Learning from India’s NSG Bid Failure

By Christi Thomas

India was denied entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at the Seoul Plenary session held on 23 and 24 June 2016 at South Korea. The NSG is a 48–member body formed to ensure that the transfer of nuclear material and technology for peaceful purposes between nations does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Ironically, the group came into existence in 1974 after Smiling Buddha – the codename of India’s first successful nuclear test, Pokhran-I. India had put forward its track record of non-proliferation over the years to attain membership in the NSG. A series of headlines of recent past centre-staged India’s long cherished NSG dreams. The timing of India’s application, immature diplomacy and the accruable benefits of entry were the issues.

The country had also intensified efforts at gaining membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) , the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

 It paid off when India formally joined the MTCR, which controls the export of items used in the development of systems used to deliver Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), on 27th June, 2016.

A Necessary Demand

As a responsible nuclear weapon state, India’s commitment to non-proliferations has remained intact. On account of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal signed in 2008, India undertook separation of its nuclear facilities, placed its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and tightened the domestic export control regimes. The country has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because of the purely discriminatory nature of the former and the inability of the latter to ensure time-bound disarmament of nuclear weapon states. India focuses on complete elimination of nuclear weapons rather than a discriminatory restriction on a few countries. While some NPT members have violated the norms of the treaty, India, a non-signatory, has even adopted the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act 2005 and synchronised its export control lists with those incorporated in the NSG and MTCR guidelines.

India’s entry into the NSG cannot be termed unnecessary because along with the MTCR membership, it would open doors for India’s permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and even its long pending entry into Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). The 2008 NSG waiver freed India from restrictions on nuclear trade and helped conclude bilateral nuclear trade agreements with the U.S., Russia and France.  It also sealed  trade arrangements with nuclear fuel supplier-nations such as Kazakhstan and Australia. However, there is a potential danger of alterations in the NSG guidelines which can affect India’s nuclear industry. Such modifications in the guidelines, can be avoided if India becomes a member as any change can take place only with consensus.

India’s Uranium exports as of 2014 | Photo Courtesy: CPPR

(*In the form of natural uranium ore concentrate. ** Natural uranium dioxide pellets and enriched uranium dioxide pellets combined)

Hasty Diplomacy

Diplomatic failures are inevitable in the foreign policy arena. But, India has to unlearn many things before moving forward. It is true that discussions regarding India’s membership had begun in 2011 after the US circulated – “Food for thought” paper in May 2011.  These discussions can be said to have remained abstract until India went for a formal application in May 2016. The application was untimely not because India was too early, but because the diplomatic engagement- post the application was hasty. Media reports suggest that most of the foreign visits in 2015, especially the President’s visit to Sweden and the Prime Minister’s visit to Ireland, were part of the outreach strategy. If a formal application had preceded these efforts, it would have seen a better chance at the Seoul plenary session. The celerity in the application process and diplomatic efforts which followed suit seemed to show that this was more of a US pressure than an Indian initiative. The 300-page long application submitted in May 2016 did not give enough time for India to put across the rationale behind the bid and the NPT adherents to digest the same. An early start of silent diplomacy at the multilateral level without the hype of outright support from different countries in a short period would have served India better.

The neglected Manmohan doctrine would have worked at least in this case. The UPA government had created a highly specialised Strategy Programme Staff ‘to work on a perspective plan for India’s nuclear deterrence in accordance with a 10-year cycle’. Hard fought negotiations before and during Dr Manmohan Singh’s  US visit in July 2005 paved way for the long-awaited nuclear breakthrough. The Indo-US nuclear deal was at its zenith amidst strong domestic political opposition. Interestingly, it was the BJP led Nationla Democratic Alliance (NDA), which when in opposition, vengefully criticised the Indo-US nuclear deal and forced stringent clauses of Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act (CLND) 2010.The whole drama turned against the present government when it desperately had to create a $ 222 million insurance pool to shield the operator and even ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) .

Opposition against India’s Entry

[su_pullquote align=”right”]Pakistan being a known proliferator, it was a move to thwart India’s entry by equating the credentials of the two.[/su_pullquote]

While a diplomatic setback for India, the failure was also a litmus test for the US. The US was helpless in front of China’s outright opposition. Beijing argued that any consideration of the inclusion of a non-NPT signatory must be done with caution. It also demanded Pakistan’s entry if India were to be considered for accession into the NSG. Pakistan being a known proliferator, it was a move to thwart India’s entry by equating the credentials of the two. China also indirectly benefitted from India’s hasty diplomatic process. US was able to convince China tactically to grant an NSG exemption to India in 2008. But this time around, it failed to do the heavy lifting. With the rising tensions in the South China Sea and while awaiting the court ruling on the Philippines case, China took it as the best opportunity to demonstrate its new rebalancing strategy.

China was not the only country that raised questions about India’s NSG entry. Strong NPT adherents like Turkey, Austria, Ireland, Brazil, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland were critical of such a move. These countries have taken a negative view of India remaining a non-NPT signatory. Despite being a member of BRICS, Brazil’s call for common criteria for all non-NPT states was a surprise for India. South Africa, another BRICS member, though supportive of India’s entry, was implicitly reluctant. This raised a fear of an increasing Chinese influence on in the country that led to the reluctance more than any ideological reasons. The BRICS summit to be held in Goa this year will be an excellent platform for India to establish its rationale behind the bid. A few bilateral issues too worsened the situation for India at some point or another as in the Italian Marines case pending in India, resulting in Italy’s opposition to India’s MTCR membership.


India can be hopeful of a prospective entry since it has stood by its credentials so far and has the time for active diplomacy in the days to come. A caveat here is that even if India becomes a member, the revision of NSG guidelines to prohibit trade in enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) with non-NPT states will mean an ENR trade ban between NSG members and India. However, a membership now, would prevent any such alterations in the future. Apart from the BRICS summit, the G-20 meet to be held in China can also be utilised for intense negotiations with Turkey, China, Brazil and South Africa. The special plenary session of the NSG, which is expected to be held this year-end will thus give India a chance to put forth its demand legibly.

Christi Thomas is an intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. 

This article was originally published on Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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