The Nuclear Suppliers Group, once dubbed merely as a ‘denial regime’ and a ‘cartel’ working for the denial of nuclear technology in South Asia is increasingly gaining preeminence as a multilateral group of significant standing. The change in perspective is driven by the growing nuclear energy demand in the South Asian states as well as a desire by these states to be given the status of an established nuclear weapon state. However, these demands have been met lopsidedly by the US-led industrially advanced states by welcoming India only in the club, as manifested by the Indian nuclear cooperation agreements; facilitated by the 2008 decision of NSG to grant India a waiver for export of nuclear technologies for its nuclear energy program.
Japan, widely known earlier for its opposition to a nuclear deal with India based on its India's non-NPT status and its own nuclear history, has recently finalised the nuclear deal with India contrary to its long standing nonproliferation stance. The Indo-Japan nuclear agreement is weak from the nuclear nonproliferation standpoint as is incorporates similar commitments India had already taken in the Indo-US nuclear deal — like the non-testing — but which it failed to uphold by rejecting Pakistan’s proposal for a bilateral non-testing agreement proposed this August.
This exceptionalism is not new as the decision for granting the NSG waiver to India in 2008 was clearly an offshoot of the increasing US reliance on building India as a strategic counterweight to China. This geostrategic interest of the US originally manifested itself in the Indo-US strategic alliance of early 2000s. Notwithstanding domestic fears in the US about the strategic bet on India being over-sold, US aided India in gaining the status of nuclear weapon state despite India’s candidature as a nuclear weapon state outside NPT. The Indo-US nuclear deal opened the floodgates of foreign supplied nuclear fuel, nuclear technology for India at virtually no consequential nonproliferation gains.
The US sold the deal on strong nonproliferation arguments that the regime would be stronger with India being a member. However, with the deal materialising, India is seen clearly as disregarding the essential norms of nonproliferation by keeping its nuclear reactors outside IAEA safeguards, continuing to produce fissile materials, refusing to accept the CTBT signatures, and continuing to pursue modernisation of nuclear armament.
Keeping the past noncommittal Indian behaviour on pursuing nuclear norms in perspective, the current drive towards NSG expansion brings forth a different debate. Prominent states who stand in the way of new membership include those that seek stringent nonproliferation norms to govern nuclear commerce. Though these states desire an inclusive nonproliferation regime that includes the states outside NPT, however, they want the evolution to be based on a uniform criteria. They argue that before fast-tracking new membership in the NSG, a thorough debate should be undertaken to evolve a new criteria.
This has also been the main stay of the debate in the 2016 plenary of the NSG in June and the consultative meeting held in Vienna on Nov 11-12. Despite India’s strategy of creating media hype about the consensus being forged on its application, the meetings this year have brought forth divergent results. The NSG participating governments have been unable to forge a consensus in their consultations in arriving to a mutually acceptable decision on criteria. Reportedly twelve members at the meeting called for a criteria-based approach including Turkey, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil and Russia apart from China. These states have ardently been opposing non-NPT states in the NSG, advocating that that bringing in these states within the regime without an evolved criteria will weaken the norms than strengthen them. China has also firmly affirmed its stance of conditional admittance of NPT outliers, i.e. first, develop universal criteria for allowing non-NPT signatories to become NSG members and then discuss country-specific applications.
It is no secret that India has left no stone unturned in convincing China to support India’s NSG application, however, China has thus far stuck to its principled position in this regard. A Press Statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the latest consultative meeting of the group stated that it is the first time ‘since the NSG's inception in 1975, for the group to formally take up the issue of non-NPT states' participation in an open and transparent manner.’ This is surely a good precedent for the evolution of the group in particular and the nonproliferation regime in general. Chinese statement also strongly emphasised on application of a nondiscriminatory and uniform formula ‘applicable to all non-NPT states; without prejudice to the core value of the NSG and the effectiveness, authority and integrity of the international non-proliferation regime with the NPT as its cornerstone; and without contradicting the customary international law in the field of non-proliferation.’
The most prominent take-away from the current meeting is that, unlike popular perception, it is not just China that stands in the way of India’s membership, but a general desire among the participating governments of NSG to ensure that unlike the past NSG waiver to India, new entrants should play their role in norm-building and norm upholding of the nonproliferation regime. This is also necessary at a time when states like Japan with known nonproliferation stance are now giving in on nonproliferation commitments based on commercial considerations.
Needless to say, that an equitable and criteria-based approach for membership extension is the only way to make outliers answerable to the nonproliferation norms without prejudice to the commercial considerations and subjective notions of ‘like-mindedness’.
The writer is a former Nuclear Nonproliferation Fellow Monterey California, USA and Fellow Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Centre (NEREC), South Korea.