With the upcoming Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) plenary meeting in Bern from 19th to 23rd June, India has redoubled its efforts to gain membership of this cartel that engages in civilian nuclear trade. This was the main issue on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda during his SCO summit meetings with President Xi Jinping of China and Putin of Russia. Before that he visited Germany, among other NSG member states, with the same purpose. But it is far from certain that his efforts will succeed at the Bern meeting.
The NSG was created in response to the Indian nuclear test in 1974 which demonstrated that the strictures of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) were not sufficient to prevent the clandestine diversion of nuclear materials for civilian use towards weapons production. The NSG was, therefore, limited to NPT member states, including the five recognised nuclear weapon powers (the US, the UK, Soviet Union/Russia, China and France) and the non-nuclear weapon states. Others like India, Israel and Pakistan, as non-signatories of the NPT and later nuclear weapons states, were not eligible for NSG membership. However, by 2008, America’s strategic compulsions to use India as a counter-weight to contain China, led to the US sponsored country-specific exemption for India by the NSG, thereby enabling New Delhi to enter into civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with several NSG countries. Persisting with this preferential approach, the US undertook in 2010 to advocate India’s membership of the Group to bring it into the nuclear “mainstream”, and recognized as a “legitimate” nuclear weapon State.
Due to the perfidy of some within our own government at the time, Pakistan withdrew its objections under US pressure to grant of the exceptional waiver for India in 2008. At the same time, the US led efforts to deny equal treatment to Pakistan, despite our reliance, like India, on civilian nuclear cooperation for energy production. Nevertheless, Pakistan has persisted with its efforts to gain NSG membership, insisting upon the need for a non-discriminatory and equitable criteria based approach to the issue.
Pakistan has also been expressing its serious concerns in important world capitals and relevant international fora that the exemption given to India has enabled that country to increase its production of weapons grade fissile material leading to an enlargement of its nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, India has failed to fully implement its own commitments given in return for the 2008 waiver, such as full separation of its civilian and military nuclear facilities, as pointed out by Harvard University’s Belfer Centre and the Washington-based Arms Control Today think-tank. This enables New Delhi to once again engage in clandestine diversion of nuclear fuel from civilian to military uses. Taken together, the exemption given to India has undermined strategic stability in South Asia which will only exacerbate if India is once again given exclusive treatment to join the NSG.
By now several key members of the NSG have realised that such preferential treatment for India cannot continue, both on the basis of principles and strategic security in South Asia. As a result, the move to grant India NSG membership spearheaded by the US and some of its partners met with stiff resistance last year, led by China with the support of more than 20 countries. Pakistan, too, has been proactive by submitting its application for membership last year and engaging with NSG members for equal and non-discriminatory treatment.
Due to the out-reach efforts by Pakistan and the principled position of numerous countries, the June 2016 NSG Plenary in Seoul, decided to adopt a 2 step-approach. Since NSG decisions are made on the basis of consensus, all 48 member States have to first agree on the factors or criteria that non-NPT signatory States like Pakistan and India need to meet in order to be eligible for membership. Once this is decided, the NSG will consider the applications of the two aspirants in the second phase.
Even so, the US used extreme pressure on the outgoing NSG president, Ambassador Grossi of Argentina and the then incumbent president, Song, from South Korea, to propose criteria designed to favour India. For worse, Grossi “proposed” that India be given membership before Pakistan and that if and when Pakistan was accepted as a member, it would still need to obtain an NSG waiver for nuclear cooperation. This formula was clearly a loaded dice against Pakistan and was, therefore, rejected by a large number of member States.
As opposed to the discriminatory US policy, the more principled countries advocate that criteria for membership of both applicants must go beyond the perfunctory commitments already given by India or those proposed by Grossi. There are varying views in this regard. For the most part, these countries seek additional commitments, such as accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This is unacceptable to India which has repeatedly rejected this treaty. Pakistan, on the other hand, is ready to join if India does the same. It has also offered a bilateral test ban arrangement to India.
Meanwhile, with the change of leadership in the US, the Trump administration has expressed its support for India but not with the same vigour as its predecessor. No doubt Modi will raise this issue when he meets Trump later in June.
Against this backdrop, it is highly unlikely that the 2017 NSG Plenary in Bern will be able to resolve this issue. Inspite of India’s chagrin, its NSG membership has become linked with Pakistan’s membership. Both will need to be treated equally. There is no more room for yet another exclusive waiver for India. The principled position taken by several countries has ensured this. So far, Pakistan’s efforts to ensure equitable treatment in the NSG have succeeded. But we cannot afford to lower our guard.