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On May 19, Pakistan formally applied to the Nuclear Suppliers Group for membership via a letter to the chairman of the NSG through Islamabad’s ambassador in Vienna. The letter stated the Islamic republic’s belief that it stood on solid ground in terms of technical experience, manufacturing capability, and a firm commitment to nuclear safety and non-proliferation. Pakistan has been agitated ever since the United States offered to bring India into the international civilian nuclear trading community in 2005 and has been hankering after a similar arrangement to regain parity with its existential South Asian rival.

Islamabad’s application for NSG membership is difficult to take seriously and can at best be surmised to be a way to clutter the field by bringing South Asia’s perilous and intractable nuclear rivalry to the forefront of international discussion. Averse to even tangentially affecting the fragile balance of terror in the region, the NSG will, Pakistan hopes, deny both South Asian states admission into the cartel. Thus, Islamabad can play spoiler for India while appearing to push its interests in earnest.

The reason Pakistan’s sincerity regarding its NSG membership application raises doubt is its complete failure to be a viable candidate even by its own criteria. First, its technical experience: it is true that Pakistan has been operating a nuclear reactor since 1971. That first reactor, built at Paradise Point in Karachi, was provided by Canada. Since then, Pakistan has acquired only two more nuclear power reactors, both from China, though eight more are in various stages of construction or planning. Pakistan is yet to design and build a reactor on its own without any assistance from its patron, China. This includes not just the civilian reactors but also its military infrastructure at Kahuta and Khushab. While any experience with nuclear reactors is valuable, Islamabad has simply not yet seen a nuclear project through from the drawing board to the electricity board. This is because Pakistan’s nuclear programme has always had an overwhelming military component whereas the Indian programme was a civilian project that retained some ambiguity and ambivalence about weaponisation.

By contrast, India has the largest fleet of indigenously built CANDU-based reactors in the world; it presently has 22 nuclear power reactors, only two of which are of Russian origin. India has also made great strides in fast and thorium reactors and is on the verge of connecting one of the former to the grid and breaking ground on the latter.

NSG controlled goodsSecond, Pakistan’s manufacturing capabilities: according to an interesting study of export controls and dual-use goods by Ian Stewart, senior research fellow at King’s College, London, Pakistan has the ability to manufacture or produce heavy water, nuclear manipulators, marraging steel, and zirconium. In each case, there seems to be only one agent, probably the state, and capacity is insufficient for export. It is unlikely that Pakistan wishes to join the NSG because of its niche manufacturing strengths or surplus capacity.

It is possible that Pakistan wishes to join the NSG to gain access to controlled goods that it cannot manufacture. However, it is possible to accommodate those needs without allowing the Islamic republic entry into the nuclear cartel. Pakistan has already stated that it is willing to accept IAEA safeguards over all its civilian facilities just as India agreed in 2008 – when the international community is assured of Islamabad’s bonafide intentions, it may consider extending civil nuclear cooperation without necessarily opening the doors to the NSG.

India is no nuclear exporter of note either, but, the country has managed to develop a small industry of almost a dozen and half items on the NSG’s controlled goods list including flow forming machines, vacuum pumps, high strength aluminium, and isostatic presses. India’s accession to the NSG will ease the import of some controlled goods though enrichment and reprocessing technology and equipment is still reserved for signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally, Pakistan’s commitment to nuclear safety and non-proliferation: politics must teach its practitioners how to utter the baldest lies with a straight face. Pakistan’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, or lack thereof, is exactly why it universally gets a hostile reception to its nuclear mainstreaming. The AQ Khan network proliferated nuclear technology to some of the most unsavoury regimes in the world – North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Pakistan and its publicly revered nuclear scientist have escaped punition only by virtue of Islamabad’s geopolitical usefulness to the United States.

If the world community were to look past such a grievous transgression so soon, especially so soon after the Western powers moved heaven and earth to bring Iran’s nuclear ambitions under the IAEA’s purview, it would send a wrong message to future proliferators. Were the roles reversed, had India proliferated to Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan – states far more palatable than Pakistan’s partners – would the international community be willing to look the other way after a little over a decade and without any punitive measures?

Pakistan and its patron, China, are using the rhetoric of non-discriminatory criteria for NSG membership to sweep a rich slice of Pakistan’s capabilities and non-proliferation track record under the rug. Pace all the well-intentioned desires from officials and scholars, the NSG will remain a discriminatory body because it was conceived in that original sin and can only perpetuate what it knows best. Between the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s consecration of nuclear apartheid and the NSG’s willful disregard of many of its members’ blatant violations in the past, the nuclear exports control regime will remain discriminatory. Short of overhauling the entire structure, we can only hope that the members of the cartel discriminate in favour of positive values rather than a cynical manipulation of the international order.


This post appeared on FirstPost on June 10, 2016.

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