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The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) held its 2013 plenary meeting in Prague last week. Little of what transpired at the meet has trickled out, but it is known that Britain lobbied strongly for India’s membership into the exclusive nuclear club. After the meetings, a brief statement was issued that said that “only the NSG’s relationship with India was discussed.” An earlier meeting in March this year revealed that though four of the five Non-Proliferation Treaty sanctioned nuclear powers – France, Russia, Britain, and the United States – supported India’s membership, the proposal was opposed by China and a few other countries (most likely Austria, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand).

The NSG was established in the immediate aftermath of India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion” at Pokhran. From an initial seven members in 1975, the group today has 47 members that are all part of the nuclear cycle, be it ore, technology, or even important shipping hubs. The secretive body works on consensus, and its rulings are not legally binding but serve as guidelines to coordinate and regulate nuclear commerce between states.

Despite the Pokhran impetus behind the creation of the NSG, the Indo-US nuclear deal supported strongly by George W Bush brought about a thaw in civilian nuclear relations with India. The United States was able to arm-twist the few hesitant Participating Governments (PG) of the NSG into giving India a waiver for its non-NPT status. Yet this was only a quick fix – in the long-run, US pressure upon the NSG regarding India brought to the fore related tensions within the group over enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) and China.

India has publicly downplayed its interest in joining the NSG and other technology denying regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Zangger Committee, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. Nonetheless, its apparent nonchalance should not be misread: if anything, Delhi is extremely eager to have a seat at the “Big Boys’ Table.” Some analysts perceive this, quite narrow-mindedly, as a matter of prestige. However, these memberships are important to India as they provide a better platform from which to voice India’s views on nuclear commerce and non-proliferation and thereby protect its own nuclear establishment.

The NSG’s India Quandary

India critics are quite right in their warning that India does not see eye-to-eye with the NSG and the body’s opening its doors to the South Asian country will dilute its mission. Had anyone paid attention, this would have been obvious from the mid-1960s at the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) negotiations over the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and at every opportunity to discuss nuclear issues since. The PGs must decide whether the nuclear status quo serves the world’s best interests (and risk being made irrelevant) or allow changes to reflect the realities which they had been in a position to ignore 40 years ago.

By allowing India into the NSG, the group also risks looking hypocritical, at least on paper, and losing credibility with trouble spots like Pakistan, Iran, and a slew of countries newly interested in nuclear power (29 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency). China has already not-so-obliquely hinted, however debatably, at the double standards exhibited by the group regarding India and Pakistan, and used the Indo-US nuclear deal as an excuse to make further sales to Pakistan under the, again debatable, pretext of ‘grandfathering’ its sales into a previous bilateral treaty between the two states.

However, by not letting in India, the NSG might be hastening its own demise – as India’s economy grows so will its nuclear energy sector. Increased confidence in designing, building, and running nuclear reactors will inevitably lead to India eventually becoming a nuclear exporter – it is already among the leading countries in fast breeder and thorium reactor research. At this point, Delhi will have little to hold it back from establishing its own criteria for safe nuclear commerce outside the scope of the NSG. Every country pursuing nuclear power has its own strategic equation, and if an Indian-led export regime is perceived as less intrusive and insulting to national sovereignty while offering similar benefits, the NSG may have few bargaining chips to use with India.

The View From Delhi

India’s dealings with the NSG have revealed two anti-India blocs – a small group of nations whose opposition is on ideological grounds, and China. The first group’s idealism prohibits it from accepting the sort of exceptions the NSG would have to make to allow India to become a member. This group also opposed the India-specific waiver in 2008 and would have voted against it had it not been for “tremendous pressure” exerted upon them by the White House.

India can, and has in the past, use persuasive diplomacy with the group of European states (and New Zealand) to convince them of the merit of India’s case. India can also count on the countries that have the most to gain from India’s unrestricted entry into the nuclear market to also speak on its behalf to these states. Though not easy, Delhi can probably persuade these states not to block its membership if not support it.

The bigger hindrance for Delhi is Beijing. Not only has China flouted NSG guidelines in its dealings with Pakistan, but it is also the main obstacle to India in several international fora including the NSG and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Strategists in Delhi must rue the day Jawaharlal Nehru refused a permanent seat on the UNSC (the US offered to support India’s bid in 1952 and again in 1955) in favour of China. If India expects its northeastern neighbour’s behaviour to change, it will have to wait long. These memberships amplify India’s voice on the world stage; they are diplomatic force multipliers that once given, cannot be taken back or negated. Beijing might be willing to make small and temporary concessions on the border and on its support to anti-India forces in the region but it will never accede to a place at the table for Delhi.

There is little doubt that China is using its clout to squeeze benefits out of the group for its protégé and several PGs accept the logic equating an unstable and nuclear black-marketeering Pakistan to India. Not only has Chashma 3 and 4 been grandfathered in soon after the announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal, a new deal for two more reactors has been struck between China and Pakistan. Worse, the NSG has been unwilling (and unable) to take Beijing to task for its violations.

India’s Way Forward

There is little hope for India with regard to the NSG (or UNSC) while it faces what is practically a veto from China; the organisational structures of these groups do not allow for much room to manoeuvre. However, India can lobby the other members of the NSG hard and enter into bilateral deals with them as it tries to block Pakistan’s way up that same path. India’s booming economy and energy needs are an enticing carrot if deployed well, and few countries would be able to resist such an offer in an era of global economic slowdown.

India also needs to develop good relations with states not in the NSG that have significant nuclear activities, particularly Namibia, Niger, and Morocco, who are all major suppliers of uranium ore concentrates. The IAEA lists 72 countries with significant nuclear activity of which 47 are members of the NSG. The remaining 25 represent a market India can create, nurture, and develop outside the ambit of NSG restrictions. This is not to say that India should not insist upon IAEA safeguards; on the contrary, it should. However, India can write its own rules beyond IAEA protocols.

In all honesty, this is too bold a step for India’s nuclear establishment that struggles even to construct a reactor on time without finding substandard parts or accusations of incompetence. In addition, India’s political masters have never exhibited the mettle or vision required to work around such a diplomatic impasse. The threat of the evolution of an alternate nuclear control regime is the surest way to force members of the NSG to consider India’s views and membership, but the real question is if Delhi has the stomach for a long drawn out and demanding game of nuclear chess. My guess is no.