The Nuclear Suppliers Group at the Crossroads

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Members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will meet in Prague this month for the group’s annual plenary meeting. At the top of this year’s agenda will be the completion of the first-ever comprehensive review of the NSG’s export control lists. This is a priority for the group given the complex and expanding landscape of global nuclear commerce and the associated proliferation risks. There are, however, two other issues looming over the NSG – India’s bid for membership and China’s continued flouting of the export guidelines. These issues have significant implications for the credibility of the NSG and its ability to support non-proliferation norms and international security.

The NSG’s Background

The NSG was established in 1975 to supplement the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by addressing nuclear commerce. The need for it became clear when the NPT, which was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, failed to prevent India from conducting a “peaceful nuclear explosion.”

With the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear technology proliferation, seven nuclear supplier states established the NSG. It has since grown to include 47 participating governments (PGs) and has become the principle multilateral export control body for nuclear-related trade. Prospective members are evaluated on several factors and admission must be agreed on by all PGs. One inflexible criterion in this determination has been the adherence to the NPT or a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty – effectively barring any non-NPT nuclear weapon state. 

India’s Prospective Membership

India is not a party to the NPT. It could not become a nuclear-weapon state under the treaty, which limited admission to the nuclear club to the five states that tested before 1967. By testing after that date and by continuing to pursue nuclear weapons rather than accede to the NPT, India has long been a nuclear outlier. As such, it has been kept outside of the NSG and until recently barred from international nuclear commerce. While it has expressed interest in joining the NSG, New Delhi is waiting for broad international support before formally applying to the group.

Such support appears to be gaining momentum. During a state visit to India in November 2010, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would back India’s membership in the NSG, as well as the other multilateral export control regimes: the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australian Group, and the Wassanaar Arrangement. Several other countries have since echoed their support, especially those hoping to profit from India’s nuclear market.

This support is derived from the U.S.-led effort over the last few years to incorporate India into the global nuclear order. The watershed event in this process occurred in 2008, when the NSG issued an India-specific waiver allowing it to engage in nuclear trade. India has since signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with the U.S., UK, France, Canada, Argentina, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Namibia, and South Korea.

With plans to perfect developmental nuclear technologies such as fast-breeder and thorium-based reactors, India also has ambitions to become a global nuclear supplier. By securing membership in the NSG, India would have a voice in determining new export guidelines related to those technologies – an influence not granted under its waiver for nuclear commerce. 

Prior to the last two NSG plenaries, the U.S. circulated white papers outlining how membership criteria could be adjusted to accommodate India. These efforts, however, made little headway. Press releases following those plenaries vaguely recounted that the body “continued to consider all aspects of the implementation of the 2008 Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India and discussed the NSG relationship with India.”

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