up its approval on account of the Italian marines issue, but did not file a formal objection because of the decision to let the marines go home. Membership of the MTCR, which restricts the weight and range of missiles, is being projected as clearing the way for NSG. This is not likely because of China except that we can now threaten to veto China if it applies for membership of the MTCR.
When India is not anywhere near the permanent membership of the Security Council and even APEC membership remains elusive, the high-level pursuit of NSG membership may give the impression that India is unrealistic in its expectations from the international community. Support by Switzerland and Mexico will not make any difference as there will not be a vote on the issue. The U.S. may reiterate its support, but the objection will come from China and even some others. It will be better for India to concentrate on one or two fundamental objectives rather than fritter away our diplomatic resources on matters of marginal interest.
T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and followed the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna.