NSG: the present dilemma

The expansion of 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), the elite club which regulates nuclear commerce, is under limelight due to submission of applications for membership by two non-NPT nuclear weapon states, Pakistan and India. The decision taken at NSG would impact the nuclear politics and pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation objectives. The point is which trend will prevail? Whether the global efforts for nuclear non-proliferation will be maintained or the group will set a new precedent? How will the NSG members reconcile between the selection criteria for new membership and its higher objective of non-proliferation?

NSG is a group of 48 countries who have developed the necessary technology to produce equipment that can be used for making nuclear weapons. NSG, which was formed as a non-proliferation measure to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons after India tested its first nuclear device in May 1974. It had also devised criteria for states desiring to apply for its membership.

Both India and Pakistan have prospective interests towards NSG membership. By getting into the group, Islamabad would move a step forward in recognition as a responsible nuclear weapon state in the global nuclear order. Besides, Pakistan has the necessary technological prowess which can produce several items on NSG control list for export. New Delhi, however, already enjoys a waiver from NSG guidelines since September 2008, as part of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The decision of NSG membership applications of the two South Asian rivals will impact many fundamentals of nuclear order, including its, credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and regional strategic stability.

The ongoing discussion of NSG has so far indicated divergence of views on the issue of new membership. A divide between non-proliferation hardliners and supporters of Indian membership case is visible. The signing of non-proliferation treaty (NPT) or the membership of a non-weapon nuclear zone, among others, formed criteria for states desiring to apply for its membership. Judged on these criteria, neither India nor Pakistan qualifies for NSG membership. NSG’s criteria based approach came under immense pressure when the US duressed NSG members in 2008 to grant a waiver without becoming a member to carry out nuclear commerce with NSG members. The NSG waiver was considered a step forward towards the grant of full membership to India; allowing it to conduct atrade of nuclear technology and material, which was unprecedented in the over forty years NSG history. The decision made on the US persuasion had not only challenged the NSG’s own credibility but had also created possibilities for other non-NPT states to become NSG members.

The US supported grant waiver to India had created a dilemma for NSG. The move had weakened its moral authority to pursue its non-proliferation agenda as beside India there were two other non-NPT nuclear weapon states, Pakistan and Israel who also would become eligible for membership of the exclusive club on the precedent of impending inclusion of India in the group. North Korea has also carried out nuclear tests, but it falls in another category.

The so-called equation made for NSG criteria is criticised vocally. According to Daryl Kimball, Executive Director at the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan policy group based in Washington, “The formula outlined in the draft note sets an extremely low bar on NSG membership and does not require India to take any additional non-proliferation commitments.” The points listed for discussions in last quarter of December need serious evaluation to maintain the standard of NSG membership stature. Such as question of clear and strict separation of current and future civilian nuclear facilities from non-civilian nuclear facilities exist or not? Is there adequate and legal commitment not to conduct any nuclear explosive test? Specifically, CTBT.

In the context of nuclear politics, China is opposed to the accession of non-NPT states to the NSG. Beijing maintains that “NPT provides a political and legal foundation for the international non-proliferation regime as a whole.” China, in the NSG plenary meeting also proposed a two-step solution to the problem created by the move to integrate India into the group. As the first step, NSG should decide whether non-NPT weapon states should be admittedto the group. It may then proceed to develop membership criteria by consensus for non-NPT weapon states. Membership credentials of the non-NPT weapon states application should be then judged on the agreed criteria.

The second source of tension for NSG emanates from the fact that four out of nine nuclear weapon states in the world today are outside the group. The global nuclear order of which NSG is a major component could not effectively pursue its non-proliferation agenda as long as these states remain outside its purview. The question that the NSG members have to ponder deeply on whether keeping over forty percent of nuclear weapon capable states outside the nuclear order would promote or hinder the larger goal of achieving global stability.

Thus, before expanding the membership drive, current Participating Governments (PG) should thoroughly discuss and forge a consensus. India, however, contests Chinese stance and maintains that NPT is not a sine qua non to join NSG.

Another group of states, commonly known as ‘nonproliferation hard-liners’ mainly Austria, Ireland and New Zealand contend that Indian membership will undermine the non-proliferation regime. NSG was established in response to Indian nuclear test in 1974. India had diverted plutonium produced by a Canadian-supplied reactor, employing US-origin heavy water. According to NSG, India’s nuclear explosion exhibited that “peaceful nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused.” They have reservations regarding the US proposed text in support of the exemption to include conditions including; review of India’s seriousness with non-proliferation commitments; precisecategorization of uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spentfuel materials and also the inadequatecondition of revoking nuclear trade deal with India in any event of testing of a nuclear weapon. There are also concerns of successfully signing of nuclear deals with Australia, Japan and Vietnam by India which became possible because of a waiver given to it by NSG.

The United States is activelyadvocating India’s case. It is understood that the US support for India emanates from its geostrategic interests. Strategic and defence cooperation between India and the US has grown enormously over the last decade reflecting a greater convergence of interests. As a part of its rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy, Washington views India as a partner to balance an assertive China in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, supporting India is in the strategic interest of US by mainstreaming it into global political and financial institutions.

Pakistan, however, has historically had a competitive and troubled relationship with India, and a cooperative political and strategic partnership with China. The bilateral relationship between US and Pakistan focuses narrowly on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and South Asian security issues. Conversely, Pakistan has inched closer to China in recent years. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as part of China’s One Belt, is a mark of deepening economic and strategic engagement between Beijing and Islamabad.

Chinese concerns over Indian membership of the NSG are directly linked to the larger global and regional geostrategic environment. NSG membership of India would give it a greater role in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, at present, China-US bilateral relationship is floundering due to the divergent outlook over contentious issues such as the South China Sea, ballistic missile defence in East Asia, among others.

Will a compromise between non-proliferation concerns and geostrategic objectives of China and the U.S. be reached? The issue of admitting new a member is underway; the debate is open, and so is the quest of countries to safeguard their geostrategic interests. The trends of realpolitik are the main findings in international nuclear politics. But global nuclear politics should not overshadow the core global objectives of nuclear non-proliferation by any nuclear cooperation regime including NSG. Hence, without credible pledges, NSG membership of non-NPT nuclear weapon states will weaken the non-proliferation regime.


The writer is a Research Fellow at Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad and a former Nuclear Nonproliferation Fellow Monterey California, USA