Despite Washington’s full-throttle support all around, India’s application for membership in the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has again been filed for the ninth consecutive year without any decision. Though it was not on its agenda, some of India’s supporters did raise the questionable question of its entry into the exclusive nuclear trading club at the NSG’s latest annual plenary meeting in Seoul, South Korea. As anticipated, the needed consensus was nowhere in sight. The issue remains deadlocked with several important NSG members including Austria, Brazil, China, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland and Turkey urging a criteria-based approach rather than selective country-specific decisions on the admission of non-NPT states into the Group.
It is a big setback for New Delhi which had been making frantic efforts for a decision in its favour at this meeting because it wanted to clinch a berth in NSG before Obama leaves office. India’s NSG membership case, it appears, remains where it was in 2008 when riding on a discriminatory country-specific Indo-US nuclear deal, it sought a backdoor entry into this group controlling access to sensitive nuclear technology. Taking advantage of its alliance with the US and driven by its status-obsessed ambitions, India over the last two decades has also been making similar efforts for a backdoor entry into the globally privileged UN Security Council.
In the words of a former senior Indian diplomat who writes regularly on India’s ill-conceived approaches regionally as well as globally, “the (Indian) government has only itself to blame for living in a fool’s paradise … Of course, we can ask why, then, President Barack Obama put this strange thought of India’s NSG membership (as also a permanent seat in the UNSC) into the Indian head in the first instance in 2010”. According to him, India’s policy-makers suffer from a “unipolar predicament” that inhibits them from seeing the lay of the “diplomatic arena” and making rational judgement. They are fixated on “a US-centric foreign policy predicated on the funny notion that Washington is committed to make India a great power.”
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If the people in India, especially their media, did not know that during all these years the question of India’s NSG membership was never on the Group’s agenda, it is their own government that kept the truth away from the public knowledge. Indians should now thank China for at least letting them know the truth that India’s membership was never on the NSG agenda. In response to a question the other day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said “the inclusion of non-NPT members has never been a topic on the agenda of NPT meetings”. In her statement, she made three additional points, to signal that India’s bid to make it into the NSG is going to be a long drawn-out process.
First, the time was not ripe for Indian membership as “the NSG is still divided about non-NPT countries’ entry into the NSG”. Second, further discussions were required to achieve consensus, and finally, China was not willing to make an exception for India’s NSG membership. The Chinese position has been consistent ever since India launched its membership bid. No wonder, the latest Chinese statement is both literally as well as factually correct. No one, not even President Obama, who has been promising a country-specific NSG membership to India since 2010, can deny this reality. If anything, China’s position should now make it clear that India stands no chance on its inclusion in the NSG through a discriminatory country-specific waiver.
China had also made it clear that the “NSG can discuss the entry issue of non-NPT countries as a whole instead of specific non-NPT countries joining.” In other words, the Group will have to agree on criteria for admission of non-NPT states with no arbitrary “selectivity or exclusion”. NSG is not a mere trading club controlling export of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment. It is a body whose very raison d’etre is to serve the cause of non-proliferation. In fact, it was created in response to the first act of nuclear proliferation by none other than India in 1974 when it exploded the myth of a “Smiling Buddha” through its first nuclear test in 1974, which was hailed by the West as a “peaceful” nuclear explosion.
Contrary to India, Pakistan never challenged the non-proliferation regime when the NPT was being finalised in 1968. In fact, it supported its objectives. It did not sign the Treaty because India refused to do so and kept pursuing its nuclear-weapons programme. In fact, since the negotiations for the NPT in 1968, every single non-proliferation initiative in our region came from Pakistan. The NSG members know that it was not Pakistan but India which inducted the ominous nuclear weapons into the volatile security environment of South Asia. In May 1998, it carried out a series of five nuclear tests leaving Pakistan with no choice but to respond later in the same month. While India’s tests were status-driven, Pakistan’s tests served the cause of peace by restoring a nuclear and strategic balance in the region.
After the nuclear tests, first by India and then by Pakistan, the US engaged both India and Pakistan in a “strategic” dialogue on an equal footing. In the last round of their dialogue in February 1999, a clear understanding was reached on nuclear parity between the two countries in the form of an implicit “strategic linkage” promising them “equality of treatment” in terms of any future coercive or concessionary measures, including access to nuclear technology. That linkage is no longer there. In 2008, Washington “de-hyphenated” Pakistan from India. It signed a discriminatory nuclear deal with India giving it a carte blanche in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for access to nuclear technology in violation of equitably applicable criteria.
This enabled India to keep its eight “civil” nuclear reactors and the breeder programme outside IAEA safeguards which can produce a significant amount of weapon-grade plutonium. It is indeed amazing that the NSG which was set up in response to an act of delinquency by India in violation the non-proliferation regime should now be considering a single-country waiver for India in violation of the non-proliferation regime that it claims to champion. What an irony that the same India is now seeking full-fledged membership of NSG which, if granted, will give India a veto over decision-making in NSG, including any future decision involving Pakistan, the only other de facto nuclear-weapon state which is also now an equally eligible, if not a stronger, candidate for NSG membership.
India’s supporters within the NSG will do well by revisiting their preferential approach on this issue. In granting NSG’s exemption to India, the Group must keep in mind that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. There is no yardstick to differentiate between two of the same kind. The criteria-based approach only means even-handedness with no preferential selectivity or discriminatory exclusion. If NSG membership is likely to bring India into the greater fold of the non-proliferation regime, why exclude Pakistan from this ‘promising’ deal? Now that India’s diplomatic effort has failed to clinch the NSG entry before Obama leaves office, Washington would also be best advised to revisit its discriminatory nuclear relationship with India.
Unless it is matched with a similar arrangement with Pakistan, the Indo-US nuclear nexus will seriously undermine the cause of peace and stability in this region. Any measures that contribute to fuelling of an arms race between the two nuclear-armed neighbours are no service to the people of this region. Only criteria-based approaches on the basis of equality and non-discrimination between the two de facto nuclear-weapon states would be sustainable. The policymakers in world’s major capitals, especially Washington, should have been working “extra time” to promote a sense of security and justice in this region by eschewing discriminatory policies in their dealings with India-Pakistan nuclear equation, the only one in the world that grew up in history totally unrelated to the Cold War.
It was the offshoot of a long-standing legacy of bilateral disputes and their perennial mode of conflict and confrontation. They need an environment of peace and security, bilaterally and regionally to be able to divert their resources for the wellbeing of their peoples. NSG members have an obligation not to widen nuclear disparities in the region. They must follow an even-handed approach in dealing with this uneasy nuclear equation.