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Indians are unusually preoccupied with the events unfolding at a small yet important meeting in Seoul: the Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary meeting. Up for discussion will be the membership process for countries not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. China insists that this agenda item does not focus in India’s application but considers the establishment of a clear set of guidelines for all future applicants – Beijing’s code for its client, Pakistan.

India has been trying to gain admission to the NSG ever since the historic Indo-US nuclear deal to gain access to nuclear material, equipment, know-how, and technology for use in its civilian nuclear energy programme. Ironically, the nuclear cartel was set up in November 1975 in response to India’s peaceful nuclear explosion a year and a half earlier. Yet the agreement with the United States on nuclear commerce ended four decades of India’s pariah status and brought the country in from the nuclear cold. The NSG waiver for India in 2008 allowed the South Asian country to buy nuclear reactors and uranium from the international market but still kept several dual-use technologies out of reach. Delhi hopes that membership to the group will allow it a role in global nuclear governance and perhaps even the latest in enrichment and reprocessing technology that could be very useful for its fast breeder reactor programme.

Not all countries were pleased with the waiver given to India: they felt that such ad hoc and exceptional measures weakened the non-proliferation regime as a whole. The international community would come to regard the group as merely an elite cartel trying to maintain its technical superiority. Another strand of opposition – though it is never worded as such – comes specifically from China: India is not its rival but an inconvenience of concern nonetheless, and India’s international elevation would put its client Pakistan at a disadvantage. Opposition to Indian membership now comes from these same quarters.

That Beijing’s position is purely political and hypocritical is blatantly obvious. For a country that is so committed to the process and mission of the NSG, it sold two reactors to Pakistan in 2010 in violation of the body’s guidelines. Two years later, Pakistan announced that it is considering acquiring two more reactors from China. Bejing argued that these reactor sales were being grandfathered into a 2003 agreement, before China had joined the NSG, between itself and Islamabad and therefore do not come under the nuclear cartel’s purview. Although India protested at this perfidy, the NSG did little to censure China. Substantial assistance to Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programme before it joined the NPT indicates a pattern in Beijing’s diplomatic behaviour.

The non-proliferation lobby has grabbed on to China’s nuclear obstinacy at the NSG and also supported a process-driven membership protocol. This process should be guided, they suggest, by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540. Passed under Chapter VII of the UN charter, the resolution is legally binding upon all members and lays down the obligations to curtail the spread of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. An Indian waiver is offensive to the institutional memory of a group created in response to the Pokhran PNE. The irony that the standard suggested – UNSCR 1540 – was created in response to the revelations of Pakistan’s nuclear black marketeering in 2003 seems to have missed their attention.

Interestingly, Chinese diplomats insist that they have not opposed India’s entry into the NSG. Delhi has clung to this statement as hope that its bid is not dead in the water. After all, South Block cannot be seen to be participating in its own keen. China is indeed holding open a door, but for Pakistan when the day comes that the international community will be willing to move on from AQ Khan. Indian optimism has no cause here.

The question arises whether India’s efforts to join the nuclear cartel are worth the trouble. After all, the tightening of controls on enrichment and reprocessing technology, now available to only NPT countries, in Noordwijk in 2011 leaves little by way of material gain for India. The 2008 waiver gives India all that it can hope for in the near future. The BJP must also come to terms with the fact that the country’s nuclear industry could not capitalise on the Indo-US nuclear deal in large part because of the liability law it pushed through when in Opposition.

There are, however, two gains to be had from membership: one, that discriminatory regulations will not be passed in the future. The 2011 ruling was in fact a backtracking from Indo-US understanding of 2008. And two, India would be on a firmer footing to propose the idea of plutonium trade for its thorium programme that has been waiting in the wings. An early adoption of thorium technology would give India enormous energy independence and security.

China’s stubbornness at Seoul has been predicted to damage relations between the two Asian giants. There have also been reports in the Indian media that some of the NSG countries are considering a Plan B in face of Chinese obstructionism. This will never happen – if they could not condemn China’s blatant violation of NSG guidelines in 2010, there is no chance that they will do anything now that may effectively blow up their precious cartel. Delhi must realise that China has never been its friend or even a competitor but an enemy. Its transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, not to mention its non-cooperation at the United Nations in designating Masood Azhar as a terrorist ought to have been clear. India’s only option is to develop the technology it needs indigenously as it did cryogenic engine technology.


This post appeared on FirstPost on June 23, 2016.

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