The recent plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Seoul ended with a “no decision” ruling on India’s membership into the 48-nation strong nuclear cartel. That is an important fact to keep in mind, especially in light of the prevailing narrative that “India failed to acquire membership” despite a high stakes diplomatic effort and a global tour by Prime Minister Narenda Modi to drum up Indian support. Certainly the high visibility of India’s aggressive lobbying campaign made the NSG’s rebuff embarrassing but this should not muddle the fact that there are legitimate concerns an international body like the NSG must consider.
Let’s consider the origins of the NSG. The Nuclear Suppliers Group was founded in 1974 as a response to an Indian nuclear test. This was an alarming example of peaceful nuclear technology being misused for offensive militaristic purposes and the international community saw the urgent need to limit the export of nuclear information and materials. Today the NSG is grappling with emerging debates on the subject of non-proliferation, pushed to the forefront by the recent applications for membership status by India and Pakistan. Both face an uphill battle.
The Indian narrative, especially in the wake of the Seoul plenary, seems to be that China and Pakistan have stymied its efforts to gain membership. This fear-based narrative undermines the considerable weight of the NSG’s mission in the face of emerging non-proliferation questions. It further fails to take into account the vigorous scrutiny and discussions that must precede a nation’s entry into the fold, and the subsequent legitimization and access to nuclear technology and markets entailed.
The NSG operates on a consensus approach, requiring all members to agree to membership. The applications of both South Asian countries have led to a rigorous debate about the future of the NSG. The Chinese opposition to Indian membership is on the basis that India had not signed the NPT and this requires further discussion. “Applicant countries must be signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT),” Wang Qun, the head of arms control department in China’s Foreign Ministry said in Seoul. The argument that China and Pakistan worked in tandem to block Indian membership collapses here as Beijing’s unequivocal stance against non-NPT signatories does Islamabad no favors. China was joined in its opposition to Indian membership by countries deemed “friendly” to India such as Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Ireland and Turkey, demonstrating a thoughtful debate is underway—as it should be.
There are various schools of thought within the NSG. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined one view shared by several states that “want certain procedures to be defined for countries that are not party to the NPT Treaty.” The second is U.S.-led, and believes India should be allowed membership, arguing that the very process of admitting India would lay out the rules for other non-NPT signatories. And then there is the Turkish perspective, which supports reviewing Pakistan’s application and further recommending that Pakistan and India’s applications be decided together. The NSG’s dynamics, as they currently are, show that the debate on the issue is inconclusive. The NSG would not have reached a consensus on India’s application even if China had stayed mute throughout the conversations. The Group is in the early stages of a debate that, frankly, needs time to mature. No amount of diplomatic maneuvering can rush this.
As India digests these developments and plans for the future, Pakistan should view this as a lesson for its own ambitions as well.
Pakistan cannot and should not see its own membership into the NSG as being on equal footing with India. India already enjoys many of the trade benefits of an NSG membership without carrying the much desired club card. In 2008, New Delhi was granted a waiver allowing it to engage in nuclear commerce even though it wasn’t an NPT signatory. India smartly built this into bilateral relationships with Russia, France and the United States that could potentially lead to the construction of nuclear reactors in India. If Pakistan really wishes to seek parity with India, it can try and catch up to the India of 2008 and use diplomatic leverage to lobby for a similar waiver.
Switzerland is set to host the next plenary session of 2017-2018, and it is anyone’s guess whether the subject of Indian and/or Pakistani membership will come up as an agenda item. But if it does, the two neighboring countries have to understand the landscape of the conversation and present themselves as responsible global actors.
Image 2: Yonhap-AFP, Getty