The upcoming plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is going to consider the membership of India, a state whose proliferation led to the initial establishment of the group. The United States, in line with its overarching strategic policy of propping up India as a counterweight to China, is helping build momentum to bring India in as a member. Nonetheless, considering the fact that decisions on admission are not synonymous with a one-time exemption for nuclear trade with NSG participating countries, the prospects of India achieving membership appear low.
States opposing Indian membership are doing so on nonproliferation grounds, as they do not wish to repeat the 2008 decision on Indian exemption without any tangible reciprocal commitments. Those favoring an Indian membership are mainly doing so in large part to achieve geopolitical objectives rather than serve the nonproliferation regime. As I have argued earlier, the criteria-based approach to expansion of NSG membership is the only way to best serve the goal of nonproliferation, and help establish the primacy of nonproliferation as a cardinal principle in the evolution of the membership.
However, it is an interesting thought experiment to consider the potential aftermath of Indian membership. From the nonproliferation point of view, if India is admitted solely on its so-called past credentials, without any tangible nonproliferation commitments relating to arms control agreements like Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) or arms reduction in general, then some important implications would have to be addressed.
As NSG member, would India stop fissile material production pending a treaty?
One consideration in giving India membership is that although it’s not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), India would have to share its principle responsibilities, like the other nuclear weapons states of the NPT. However, given India’s opposition to a fissile material moratorium, as well as nuclear facilities kept outside safeguards, including new ones for uranium enrichment and its fast breeder program, India is likely to continue its fissile material production, posing a challenge to accepted notions of responsibility in its nuclear behavior. This noncommittal attitude with regard to halting fissile material production pending a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) could become a contentious issue. Unfortunately, the NSG states, including the United States, would have little to no leverage to influence Indian ambition in this regard. This would pose a serious challenge to the nonproliferation regime, and undermine NSG’s reputation.
Would India sign the CTBT? What if it tests?
Being a non-member of the NPT, another significant commitment in terms of nonproliferation and NSG criteria is the signing of the CTBT. With India’s alleged secret facilities kept outside safeguards, reportedly for production of nuclear fuel for bigger (hydrogen) bombs, India may not give in on legalizing its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. More so, envisioning a scenario where India decides to test again, the supplier states would conveniently be considered accomplices in this proliferation episode, given India’s general refusal “to accept standard international procedures for tracking imported uranium throughout the fuel cycle.”
Furthermore, the participating governments of the NSG would have no reciprocal leverage with India to reprimand such behavior. The problem has earlier been voiced by concerned diplomats, where one stated that “…the NSG works only on the basis of consensus. So if India did another test the follow-up meeting could be reduced to a talkshop by any member.” Others believed that “allowing India to join the NSG would make it difficult if not impossible to revisit the September 2008 decision to exempt India from NSG guidelines in the event that India violates any of those pledges in the future.” Though the United States has a domestic law which allows for termination of all trade in case of a nuclear test, that has been interpreted differently by the Indian government.
How would it impact the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) process?
The NSG’s mandate explicitly manifests that the purpose of the group is to “contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of two sets of guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.” An India-specific inclusion would jeopardize this objective of NSG. Although India has state-specific safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), such as for its deal with Canada, these are highly watered down. In the absence of binding obligations to provide end-user certification for nuclear fuel, supplier states may be unable to verify that the fuel supplied to India is not being diverted to making nuclear weapons, and could implicitly be aiding its nuclear weapons program. Along with the lack of a full-scope safeguards arrangement, this may become a major contentious issue in the future NPT RevCon process.
How would India, as a member, deal with the issue of prospective membership?
As a member, India could create hurdles for Pakistan’s prospective membership, and raise issues about China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, which according to New Delhi was grandfathered in.
A matter of further concern would be that India may use NSG as a springboard to further its great-power ambition. The global confidence bestowed through India’s membership in NSG could lead it to being dismissive towards Pakistan, and this development would portend negatively for strategic stability and dispute resolution.
Given India’s reluctant attitude in accepting and fulfilling nonproliferation obligations like a moratorium on fissile material production, signing the CTBT, and strict nuclear fuel tracking by suppliers, there is considerable reluctance among states that propagate stringent nonproliferation standards to bring India in as a member. Certain nonproliferation experts are of the view 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 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if it became a member.”
To ward off such concerns and the negative implications of country-specific membership, it is incumbent upon the participating governments of the NSG to consider criteria that is balanced, serves the nonproliferation regime, and maintains uniformity in the application of rules in terms of obligations for new entrants.
Saima Sial is an Islamabad-based security analyst and a former Nonproliferation Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterrey, California. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices, an online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by the Stimson Center.