NSG membership: The writing on the great wall

India is better served fashioning an appropriate strategy for the changing global order, rather than single-mindedly pursuing NSG membership.

June 27, 2016 12:51 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Seoul last week >ended with no decision on India’s application to join the group as a full member. This outcome was widely expected ever since China took a public stand against a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being granted membership, since it felt this would undermine the international non-proliferation regime. It elaborated this position further by suggesting that the NSG thoroughly discuss the subject of membership of non-NPT states so that a set of objective criteria could be agreed upon and that no application was treated as an exceptional case.

Having taken this stance, China tried to prevent any formal discussion on India’s application for membership, saying that the issue of agreed criteria for admitting non-NPT members had to be discussed and agreed upon first. When Chinese objections were overcome and a discussion on India’s application was held eventually, this did not materially change the situation since China and a few other members continued to oppose a decision on the same procedural grounds.

Shyam Saran

The >NSG outcome document is in line with Chinese insistence that what should remain on the agenda is the basis on which non-NPT countries could be considered for membership without undermining the NPT as a cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. Therefore, India’s entry into the NSG as a unique and exceptional case may be extremely difficult even if a determined lobbying effort is launched in the coming weeks and months. The only practical possibility would be for India and Pakistan to be admitted together, which China has indicated it would be willing to support. The problem is that most NSG members will have to hold their noses to swallow and digest the Pakistani application, even if India has no objection. China has ensured that India and Pakistan are now >joined at the hip as far as entry into the NSG is concerned .

Working around China In 2008, India was able to get a >waiver from the NSG as an exceptional case allowing it to engage in international commerce in civilian nuclear technology and equipment even though, as a nuclear weapon state, it did not have all its nuclear facilities under international safeguards as required by the group. China was opposed to the waiver but did not take a public stand on it. It encouraged countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland to oppose a consensus on the waiver for India, arguing that it would seriously undermine the NPT, that it would upset the nuclear balance in South Asia and trigger a nuclear arms race, and that a criteria-based rather than a country-specific approach should be adopted in order to avoid the charge of discriminatory practice. This was conveyed to me by the then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark when I called on her to solicit her country’s support at the NSG.

However, whenever the issue was raised with the Chinese in meetings between our top leaders or senior officials, the response was a standard mantra: China welcomes the opportunity to promote civil nuclear cooperation with India, but would not want to undermine in any way the international non-proliferation regime. This was ambiguous enough to give China tactical flexibility at the NSG. In light of this ambiguous public posture, our assessment was that if a broad consensus could be built on granting India a waiver, China would not be the one country to raise its hand and oppose the decision. And this is precisely what happened. On the morning of September 6, 2008, even before the last holdout countries like Ireland, New Zealand and Austria had formally dropped their opposition, China conveyed a message to the Indian delegation that it had decided to support the draft waiver decision.

Future-proofing the waiver Eight years later the geopolitical backdrop against which the NSG meeting took place in Seoul has changed substantially and made it more difficult for India to obtain what should have been a very simple, straightforward decision on membership. The waiver in 2008 had involved very difficult and complex negotiations on the wording of the decision reconciling the different requirements posed by certain key member countries. India’s current application for membership could have been approved by a simple reference to the waiver decision itself which spells out the basis on which it was granted. This may have been the reason for China to take a public stand opposing India’s membership since there was no scope to attach additional requirements beyond those contained in the waiver.

It is only if there is a fresh discussion on so-called “criteria” applicable to all non-NPT applicants that the criteria on the basis of which India has already received a waiver could be reopened. This is a slippery road and India should be careful that in subsequent deliberations the NSG does not revisit the terms and conditions of the India-specific waiver. In case such a threat is perceived, it is better to preserve the substantive gains already obtained through the waiver rather than to push hard for membership. The waiver has allowed India to engage in civil nuclear commerce with a number of countries. It has entered into long-term nuclear fuel supply agreements with a number of supplier countries and is negotiating the supply of advanced nuclear reactors with Russia, France and the U.S. Membership of the NSG would not make a substantive difference except that it would make the conditions for international civil nuclear commerce and cooperation more predictable in the long run and also ensure that in any future amendments to NSG guidelines India is an active participant.

A more confident China’s strategy Why has China taken a more public and upfront position opposing India’s membership in the NSG? Clearly China today is a more confident and assertive power than in 2008. It may even consider being the last man standing as a demonstration of its newfound great power status rather than a sign of international isolation. Trying to isolate or embarrass China on this count may therefore be counterproductive. Second, there is a clear enhancement of China’s commitment to Pakistan, not only as its traditional proxy against India but also because it has been assigned a key role in Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project. Third, it is to relegate India to the minor league by clubbing it together with Pakistan, thereby dismissing the de-hyphenation which the U.S. has projected at least rhetorically. This also seeks to reject the India-China hyphenation which U.S. strategy appears to promote. China considers itself as being in the same league as the U.S.

The NSG drama has brought to the surface trends which have been incipient so far but whose implications go beyond the immediate issue of NSG membership and reflect the ongoing changes in the geopolitical landscape. We should take advantage of the NSG experience to carefully assess these changes, their impact on India and fashion an appropriate response strategy. That is more important than the pursuit of NSG membership.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

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