Insights into Editorial: The writing on the great wall

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Insights into Editorial: The writing on the great wall

27 June 2016

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The recent Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Seoul ended with no decision on India’s application to join the group as a full member. However, this was an expected outcome since China took a public stand against a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being granted membership.

About NSG:

Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a multinational body concerned with reducing nuclear proliferation by controlling the export and re-transfer of materials that may be applicable to nuclear weapon development and by improving safeguards and protection on existing materials.

  • Interestingly, the NSG was set up in 1974 as a reaction to India’s nuclear tests to stop what it called the misuse of nuclear material meant for peaceful purposes. Currently, it has 48 members.

Why China is opposing?

According to China, if India, being a non-signatory to the NPT, admitted to NSG, would undermine the international non-proliferation regime.

What has China suggested?

It has suggested NSG members to thoroughly discuss the subject of membership of non-NPT states so that a set of objective criteria could be agreed upon and that no application was treated as an exceptional case.

How this would affect India China relationship:

China’s continued obduracy raises serious questions in the Indian government about the value of organisations like BRICS, RIC or even BASIC, where India and China are believed to be working together. If China continues with its opposition, there could be consequences for bilateral relations with Beijing, because it would be a direct refusal to an Indian head of the government.

Why India should be granted NSG membership:

In this game of developing nuclear weapons India has not indulged in any dubious/clandestine activity and its programme has been developed solely by years of hard work indigenously. By this single act India has shown that developing a credible nuclear weapons programme through honest and civilian means is possible for any country having high-level scientific manpower and materials.

Besides, by declaring a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear tests India has effectively acted in sense and spirit of NPT/CTBT provisions. By steering its programme only as a minimum deterrence and pledging NFU unless faced with an attack of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), India has established itself as a responsible nuclear state.

Way ahead:

Since China is firm on its stand, India’s entry into the NSG as a unique and exceptional case may be extremely difficult even if a determined lobbying effort is launched in the coming weeks and months. The only practical possibility would be for India and Pakistan to be admitted together, which China has indicated it would be willing to support. However, most NSG members are not in favor of this.

Previous experience:

India had to undergo a similar situation in 2008. In 2008, India was able to get a waiver from the NSG as an exceptional case allowing it to engage in international commerce in civilian nuclear technology and equipment even though, as a nuclear weapon state, it did not have all its nuclear facilities under international safeguards as required by the group.

  • Even then, China was opposed to the waiver but did not take a public stand on it. Instead, it encouraged countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland to oppose a consensus on the waiver for India, arguing that it would seriously undermine the NPT, that it would upset the nuclear balance in South Asia and trigger a nuclear arms race.
  • China had also suggested a criteria-based rather than a country-specific approach to be adopted in order to avoid the charge of discriminatory practice. However, later on China decided to support the draft waiver decision.

What can be done now?

A fresh discussion on so-called “criteria” applicable to all non-NPT applicants should be held now. The criteria on the basis of which India has already received a waiver in 2008 could be reopened. The waiver has allowed India to engage in civil nuclear commerce with a number of countries. It has entered into long-term nuclear fuel supply agreements with a number of supplier countries and is negotiating the supply of advanced nuclear reactors with Russia, France and the U.S.

Membership of the NSG would not make a substantive difference except that it would make the conditions for international civil nuclear commerce and cooperation more predictable in the long run and also ensure that in any future amendments to NSG guidelines India is an active participant.

Why has China taken a more public and upfront position opposing India’s membership in the NSG?

China today is a more confident and assertive power than in 2008. Also, there is a clear enhancement of China’s commitment to Pakistan, not only as its traditional proxy against India but also because it has been assigned a key role in Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project.

Conclusion:

If China sticks to its stand, implications may go beyond the immediate issue of NSG membership and reflect the ongoing changes in the geopolitical landscape. Hence, it is time for the countries to take advantage of the NSG experience to carefully assess these changes, their impact on India and fashion an appropriate response strategy. That is more important than the pursuit of NSG membership.