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.
Ruhee Neog is the Assistant Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, and the coordinator of its Nuclear Security Program. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices, an online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by the Stimson Center.