Asia Defense

A Path Forward on Indian NSG Membership

Recent Features

Asia Defense

A Path Forward on Indian NSG Membership

Momentum for India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group seems to have stalled.

A Path Forward on Indian NSG Membership
Credit: Antônio Milena (ABr)

Momentum for India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-nation group that sets guidelines for global nuclear exports, seems to have stalled.

In 2010, the Obama Administration announced its intention to support India’s “full membership” in the nuclear export control regimes, and Washington now claims that India is “ready” for NSG membership. Yet, critics continue to question Delhi’s commitment to nonproliferation.

The failure of the United States and India to convince skeptics that the country should be admitted on the strength of its nonproliferation actions to date may become evident at the June 2016 NSG Plenary. The months remaining before this meeting provide the Obama Administration a final opportunity to make progress toward the goal of securing India’s NSG membership. To do so, it needs a new plan.

To build support in the NSG, which operates by consensus, India will need to take additional steps to demonstrate its commitment to nonproliferation. Because Delhi will be understandably reluctant, U.S. officials must persuade the Modi Administration that it is necessary to take such steps, as well as convince other NSG members that, in doing so, India merits membership. This will not be an easy task.

Whether India belongs in the NSG is an unresolved question left over from the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which ended decades-long sanctions imposed after India’s nuclear test. In addition to strategic and economic rationales, Bush administration officials characterized the deal as a way to incentivize India to adopt responsible standards and practices. On the basis of India’s actions, in 2008, the U.S. pressured NSG members to pass an exemption from the guidelines to allow India to participate in civil nuclear commerce.

On the surface, India appears to have fulfilled the commitments it agreed to in exchange for the deal that ended the nuclear trade prohibition. It officially implemented a separation plan, which placed 14 civilian nuclear power reactors under IAEA safeguards, leaving 8 military reactors outside of safeguards. It has sustained its unilateral halt on testing nuclear explosives. And in June 2014, India ratified a protocol that expanded the IAEA’s access to its nuclear sites.

However, the manner in which India carried out these obligations raised questions about how Delhi might behave if admitted to the NSG. For example, India’s separation plan essentially created an additional category – reactors that are connected to the electrical grid but are declared part of the military program – that is at odds with the practices of other states with nuclear weapons.

Further, India’s Additional Protocol lacks standard provisions regarding information sharing, even as compared to the protocols adopted by other nuclear-armed states. Similarly, in its negotiations with the U.S. and other suppliers of nuclear fuel and technology, India refused to accept standard international procedures for tracking imported uranium throughout the fuel cycle.

And finally, its nuclear liability law (though not explicitly addressed as one of the NSG requirements for India) contains provisions that differ substantially from the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, to which India acceded in February of this year. Given these perceived deficiencies in Indian behavior, certain Western European states (and many nonproliferation experts) argue that India does not yet share mainstream views about a range of international nuclear commitments and thus would actively dilute the NSG’s commitment to nonproliferation and seek to weaken the group’s ties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if it became a member.

Given the mixed bag that is India’s nuclear policy since 2005, do U.S. claims that India is “ready” for NSG membership stand up?

The answer is, not yet.

Prior to the 2008 NSG exemption, some American lawmakers and Western European NSG members called for India to adopt stronger nonproliferation policies. These included signing and ratifying the CTBT, facilitating negotiations on the FMCT, and adopting stronger safeguards. Still, the Bush administration chose not to condition its support for India’s NSG exemption on such commitments. The Obama administration has effectively continued this policy by unconditionally supporting India’s membership.

India’s actions and commitments in 2008 were sufficient to secure an exemption to the NSG’s guidelines, but in 2016, they are insufficient to merit membership. Significantly, India does not meet one of the major factors for membership – being a party to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.S. has argued that despite its status outside the NPT, India is sufficiently like-minded regarding nonproliferation to merit membership. Some skeptics, such as Switzerland, might be amenable to this argument if India demonstrated support for nonproliferation through concrete actions. Others, such as Austria, Ireland or New Zealand,may remain opposed on principle unless India joins the NPT, which is extremely unlikely as this would require Delhi to disarm. More broadly, NSG members internally dispute whether the Group should include all countries that engage in the trade of nuclear or dual-use goods, or, only states that share a common commitment to upholding nonproliferation principles and standards.

Unlike in 2008, when pressure from Bush administration officials was the key to securing a consensus vote on India’s NSG waiver, U.S. President Barack Obama has not undertaken a similar campaign to secure Indian membership. The task of achieving consensus today is more daunting than in 2008, due to some members’ negative perceptions about India’s performance since then and their unfavorable memories of U.S. pressure. Yet, while the current policy of unconditional support perhaps satisfies Delhi, it does not address skeptics’ arguments that India will water down the nonproliferation regime and stands no chance of securing Indian membership.

To increase the likelihood of consensus on Indian membership while strengthening the nonproliferation regime in the process, the Obama administration should now consider an alternative approach. This should involve presenting the country with nonproliferation commitments that would address perceived deficiencies and bring India’s nuclear policies and practices closer in line with other declared Nuclear Weapons States. The primary U.S. objective would therefore not be to create new universal requirements. For India, agreeing to nonproliferation-minded commitments and addressing deficiencies in its current practices could be a way to prove its active support for the objectives of the NPT, without joining it.

As an important global partner for the United States and a leader in Asia, India’s half-in-half-out nuclear status should not remain permanently unresolved. The months ahead of the June 2016 NSG Plenary provide a likely final opportunity for President Obama to make progress on Indian membership and to develop, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nonproliferation commitments that might improve India’s image as a responsible nuclear power

Lauryn Williams is project manager in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.