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.

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Image: Farooq Naeem-AFP, Getty

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