Criteria-Based Approach Will Not Help Pakistan Join NSG

Numerous scholars from Pakistan have called for a criteria-based approach for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) with the expectation that it would strengthen Pakistan’s prospects for membership. Arguing that India’s inclusion into the group should not be through a country-specific approach, Pakistan has sought general criteria for NSG membership applicable to all countries not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The push for this approach, however, does not take into consideration the fact that even if an applicant met all general criteria, the process of entry would remain restricted to political consensus by all NSG members. Pakistan’s attempt to link its membership application to India’s, by calling for a criteria-based approach, reflects its lack of confidence in entering the NSG on its own merit.

The NSG’s procedural arrangement establishes five factors considered in granting an applicant membership to the group. One is that the applicant should be party to the NPT. Both India and Pakistan are not NPT signatories, and thus clearly do not meet this standard. However, as the American government has contended, these remain “factors for consideration” and are not referred to as “mandatory criteria” that all applicants must meet. The U.S. government has further argued that other factors, like the applicant being “supportive of international efforts towards the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of their delivery vehicles,” and it having “in force a legally-based domestic export control system which gives effect to the commitment to act in accordance with the Guidelines,” should carry equal weight. In fact, the American government has supported India’s membership into the NSG on the merit of its non-proliferation and export control practices.

Pakistan, with the support of China, a close ally and NSG member, has registered its opposition to such a country-specific approach by arguing that it would make India’s inclusion an exception. With the fear that India may block its entry after joining the NSG, Pakistan has attempted to tie its membership application to that of India’s, by calling to establish criteria which apply to all states not party to the NPT. Thus, the intention is to either block India’s entry to the NSG or, more likely, make both India and Pakistan eligible for membership.

This attempt, however, is unlikely to strengthen Pakistan’s prospects for membership. Even if NSG members set up criteria for the inclusion of non-NPT states that India and Pakistan claim to meet, their membership would depend upon whether NSG member states are in consensus that India and Pakistan, in fact, meet those criteria.

The case of Kazakhstan and its quest to join the Australia Group (AG), another export control regime, sheds light on the difficulties that Pakistan may encounter. AG coordinates members’ export controls on items used in the development of chemical and biological weapons, similar to the way the NSG does on items used to build nuclear weapons. However, unlike the NSG, AG has established criteria for entry. Kazakhstan has claimed to meet all criteria for membership and, in 2015, it registered with the AG as an adherent to the standards of the group. Despite this, Kazakhstan has faced opposition regarding its membership. For example, as noted in a leaked U.S. government note from 2009, published by the Telegraph, the United States did not support Kazakhstan’s bid as it was “yet to resolve outstanding compliance issues relating to Kazakhstan’s initial declaration to the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention).” Thus, in effect, even if an export control regime lays out criteria for membership, all members must agree on whether the applicant meets all criteria.

India has so far been successful in convincing a majority of NSG members on how it fares well on existing factors such as its strong and effective national export control system, and its support for international non-proliferation efforts. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a higher bar to meet due to its poor record on non-proliferation with transfers of sensitive nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Thus, even under a criteria-based approach, Pakistan would likely face opposition from NSG member states that hold serious concerns about the quality of non-proliferation and export control norms within the country.

Pakistan would make a more persuasive case for membership by strengthening its non-proliferation credentials, and convincing existing members that its inclusion in the group would benefit both Pakistan and members of the NSG. To that end, Islamabad will have to improve enforcement of its domestic export controls, and ensure that it does not contribute to nuclear proliferation for a sustained period to strengthen its case for NSG membership. Attempting to link its membership application to India’s and calling for a criteria-based approach capture how Islamabad itself is not convinced of being ready to be in the NSG.

Based upon India’s stronger compliance with NSG standards, it seems likely that a criteria-based approach would neither harm India’s membership into the NSG nor aid Pakistan’s membership bid. This begs the question as to why Islamabad seeks to call for a criteria-based approach and tie its membership to India’s. Considering that it already gets access from China to items controlled by the group’s guidelines, with little international scrutiny, Pakistan’s attempt appears more to seek parity with India than seriously pursuing NSG membership. Delaying India’s entry into the NSG will probably be the only tangible benefit for Pakistan, and the nuclear non-proliferation community must take note of that.


Image: Farooq Naeem-AFP, Getty

Posted in , India, NSG, Nuclear, Pakistan

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is a Junior Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His dissertation was a critique of the Global Zero campaign. His research interests include nuclear security, global nuclear doctrines, nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation regimes, Iranian nuclear programme, and tactical nuclear weapons in South Asia.

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3 thoughts on “Criteria-Based Approach Will Not Help Pakistan Join NSG

  1. Hi Arka,
    Pakistan has, time and again, expressed concerns over a possible nuclear arms race that India’s admission to the NSG can cause. US Senator Ed Markey has also warned that enabling India to join the NSG would cause a “never-ending” nuclear race in South Asia. Being a part of the group, India will have access to international supplies for civilian reactors placed under IAEA safeguards. A large part indigenous supplies (if not the entire) can be directed towards the weapons program, thereby increasing New Delhi’s ability to produce fissile material. Pakistan developed nuclear weapons to balance its conventional venerability, but the increasing size of India’s arsenal can drive Rawalpindi’s urge to increase its stockpile.

  2. Arka,
    Well done, as always.
    In my view, criteria matter. India calls for a “meet”-based approach, but how do we determine merit? Don’t criteria apply here, as well?
    So, what criteria should determine membership? Is a tight export control regime sufficient? It’s necessary, in my view, but not sufficient. Export controls are a start, but this is way too narrow a criterion.
    For me, the criteria that matter are norm related. The key norms are those that reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear arsenals. What benchmarks can we use to measure these norms? Signing the CTBT, for one. Reducing, not growing one’s nuclear arsenal. (China, an NSG member, would fail to meet this test.) Adherence to protocols for nuclear security. Not producing new fissile material dedicated to making new warheads would be another.
    You get my drift.
    I’m open to new NSG memberships as long as they provide a net gain for important non-proliferation and disarmament norms.
    Best wishes,

  3. @MK: On criteria and merit. It is agreed that merit can be assessed based on criteria. But considering that the assessment of whether one meets the criteria is also subject to consensus, would it not make sense to build the consensus directly on merit rather than first spending time on identifying the criteria and then trying to build the consensus. In Kazakhstan’s bid to join AG, for instance, it had signed the CWC but that was not considered enough as the US and other governments had raised objection to the initial declaration Kazakh had made. So theoretically speaking, what if signing CTBT is made a condition and even after Pakistan signing it, members of the NSG assess that signing the CTBT is not enough?

    Second and more important is a larger question that I would like you to address vis-a-vis India’s case. In essence, it is simply about whether India is accepted into the world order as a nuclear weapon state. The non-proliferation architecture, as it currently exists, has accepted the five as those who can legitimately possess nuclear weapons. It will be useful here to not mix norms of non-proliferation with those of disarmament. The current structure is all about non-proliferation and retaining legitimacy of the five NWS under the framework of NPT. NWS are nowhere near serious about disarmament. CTBT, FMCT, etc., are all designed to consolidate this structure. Do you really consider CTBT to be “comprehensive” enough if it allows NWS to improve device designs (under the guise of enhancing nuclear security) through tests run in laboratories?

    If India is to be accepted as a NWS then what it does internally should not affect others, as is the case with other NWS. CTBT is all about ensuring that others do not get the bomb and India’s commitment to not spread nuclear weapons horizontally cannot be questioned. India already has nuclear weapons. If conducting tests help it improve its 2nd retaliatory capability, enhance deterrence stability and ensure security and safety of nuclear devices then why should that be against the interest of the non-proliferation community?

    Most if not all NWS had conducted series of nuclear tests right after NPT got indefinitely extended and while CTBT was still being negotiated. But that did not qualify as a threat to the non-proliferation architecture for their programmes are legitimate. The question is who defines legitimacy?

    NPT has held the world together in a formal structure but it may collapse. To prepare for which there is a need to accept some harsh realities of NPT itself. First, while global nuclear disarmament would be ideal, it is in the interest of larger international community to see nuclear weapons in the hands of select few than they being with any random state. Second, those who control power internationally get to define what is in the interest of the international community. Third, these select few have the responsibility to ensure that interests of most if not all are taken care of (when they are not, we see a North Korea or an Iran). These are the founding realities of the NPT and they should be accepted as they are. All other non-proliferation activities that followed only consolidated these realities.

    Now after nearly half a century, geopolitical equations have changed, alignments of global powers have evolved. Those who represent the majority of human race have changed. NPT cannot adjust to these changes. The nuclear non-proliferation community must now begin working on designing new framework which would cater to the evolving geopolitical realities before it is too late and we see more North Korea’s or a nuclear Japan or South Korea.

    @Prakhar: We have heard too much about Pakistan trying to scare the world by making them believe that including India in the NSG would destabilise South Asia as Pakistan would be forced to increase nuclear stockpile. Firstly, it is not a formulation of Islamabad but Rawalpindi as it reflects Pakistan’s assessment of India’s capability and not intention. If only the generals ruled the world, it would have been heaven right? I mean why would India want more nuclear weapons? It might need to increase its arsenal a little to reach the credible minimum vis-a-vis China and that might make Pakistan increase its arsenal further, but beyond that it will be Pakistan’s full spectrum deterrence driving its increase in arsenal. Pakistan is already down the path and the solution to that is not in stopping India from becoming a member of the NSG but stopping China’s continuing nuclear supplies to Pakistan in violation of the NSG.

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