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Why Beijing is wrong about Indian accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group

Why Beijing is wrong about Indian accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group
Published 7 Jun 2016 

With the annual plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) coming up this month, Beijing's objection to India's inclusion into the Group has become a concern for New Delhi.

Debate on the prospects of India's entry into the 48-member, consensus-based NSG has heated up over the fact that India is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NSG coordinates export control policies of its members in an effort to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and is perceived to be helping uphold the NPT. Noting that the inclusion of a non-NPT-signatory to the Group could weaken the Treaty, Beijing has recently flagged objections to India's efforts to join the NSG. The objection raises questions about the relationship between the Group and the Treaty.

If the NSG was established to go beyond the NPT in contributing to the goals of nuclear non-proliferation, then the argument to restrict its membership to just NPT signatories is weak.

India has expressed its interest in joining the NSG with the broader objective of becoming an active participant in the global non-proliferation architecture. From once being an outlier and a target of this system, India has come a long way, and is now increasingly being recognised as a 'like-minded' partner in addressing the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. 

India's approach to the existing mechanisms of nuclear non-proliferation, in particular the NPT, underwent a significant shift in 2000. New Delhi had traditionally expressed its dissatisfaction with the Treaty that divided the world into nuclear haves and have-nots. This is because the only way India could have signed the NPT was as a non-nuclear weapon state, which was against New Delhi's interest owing to the threat it perceived, since NPT's inception in 1970, from a recognised nuclear-China and, later, from a nuclear-Pakistan. This led New Delhi to call for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would replace the NPT and implement global nuclear disarmament.

However, as NPT signatories gathered for the 2000 review conference, then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, in an address to the Indian parliament, noted that though India could not join the NPT, it would support the principles and objectives of nuclear non-proliferation enshrined therein. [fold]

To date, India has harmonised its export control policies with the NSG guidelines and its record on nuclear non-proliferation remains impeccable. Yet, New Delhi's status outside the Treaty has been used to diminish its prospects of gaining entry into the NSG. While European countries like The Netherlands, Austria and Ireland appear to be genuinely concerned, China has arguably used this debate to block India's entry as a favour to its 'all-weather' friend and ally Pakistan. Islamabad has repeatedly argued against New Delhi's inclusion in the NSG, stating that it would disturb the strategic balance in South Asia.

Thus, it is vital to objectively assess the NSG's relationship with the NPT in order to resolve the debate.

Article III.2 of the NPT says its mandate is to control exports of nuclear materials and related sensitive items which could be used in the construction of a nuclear weapon. Under the NPT the Zangger Committee was established in 1971 to identify those items in a trigger list and issue export control guidelines which NPT signatories were obligated to follow. The Committee published export control guidelines and the trigger list on 3 September 1974, two months after India conducted its first nuclear test, an event marked as the point of inception of the NSG.

In essence, the NPT had the provision to enforce nuclear export controls among its signatories and, following India's nuclear test, it issued measures intended to coordinate export controls among NPT signatories. What then was the rationale for setting up a separate group in 1974 with the exact same objectives? 

The NPT in the 1970s had limited membership and some major suppliers of nuclear materials were not party to it. The case of France, which has also been flagged recently by the Indian Ministry External Affairs and refuted by the Chinese Government, is a case in point.

In the early 1970s a French company, SGN, negotiated a deal with Pakistan to construct reprocessing facility that would have allowed Islamabad to amass stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium. France joined the NPT only in August 1992 and it therefore was not violating any obligation in pursuing such a deal with Pakistan in the 1970s. According to declassified US Government documents, it was under the insistence and pressure from the US that France agreed to join in setting up the London Club in 1974, which eventually became the NSG. Soon after establishment of the London Club, France terminated the contract to construct the reprocessing facility in Pakistan. 

The argument to keep NSG membership restricted to NPT signatories thus stands weak, given that one of the primary objectives with which the Group was set up was to include non-NPT signatories. This would help allow NPT signatories to control the exports of nuclear supplier countries which had no obligations to abide by the guidelines issued by the Zangger Committee under the NPT.

While the NPT has now become a nearly-universal treaty, there remain countries outside of it that have or are known to have active nuclear weapons programs. The NSG, therefore, has the unique opportunity to contribute to the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation by including those non-NPT signatories that help it strengthen both its credibility and efficiency. 

On the contrary, if the NPT's primacy on all nuclear non-proliferation activities is to be retained, then the NSG's mandate could be handed over to the Zangger Committee and the Group can be dissolved. It is true that the Zangger Committee and NSG's scopes of export controls differ, but the Committee has the ability to take over the mandate of the Group. This, however, has not happened, firstly because it would make adherence to export control guidelines an NPT obligation, which for now remains a voluntary commitment under the NSG, and secondly because such a move would seriously restrict the ability of the nuclear non-proliferation architecture to control nuclear exports that do not fall under the NPT's purview. 

The NSG has a unique position in the nuclear non-proliferation architecture. It can contribute to the goals of nuclear non-proliferation where the NPT has limitations. Members of the NSG must, therefore, admit countries based on their merits and not hold NPT membership as a mandatory criterion for inclusion. New Delhi's entry into the NSG would be less an exception and more a reflection of the Group's pragmatism in strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation architecture. The NSG stands to gain credibility by including India, a potential supplier of nuclear and related items which has upheld the norms of nuclear non-proliferation through decades. On the other hand, by limiting its membership to the NPT, the Group will fail to live up to the potential for which it was designed.

Photo by Dennis Brack - Pool/Getty Images.

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