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The Non-Proliferation Orthodoxies Stalling India's NSG Bid

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  • July 04, 2016

    How's this for irony: it was India's nuclear test of May 1974 that brought together the initial group of seven nuclear suppliers to form the "London Club" -- later christened as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) -- to formulate rules and guidelines for nuclear trade. Since 1978, when the first guidelines were formulated (INFCIRC/254), India found itself at the receiving end of the NSG, with the 1992 guidelines -- which required non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) to have the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) full-scope safeguards to gain supplies -- totally cutting out the nation from global nuclear commerce.

    While the NSG gave India an exemption to this guideline in 2008, the story until then was about India's perennial struggle against a discriminatory non-proliferation order perpetuated by such "denial regimes". The India-US nuclear deal, which facilitated this exemption, though, happened only because of the Bush administration's decision to sidestep the cornerstone NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) in favour of new solutions to strengthen the non-proliferation system based on the bargain that countries indulging in proliferation should be penalized while those with a good record be rewarded. India thus metamorphosed from a "proliferation problem" to being part of the solution.

    Critics of the nuclear deal had described it as undermining the NPT, even as many of the naysayers backed the NSG exemption, with some eventually signing nuclear cooperation agreements with India. Nonetheless, the nuclear deal and its concomitant processes left a major conceptual question unanswered -- should India be deemed to have fully integrated into the non-proliferation regime with this waiver, or whether this could happen without being an NPT state-party? Amid differing perceptions of what "integration" means, it is inevitable that the NPT question presents itself as the final frontier in India's efforts to gain full legitimacy as a nuclear-armed state without being an NPT state-party.


    After China's clamouring on the NPT as qualifier to decide membership, states with reservations on India had come around to support a criterion to admit non-NPT states. However, the current status of NPT and persistence of some outdated orthodoxies underline how using the treaty benchmark may not favour the NSG's interests or the cause of non-proliferation.

    No umbilical cord tying NSG and NPT

    When the London Club first met in 1974, only a few states with advanced nuclear technology or resources had signed and ratified the NPT. It was natural that the NSG in its early years was a grouping of suppliers, including those who were yet to join the treaty, with common interests of ensuring that nuclear supplies do not go to unsafeguarded facilities or are diverted for non-peaceful purposes. The first guidelines of 1978 emphasized not on the NPT, but on IAEA safeguards (which preceded the NPT and was still evolving) as the principle determining nuclear exports. It was not until the 1990 Review Conference (RevCon) of the NPT and revelations of Iraq's clandestine programme that made the NSG rally around full-scope safeguards in order to restrict nuclear resources to the NPT state-parties.

    A cartel with commercial interests

    The hype about India's membership gave way to public perception of the NSG being an international legal body. Rather, the evolution of this group was shaped by political and commercial interests, with "non-proliferation" providing its raison d'être. NSG documents, in fact, list in its supporting activities that "suppliers should encourage... recipients to take the fullest advantage of the international commercial market and other mechanisms for nuclear fuel services while not undermining the global fuel market."

    By its own admission, the NSG was inactive after the initial momentum, only to be revived by post-Cold War dynamics. Notwithstanding its preoccupation with formulating export control norms, its fast expansion in the last two decades could be attributed to the rising influence of emerging nuclear markets besides having to decide on new techno-commercial imperatives like fuel banks and proliferation-resistant reactor technologies. With the impending realignment of supplier-consumer dynamics, every country with a nuclear production capability or resources seeks to be on the influential side of decision-making.

    NPT criteria are untenable

    The NPT might be the cornerstone and a near-universal treaty. Yet, it has been in the doldrums since its indefinite extension in 1995, with every RevCon since failing to develop consensus on fulfilling its key objectives, including disarmament. The nuclear deal and the India-specific waiver at NSG signalled that the treaty was no longer suited to address emerging proliferation challenges and that solutions had to be sought beyond this framework. Further, the cause of non-proliferation will no better be served by placing the treaty as impediment to engage "states with advanced nuclear technology" like India or in allowing them to shape the contours of this industry.

    Safeguards not meant to hinder nuclear trade

    By the NSG's own assertion, full-scope safeguards were enshrined as criteria in the 1992 guidelines to ensure that "only NPT parties could benefit from nuclear transfers." The waiver given to India is standing example that such restrictive practices may not hold ground anymore. Full-scope safeguards were a mechanism to ensure that non-weapon parties to NPT did not divert resources to weapons programmes. The three major NPT hold-outs (India, Pakistan and Israel) had subscribed to IAEA's item-or facility-specific safeguards (INFCIRC-66) as guarantee against such diversion of foreign resources to their military programmes. India augmented this further through another safeguard agreement with IAEA in 2008, to meet the pre-condition for the NSG waiver. Considering that these three hold-outs will not join the NPT nor discard their strategic programmes, it will prove retrograde for the NSG to rely on archaic criteria to keep out thriving nuclear markets like India with a better record of non-proliferation than some existing NSG members.

    China bit more than it could chew

    The Chinese foreign ministry attributed its opposition to "caring about the NPT." It is another matter that China had rejected the NPT negotiations in the 1960s, calling it an instrument of imperialism. Beijing's current strategy seems self-defeating thanks to its inconsistency on the NPT criteria. After initially demanding that India could get membership only after signing the treaty, China ended up backing the criteria call for non-NPT states, realizing that the NPT criteria could well cut out Pakistan from the equation. While the conditions that facilitated the 2008 waiver could still work in India's favour for the membership decision, Pakistan has hardly fared well in these years with its feverish fissile production, blocking of Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) talks and continuing support to terror group, all adding to its blemished record that denied it the treatment that Indian gained.


    The intense campaign spearheaded by the political leadership in the run-up to the Seoul plenary raised curiosity about why India feels the NSG membership is crucial to its nuclear future. Critics suggested that India should be content with the 2008 NSG and that such a high-stakes campaign may backfire. Other than the perceptual advantages of gaining a place at one of the nuclear high-tables, the actual benefit of being an NSG member is about influencing crucial decisions on global nuclear commerce and also positioning the country as a nuclear supplier. However, for a country that is dependent on fuel and technology for its expanding nuclear programme, sceptics may doubt the contribution India could make to the global industry with its archaic Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) competencies or its yet-to-be harnessed fast breeder technology that promises to harvest the country's massive thorium resources.

    Of pivotal interest will be to discern how the NSG will determine its policies on transfer of Enrichment and Reprocessing (ENR) technologies. The NSG had recently resolved to restrict ENR access to only NPT state-parties. Can India, as a member, force a change in this position? There are other lingering issues as well -- the question of who qualifies to be a supplier in the fuel banks that are being mooted. Fuel banks work on the premise that recipient states have to subscribe to these banks as their captive source. The Indian urgency might be driven by the desire to be on the influential side of this spectrum, and possibly play a future spoiler role.

    The article was originally published in Huffington Post