Nuclear Suppliers Group: Why India will be Kept Out

Ahead of this month’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) plenary, at which the consideration of India’s membership is expected, a couple of things have happened in quick succession. China announced its opposition to permitting non-Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) members into the NSG, and Pakistan, citing its observance of NSG guidelines, made an application for membership. The United States, which has been quite vociferous in its support for India’s membership, and has, for some time, lobbied NSG members for their positive vote, reiterated its traditional line. Of the 48 members of the NSG, three players—China, the “non-proliferation hardliner” countries, and the United States—will play an important role in deciding which way the vote will sway.

First, China’s position, although premised on the principled-sounding “non-admittance of non-NPT signatory” argument, takes into account wider geostrategic calculations. Its opposition, though not new, is primarily based on two factors: keeping India out, and keeping Pakistan pegged with India.

Beijing’s “non-NPT” argument is not so much a matter of principle as it is resistance to India being granted the same privileges as China, an NPT signatory. NSG membership would give India greater access to the international nuclear market, and to the perks and benefits that China enjoys. In addition to opening up nuclear commerce, the NSG can be a source of legitimacy for a nuclear-armed state outside of the NPT, and for regional power projection.

This is why tying India’s entry with that of Pakistan’s is an effective delay tactic. Incidentally, keeping India out of the NSG keeps Pakistan out as well—so much for the China-Pakistan “all weather” friendship. Equating Indian membership with Pakistan could also allow China to balance the scale by having another powerful voice oppose India’s commercial moves in the nuclear sphere. For China, therefore, keeping India out of the NSG necessitates campaigning for Pakistan, in order to assert its geopolitical interests, and avoid a possible India-China hyphenation or equivalence.

Second are the difficult-to-call votes—the so-called “non-proliferation hardliners.” Those in question have been known to offer principled opposition to Indian NSG membership in the past, as demonstrated by Austria and Ireland during negotiations for the 2008 NSG waiver to India. While India has made some diplomatic overtures in the intervening period to acquire their votes for membership, whether they will finally capitulate remains to be seen. These countries are important because the NSG operates on consensus—each member has an equal vote. There is no common understanding as to why India’s admission is a good or a bad thing, or which of these reasons should take precedence. Some are unwilling to allow an Indian exemption because of the precedent it would set for future membership. Some have questioned the value that India’s admission to the NSG would bring. For some others, it is a geopolitical gambit. Such differences can hold up consensus-building.

Third, how much credence can be lent to the much-vaunted American diplomatic ability to override this opposition? To put it in perspective, the Obama administration’s support for India’s membership to the NSG, announced in 2010, hasn’t yet led to any tangible benefits. Much was also made of the United States’ “aggressive” support for India’s Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) membership, but this was vetoed by Italy in October 2015. In addition, the India-United States civil nuclear agreement hasn’t paid its nuclear dividends yet, although it has resulted in a broader deepening of the bilateral relationship. Against this background, and based on an assessment of the pros and cons, how much diplomatic capital would Washington be willing to expend on lobbying recalcitrant NSG members?

One thing is certain—irrespective of whether India’s application is successful, both China and the United States are playing to their own interests. India, for its part, appears unwilling to forego its exceptionalism for entry into the NSG, which may require firmer nuclear nonproliferation pledges. As it stands, China is poised to succeed in blocking consideration of India’s NSG membership, even perhaps at the cost of damaging its bilateral ties with India.

The consequences of this move, and how India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi would react in general, and to China in particular, will be interesting to watch. More individual and collective outreach by India to NSG members will likely follow, involving a reiteration of its own nuclear non-proliferation credentials and commitment to the NSG’s objectives.

Editor’s note: As the Nuclear Suppliers Group considers the membership of India and Pakistan at its next plenary meeting this month, 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: Mahmut Atanur-Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , India, NSG, Nuclear

Ruhee Neog

Ruhee Neog is the Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in New Delhi, India and the coordinator of its Nuclear Security Program. Her research focuses on the nuclear weapons politics of India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Prior to IPCS, Ruhee worked as a political and parliamentary monitor at the House of Commons and the House of Lords, UK, and with the Labour party, UK. She holds an MA in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics, and a BA in Literature in English from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi. She was an SAV Visiting Fellow in July 2017.

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11 thoughts on “Nuclear Suppliers Group: Why India will be Kept Out

  1. Well argued. India is caught between a China that is unwilling, a US that is unable and the non-profilerator hardliners who are divided and uncertain but mostly weighted against India. There seems little hope

  2. After all if India is indeed accepted to NSG it would then be difficult to control its nuclear and missile programme but would leave it as to be continued….that is strenuously increasing. So, keeping in mind the intense environment of region due to rivalry between India and Pakistan, Pakistan like India must be considered as a potential candidate for NSG to create a stable and static environment.

  3. After forty years of expedition, NSG is down the line to compromise India as a member state to export nuclear equipment, material or technology.Arguably, the world’s most important multilateral export control regime is considering whether to admit India as a member which was uniquely established after India steered its tests in 1974. This shows that realpolitik and the power game is the reason that drives them to transform the existing nuclear cartels upsetting the strategic environment which instigates that morals don’t govern the international relations.

  4. Ruhee,
    This is first-rate analysis. Kudos!
    The deck is stacked against India because only one card blocks consensus.
    China and Pakistan have played their hand much better than in 2005-8. By advancing Pakistan’s membership, the water has been muddied and the deck may have been shuffled toward delaying consideration of both. For Pakistan, whose domestic prospects and international standing have been diminished by poor choices, success has been re-defined to blocking India. Thus, Pakistan and China have played an easy hand well. We shall see whether India and the United States, which define success by measured accomplishment rather than by blocking, can succeed.
    What I’ve seen since 2005 hasn’t changed my views on this matter. Admission of states whose stockpiles are growing and that have not signed the CTBT will weaken the norms that the NSG was created to strengthen. I am open to India’s admission as long as India takes steps that strengthen the NSG. So far, it hasn’t.
    I suppose this makes me a non-proliferation ayatollah. Or so I have been told.

  5. A well crafted and analysed article. The Zionist lobby in the United States want to solidify their defence (and offensive ) postures by giving into Indian aspirations as a great power. The US does not understand other factors – the aspirations of the Arab world. They have the strength to streamroll their membership – better therefore to keep India out until Pakistan is also admitted. The Huntingdon’s theory must now be disbanded and buried. To persist otherwise is dangerous for the world.

  6. Looks like India might not get through,but time to teach China where it belongs, lets play the game with China, keep up pressure in south china, let china come to pakistan..we will drown them

  7. The United States policy makers have overreached themselves and need to rein in. The US policy lacks cohesion, consistency as well as a lack of multi-dimensional approach to the issue. By supporting India the US has shown its hand – that hand will no longer be trusted by any of her friends

  8. Wanting to be a member of some high club is always an aspiration of the upwardly mobile. Those already members will always oppose the entry of commoners, preserving their exclusivity a prime motive. If this is understood, an alternative path for achievement of goals that does not include becoming a member, must be charted. When you see a dead end, walking towards it is a poor option.

    India has the scientific and technological resources to develop solutions and products it is not allowed to buy in the market place. It needs will, commitment and allocation of resources. Rejection of NSG membership will be good for India because it needs reminding that dependence on others rather than on oneself is a circuitous road to ones destination. If a country that produces the largest number of scientists and engineers in the world, some who are the best in their field, needs foreign technological help, the short cut will in reality be a long winding road. Be in charge of your own destiny and a trendsetter, depending on external generosity or largesse, is a path losers follow.

  9. Thank you, everyone. Your comments are much appreciated.


    Thank you very much for your kind words.

    This is a nuanced issue, and one’s stand on whether India should acquire NSG membership derives both from geopolitical interests and the knowledge that nuclear non-proliferation must be strengthened – two things that can be difficult to reconcile given as they are often at odds. I am keen to see how this plays out in the long run, especially how the different actors within the NSG will navigate consensus-building and on what/whose terms.

  10. thank you for good article. Is there any voting system to admit new member in NSG ?? China’s opposing Indian entry in NSG , so China single vote can ban India entry ??

  11. Thank you, Naren.

    The NSG works on the principle of consensus and decisions on new applications for membership must be unanimous. If China holds up the process, India will not acquire entry.

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