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Why is NSG Membership important for India?

Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.
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  • June 21, 2016

    The issue of India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has been the focus of significant public and media attention over the past few weeks. It appears to have emerged as the single most critical foreign policy priority for the Modi government. The government is according so much importance to the issue that Prime Minster Modi hurriedly decided at the last minute to include visits to Switzerland and Mexico during his tour to USA and some other countries to raise this issue and obtain categorical support for India’s membership at the forthcoming NSG plenary at Seoul on 23-24 June 2016. It is a reflection on Modi that he was able to get unequivocal support from Mexico and Switzerland although they had initially opposed the grant of a unique waiver to India by the NSG in 2008. They had also expressed concerns about India's NSG membership when the issue came up in informal discussions in recent years.

    Under normal circumstances, the issue would probably not have assumed such a high profile. What appears to have brought it so completely under the floodlights is the uncharacteristic and open opposition by China to India’s membership in this body. Over the last few weeks, China has issued several statements, officially as well as through its mouthpiece media publications, maintaining that no single country waiver should be granted to India as was done in 2008. It stated that, in any case, India is not eligible to become a member of the NSG as it is not a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), adherence to which latter is necessary for membership in the former. China has also averred that for non-NPT members some definite criteria should be evolved rather than granting country specific waivers. At other times, it has stated that Pakistan also has similar credentials to join the NSG; and that if India is admitted, Pakistan should also be admitted simultaneously. China has also maintained that there are several countries which have reservations about India’s membership of the NSG. Further, if only India were to be admitted, it would disturb the nuclear-arms balance in South Asia as India will engage in a massive nuclear weaponisation programme. Finally, China has stated that India's membership will ''jeopardise'' China's national interests and touch a ''raw nerve'' in Pakistan.

    None of China’s contentions appear to hold much water. However, before considering them more critically, it will be useful to understand what the purpose and mandate of the NSG is. It is doubtless true that NSG was established in the wake of the Pokhran I peaceful nuclear explosion conducted by India in 1974. The intent and purpose of the NSG is, however, different from that of the NPT. NSG is not an international treaty. It is a group of “nuclear supplier countries that seeks to contribute to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons through implementation of two sets of Guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.” After more than 25 years of its establishment, some suggested guidelines were evolved in 2001 at Aspen for admitting new members to the organisation. Amongst these, membership of NPT is only a guideline, a consideration, and not a mandatory requirement while deciding on a country's application.

    India is keen to become a member of the NSG and other export control regimes such as the Wassenaar Agreement and Australia Group as it seeks to significantly expand its nuclear power generation and also enter the export market in the coming years. Although the 2008 NSG waiver does provide significant possibilities for India to engage in civilian nuclear trade with other countries (and indeed, India has entered into such agreements with several countries like Russia, France, UK, USA, Kazakhstan, Australia, and others), membership of the NSG will provide greater certainty and a legal foundation for India's nuclear regime and thus greater confidence for those countries investing billions of dollars to set up ambitious nuclear power projects in India. Moreover, as India’s international political, economic, military and strategic profile and clout increases, India would like to move into the category of international rule-creating nations rather than stay in the ranks of rule-adhering nations. For this, it is essential that India gets due recognition and a place on the NSG high table.

    India’s track-record in observing the provisions of the NPT and NSG, even though it has not been a member of either body, is impeccable. If the NSG was able to grant a waiver to India in 2008 on the basis of its past performance, it should have no objection to admitting the country as a member this time as well because of its record in adhering to all its commitments over the last eight years. It is, however, obvious that the decision on 23-24 June in Seoul will be taken by some countries on political considerations rather than on merit. Usually China has been seen to stay in the background and put up smaller countries in the forefront to articulate opposition to any issue that it does not concur with. This time, in addition to instigating smaller countries to raise objections, China has itself come out openly in opposition to India’s membership. Since all decisions at NSG are taken by consensus, any country, small or big, can stand in the way of a consensus. India has therefore launched a blitzkrieg of hectic diplomatic activity to explain its position, allay fears and overcome the opposition of a few countries which might still have concerns.

    India has also reached out to China directly to explain that its interest in NSG membership is not guided by any political or strategic considerations but only to facilitate the expansion of its clean and green nuclear energy programme. It took the unusual step of dispatching its foreign secretary to Beijing on 16-17 June to hold discussions on this and other important issues with his counterpart. If the issue goes to the wire, Prime Minister Modi is expected to take up the issue with President Xi Jinping in Tashkent where both leaders are likely to be present for the SCO Summit on 23-24 June.

    India became a Member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) on 7 June 2016. All 34 members of MTCR are members of the NSG. India is hence assured of support of these 34 members in its quest for NSG membership. It may be noted that China is not a member of MTCR, although it put in its application in 2004, because several members have concerns about China’s dubious proliferation record in supplying missile technology to countries like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.

    Most questions raised by China against India’s membership have little validity. For instance, membership of NPT is not a condition for becoming a member of NSG. It is only a guiding principle to which consideration needs to be given. Pakistan’s credentials for NSG membership are highly flawed and inadequate. Over the last eight years India, as per its commitment, has separated its reactors which are under IAEA safeguards and those which are not. Pakistan has a blemished and flawed proliferation record as it has engaged in illicit supply of nuclear technology and materials to Iran, Libya and North Korea. No comparison between the track records of the two countries is hence justified. India maintains that rather than evolving criteria, its performance should be the basis on which the decision on its application should be taken.

    Both substantively and commensurate with its expanding international prestige and profile, India's membership of NSG is of vital significance. A decision at the NSG plenary session in Seoul will depend on China's stance. All other countries are expected to fall in line. President Putin has also assured India that Russia will intercede with China on India’s behalf. India can be reasonably hopeful that China will see reason and logic in India's arguments and will gracefully withdraw its strident opposition. Responsibility devolves upon China, more than it does upon India, to bridge the trust deficit between the two countries. This is a sterling opportunity that China should welcome and grasp with both hands.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.