Nuclear Suppliers Group: Impact of India’s Membership

The upcoming plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is going to consider the membership of India, a state whose proliferation led the group to be originally established.  The United States, in line with its overarching strategic policy of propping up India as a counterweight to China, is helping build momentum to bring India in as a member. Nonetheless, considering the fact that decisions on admission are not synonymous with a one-time exemption for nuclear trade with NSG participating countries, the prospects of India achieving membership appear low.

States opposing Indian membership are doing so on nonproliferation grounds, as they do not wish to repeat the 2008 decision on Indian exemption without any tangible reciprocal commitments. Those favoring an Indian membership are mainly doing so in large part to achieve geopolitical objectives rather than serve the nonproliferation regime. As I have argued earlier, the criteria-based approach to expansion of NSG membership is the only way to best serve the goal of nonproliferation, and help establish the primacy of nonproliferation as a cardinal principle in the evolution of the membership.

However, it is an interesting thought experiment to consider the potential aftermath of an Indian membership. From the nonproliferation point of view, if India is admitted solely on its so-called past credentials, without any tangible nonproliferation commitments relating to arms control agreements like Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) or arms reduction in general, then some important implications would have to be addressed.

As NSG member, would India stop fissile material production pending a treaty?

One consideration in giving India membership is that although it’s not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), India would have to share its principle responsibilities, like the other nuclear weapons states of the NPT. However, given India’s opposition to a fissile material moratorium, as well as nuclear facilities kept outside safeguards, including new ones for uranium enrichment and its fast breeder program, India is likely to continue its fissile material production, posing a challenge to accepted notions of responsibility in its nuclear behavior. This noncommittal attitude with regard to halting fissile material production pending a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) could become a contentious issue. Unfortunately, the NSG states, including the United States, would have little to no leverage to influence Indian ambition in this regard. This would pose a serious challenge to the nonproliferation regime, and undermine NSG’s reputation.

Would India sign the CTBT? What if it tests?

Being a non-member of the NPT, another significant commitment in terms of nonproliferation and NSG criteria is the signing of the CTBT. With India’s alleged secret facilities kept outside safeguards, reportedly for production of nuclear fuel for bigger (hydrogen) bombs, India may not give in on legalizing its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. More so, envisioning a scenario where India decides to test again, the supplier states would conveniently be considered accomplices in this proliferation episode, given India’s general refusal “to accept standard international procedures for tracking imported uranium throughout the fuel cycle.”

Furthermore, the participating governments of the NSG would have no reciprocal leverage with India to reprimand such behavior. The problem has earlier been voiced by concerned diplomats, where one stated that “…the NSG works only on the basis of consensus. So if India did another test the follow-up meeting could be reduced to a talkshop by any member.” Others believed that “allowing India to join the NSG would make it difficult if not impossible to revisit the September 2008 decision to exempt India from NSG guidelines in the event that India violates any of those pledges in the future.” Though the United States has a domestic law which allows for termination of all trade in case of a nuclear test, that has been interpreted differently by the Indian government.

How would it impact the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) process?

The NSG’s mandate explicitly manifests that the purpose of the group is to “contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of two sets of guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.” An India-specific inclusion would jeopardize this objective of NSG. Although India has state-specific safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), such as for its deal with Canada, these are highly watered down. In the absence of binding obligations to provide end-user certification for nuclear fuel, supplier states may be unable to verify that the fuel supplied to India is not being diverted to making nuclear weapons, and could implicitly be aiding its nuclear weapons program. Along with the lack of a full-scope safeguards arrangement, this may become a major contentious issue in the future NPT RevCon process.

How would India, as a member, deal with the issue of prospective membership?

As a member, India could create hurdles for Pakistan’s prospective membership, and raise issues about China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, which according to New Delhi was grandfathered in.

A matter of further concern would be that India may use NSG as a spring board to further its great-power ambition. The global confidence bestowed through India’s membership in NSG could lead it to being dismissive towards Pakistan, and this development would portend negatively for strategic stability and dispute resolution.

Given India’s reluctant attitude in accepting and fulfilling nonproliferation obligations like a moratorium on fissile material production, signing the CTBT, and strict nuclear fuel tracking by suppliers, there is considerable reluctance among states that propagate stringent nonproliferation standards to bring India in as a member. Certain nonproliferation experts are of the view that “India does not yet share mainstream views about a range of international nuclear commitments and thus would actively dilute the NSG’s commitment to nonproliferation and seek to weaken the group’s ties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if it became a member.”

To ward off such concerns and the negative implications of country-specific membership, it is incumbent upon the participating governments of the NSG to consider criteria that is balanced, serves the nonproliferation regime, and maintains uniformity in the application of rules in terms of obligations for new entrants.


As the Nuclear Suppliers Group considers the membership of India and Pakistan at its next plenary meeting in early June, SAV contributors Saima Sial, Ruhee Neog, Reshmi Kazi, and Beenish Altaf think through the outcome of the vote, and analyze the potential aftermath of both the acceptance and denial of each country’s membership. Read the entire series here


Image: Dennis Brack, Getty

Posted in , India, NSG, Nuclear

Saima Aman Sial

Saima Aman Sial is a Senior Research Officer and expert in strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. She is a Nonproliferation Fellow from Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) South Korea, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sandia National Laboratories, USA. She has previously worked as Research Coordinator in the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies, Senior Research Associate in Strategic Technology Resources and with Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division as an Assistant Director – Research in its Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Directorate for some years. Saima has an M.Phil. in Strategic Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. She was an SAV Visiting Fellow in January 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Nuclear Suppliers Group: Impact of India’s Membership

  1. Saima
    Excellent post. All good questions.
    To which I would add a few more: Has the exemption for India on civil nuclear commerce been a net plus for non-proliferation, as the Bush administration argued? If so how? If not, how would India’s entry into the NSG be a net plus for non-proliferation?
    One might ask the same questions of Pakistan: How would Pakistan’s entry into the NSG help the objectives and purposes of the NSG?
    How would “normalization” actually reinforce non-proliferation, unless new entrants take new steps to reinforce this norm?

  2. Michael

    Thanks for the appreciation and adding up to the list of questions, which sure are valid ones and need deliberation further.

    I feel it is a subject that needs constant thought to be put to it, especially the aspect of how to reinforce nonproliferation and normative behaviour in normalization..

  3. Saima,
    We have an aphorism: You have a good head on your shoulders.
    The argument that the NSG would be stronger if it is more inclusive, and that if it is more inclusive, the international order would become more ‘normal,’ begs important questions. I’ll use an analogy to explore this.
    The loss of civic culture in the United States is a sad fact. Donald Trump’s success in the Republican primaries here is a manifestation of this sad fact. For many voters in the Republican primaries, a vote for Donald Trump is not abnormal. Is Donald Trump the new normal? God forbid.
    This is what I’m driving at: “Normalization” can be good or bad — this depends on what behaviors have become more prevalent, and hence “normal.” Society doesn’t become stronger or more “normal” if behaviors that are problematic become more widespread.
    The NSG was established and has been strengthened over time to reinforce norms related to non-proliferation. I support policies and decisions that clarify that the growth of nuclear weapon inventories and fissile material stockpiles dedicated to bombs is abnormal. I wish to strengthen norms that reinforce non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. This is the “new normal” that I work on.
    Best wishes,

  4. Don’t know how much of your information is updated after reading this but let me acknowledge you with few facts. The one time exemption which was given to India was only after when US-India nuclear deal was done which had a provision that India’s civil and nuclear programs will be different and all it’s nuclear facilities will be safeguarded and subject to periodical IAEA reviews and material supplied for it will be strictly tracked as agreed by India too.
    Also, don’t know whether you read regular reports or not, but Pakistan’s proliferation rate of nuclear warheads in the past 5 years had been very much more than India.
    India don’t care now how much nuclear warheads it has because it knows it has had enough now for deterrence purposes. All India is bothered about is to feed it’s nuclear reactors for energy security of the mammoth population deprived of electricity.
    All those things you said applied to Pakistan with more risks than India we both know.

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