NSG Expansion: A Surprising Twist

Indian premier Narendra Modi’s stellar campaign to secure a seat at the high table of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) failed, yet again, to yield a resolution favoring India during the 27th plenary meeting in Bern in June. Participating states have agreed to convene another informal meeting in November, giving India a chance to regroup and prepare its plan for full membership.

However, India’s bid may be hindered by a surprising opponent: the United States. If recent indications are anything to go by, it is unclear whether and to what extent the Trump administration will advocate for India’s membership. India’s history with the NSG has been defined by strong U.S. support during the Bush and Obama administrations. This support has been crucial, but Trump’s priorities currently seem to lie elsewhere. The administration already has enough on its plate with rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula, revamped efforts in Afghanistan, and the fight against the Islamic State, all of which require more immediate focus. And even if the administration focuses resources on helping India into the NSG, it is unclear how successful those efforts will be.

History of U.S. Engagement with India on NSG

The George W. Bush administration reversed a decades-old U.S. policy of opposition to India’s nuclear program and pushed for an India-accommodating NSG waiver, which was granted in 2008 as a necessary component of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal. Through this deal, the Bush administration began a new chapter in nuclear cooperation with India, marking the first-ever instance of nuclear cooperation with a non-NPT signatory state. Consequently, India, without signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), was granted access to civil nuclear trade. As a result of the 2008 NSG waiver, India got access to the global nuclear market and currently has nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of other states including Japan, Russia, and Australia.

The Bush administration’s unprecedented policy carried into the Obama years, with the Obama administration expending significant diplomatic capital on working to get India into the nuclear cartel. Thus, U.S. support of India in the NSG has been a given for nearly a decade. Despite concern over normalizing non-NPT states in a nonproliferation regime, as well as the imbalance Indian access to fissile material would introduce in the South Asian region, both Bush and later Obama strongly supported Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation. India aims to supply 25 percent of its electricity through nuclear power by 2050, which makes the Indian nuclear power sector a lucrative market for the U.S.-based nuclear industry.

Beyond energy and economic concerns, India perceives entry into this elite group as enhancing India’s “great power” outlook and, more importantly, allow India to influence nuclear export policies at the global level.

New Challenges for India’s NSG Bid

Where India’s NSG bid fits within Trump’s “America First” policy is unknown. However, there have been doubts about the importance accorded by the Trump administration to the issue since the administration was silent for months before formally announcing support for India’s membership only in March. In a recent sign of possible trouble for New Delhi, the White House spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the United States had raised the question of India’s NSG membership with China.

Even if the Trump administration does decide to push for India’s membership, it is unlikely that they will be in a position to dictate terms to NSG member states. Despite successful engagement in the nuclear market since 2008, India has not necessarily been able to translate those interactions into votes for full NSG membership. During the June NSG  plenary meeting in Bern, NSG member countries reiterated their strong support for a comprehensive and effective implementation of the NPT as a prerequisite for full voting rights and trade allowance granted by NSG membership. Prior to Bern, during the Seoul Summit in June 2016, member states like China, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico opposed India’s bid, arguing that adherence to the NPT is a basic prerequisite. Due to this principled stance by some NSG members, the United States’ push for country-specific expansion as a way to get India into the NSG has been strongly criticized. If India as a non-signatory to the NPT can participate in global nuclear trade for peaceful purposes while continuing to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, the NPT-signatory states would feel betrayed. Additionally, 33 of the 48 member states of the NSG are European countries, where Trump’s policies have already garnered consistent skepticism.

As such, despite the hallmark achievements of the past two U.S. administrations, things are looking different in 2017. Full Indian NSG membership remains out of the question, at least for now. India is not likely to sign the NPT, now or ever, barring some radical change in domestic policy. The only way India will acquire full NSG membership is if certain NSG members with hard-line positions on the NPT change their views. And Trump may not be able to help in this regard. Not only will he be distracted by competing priorities at home and abroad, but his name does not carry the same weight as past presidents. This combination of factors will likely hurt India’s chances at NSG membership come November.


Editor’s Note: Click here to read this article in Hindi

Image 1: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

Image 2: The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

Posted in , China, India, NSG, Nuclear, Pakistan, United States, US

Yasir Hussain

Yasir Hussain was an SAV Visiting Fellow in July 2017. He holds a masters degree in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He has a deep interest in global issues, particularly nuclear arms control and disarmament, nuclear safety and security, political economy, and conflict resolution. He tweets @yasirhunzai1.

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10 thoughts on “NSG Expansion: A Surprising Twist

  1. Yasir,
    First of all thanks for providing new perspective to a debate which has largely been discussed in historic context. Yours analysis is new and it provides more about recent developments. However, you didn’t discuss Pakistan’s NSG case, is there any new development?

  2. attempts in the Western and Indian media to cast China-Pakistan civilian cooperation as a “counter” and “response” to the Indo-US pact and to equate the two are deliberately misleading and spurious. The latter has global scope and enables India to gain worldwide access to nuclear material and technology as well as assured fuel supply from any supplier nation seeking commercial advantage. The NSG waiver for India opened the door to a veritable nuclear souk with eight countries including Canada, Russia and France having already signed deals with Delhi. And by opening the door to India to gain access to technology and membership of export control regimes denied to other non-NPT countries, in contravention of nuclear non-proliferation rules, a dangerous new precedent will be set for the global arms control regime at a time when it is facing other new, imposing challenges.

  3. at the end of the day it is a straightforward equation of who is willing to give what. the NSG killed whatever was left of the ‘lofty ideal of non-proliferation’ in 2004 when it let China in as a member.
    the words credibility and NSG don’t belong together once they let in a guy who proliferated 50 kilos of weapons grade uranium and a fully functional bomb design.

    So as of now, the NSG is just another cartel with a fancy name whose membership is given to nations that can brave the rough and tumble ‘give and take’ geo-politically and geo-economically. Surprisingly obvious thing no? as we say in earthy Punjabi, the guy with the stick owns the cattle.

    As things stand, China finds it convenient to string along pakistan to irritate India while the US and Russia do not think they will get anything worthwhile in exchange for burning valuable diplomatic capital. the day China and the US think they have something worthwhile the one way trade waiver India has with the NSG will become a two way trading membership satisfying political egos along the way.

  4. Nirmala,

    Thank you.
    Yes, I haven’t discussed Pakistan’s case in this piece. Its due to the fact that the NSG member-states are yet to discuss Pakistan’s bid, that means there is no new development. There is long way to go.


  5. Michael,

    I am fine thank you, hope everything is fine at your end.

    Yes, China is big but some other states have also opposed India’s bid.


  6. Tanhayee Ki Zubani,

    Thank you.

    There can be various interpretations and also disagreements on how and the way NSG functions. But the fact is that, today, NSG is the cartel that controls global nuclear commerce and there are certain rules and regulations attached to it. There are shortcomings in its functional procedure but still we want to be part of it. We know that great powers, quite often, play with the rules, but this has not stopped us from seeking group’s membership. Sometimes, we tend to be part of organized hypocrisy because it works when it comes to realpolitik.

  7. Yasir,

    I respectfully disagree on some of the replies. As Micheal Krepon points out, the key is China and only China. It might suit Pakistan’s domestic narrative to pretend that opposition by New Zealand, Turkey etc amounts to real ‘opposition’. there is ample evidence available to the contrary. Also as Moeed Yusuf so aptly said on so many occasions ‘ the 2008 India NSG waiver was de-facto membership and now it is a political decision for principally China to make’. That is the crux & fact

    organized hypocrisy as part of realpolitik, I agree. Even that, unfortunately has some limits. For ex:
    The Pakistani ‘criteria argument’ does the medical equivalent of saying viral flu is the same as Ebola.

    Or in Simpler terms pretend that the reams and reams of proof available against the AQ Khan-Pak establishment supported ‘nuclear walmart’ somehow. NSG membership is not a balm to soothe Pakistan’s ego to be seen as the ‘equivalent’ of India. Sorry to put it so harshly.

  8. Tanhayee Ki Zubani,

    I agree with the fact that there is not just China that opposes Indian bid but there certain other states as you mentioned few of them, who are consistently opposing. The fact is some countries have compromised on their approach towards group’s expansion due to consistent pressure from Obama administration. But, yes, some of the countries are strongly supporting a criteria based approach towards NSG expansion.


  9. Yasir, please ask yourself the following questions
    1. Who are the only nations asking to enter NSG? only India & Pak are left.
    2. If ‘criteria’ was the issue, then what was used between 2005-08 when Indian waiver was vetted incl by China? (no, poor China was not bullied into the deal)
    The 48 member NSG vetted India to their satisfaction resulting in the HH Act in the US.
    3. Why would India humor China & Pak by agreeing to be vetted all over again? that too arguably by the two with the worst proliferation records on the planet? false equivalence b/w IN-PK wont work.

    The ret. Brig Gen PA strategic plans division openly admits the WGU and weapons design transfer.

    The answer by Krepon is still valid, it is all about the Chinese, and the ‘criteria’ approach is simply a ‘dog and pony’ show by China to show India its place and be seen as doing so.

    PS: ‘Criteria’ for all non-NPT countries is frankly a joke. criteria for 2 countries? a non-starter and a poor attempt by china to get a hail mary pass for all egregious proliferation sins. not happening.

    All the best to you for your future endeavors.

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