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Pakistan, India, and the NSG: A Curious Case of Norms and Discrimination

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Pakistan, India, and the NSG: A Curious Case of Norms and Discrimination

“The international nonproliferation regime has survived on pragmatism, discrimination, and a quantum of morality.”

Pakistan, India, and the NSG: A Curious Case of Norms and Discrimination

Barack Obama and Narendra Modi at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit.

Credit: Image by Drop of Light /

India and Pakistan recently applied for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and their applications are being considered during the plenary meeting of the NSG in Seoul on June 24, 2016. This marks a new turn in the NSG-South Asia saga, which began with the India-specific waiver from the NSG in 2008. Regardless of Pakistan’s (and India’s) remote chances of getting accepted into the 48-member plurilateral export control arrangement, it is important to improve the overarching narratives surrounding this issue since 2008.

Both Pakistan and the United States have been pursuing conflicting narratives for about a decade regarding the implications of the 2005 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal for Pakistan and Pakistan’s possible policy options. The whole discussion of the last ten years boils down to two differing frameworks.

Pakistan has viewed this development from the framework of international discrimination based on an expectation of “fair treatment” from the nonproliferation regime and the United States.

On the other hand, predominant literature from the West (especially the U.S.) suggests, since Pakistan cannot match the commercial potential of India, it will have to improve its “nonproliferation credentials” to be considered for NSG membership — or, more broadly, to be considered a “normal nuclear state.”

Both these concepts are under-developed. Discrimination in the context of nonproliferation regime is a non-linear concept and means different things for different states. The idea of “nonproliferation credentials” is an equally fluid concept, leading both Pakistan and the United States to come to completely different conclusions on what may be considered Pakistan’s positive nonproliferation credentials.

Pakistan’s narrative vis-à-vis the NSG waiver given to India has been that it will create strategic imbalance in South Asia and that Pakistan’s nuclear program is being discriminated against. It is true that an India-specific waiver from NSG then and unconditional support for India to become a member of NSG now is a discriminatory development against Pakistan. However, this narrative implies that an equal treatment of India and Pakistan will diminish the effects of double standards that are inherent to both the NPT and the encompassing international system.

Being a part of the same system under the NPT, it is a legal right for some states to possess nuclear weapons and for others to shun them. Both commit not to conduct proliferation. Proliferation is both horizontal and vertical; however, the so called international norms are strictly followed in terms of horizontal proliferation (spreading nuclear weapons technology) and little or no consideration is given to the issue of vertical proliferation (arms buildup).

Strong states like the United States can acquire nuclear weapons, deploy them outside their territories, and provide a nuclear umbrella to other states — and all this can be done comfortably within the legal limits of the NPT. For other states, like Iran, possession of even a latent capability is in conflict with its nonproliferation commitments. Such is the nature of the nonproliferation regime that it obscures, instead of highlighting, what the positive nonproliferation credentials of states should be. Hypothetically, the nonproliferation credentials of one state can practically be the opposite of the other and still both will be positively pursuing the goal of nonproliferation.

There is nothing new about the analysis that has been presented here. Nor the purpose is to deride the NPT, but to highlight the discriminatory nature of the regime per se. Discrimination is inherent to international anarchic system that prevails in the world. The international nonproliferation regime has survived on pragmatism, discrimination, and a quantum of morality. It is anybody’s guess which states deserve pragmatism and which deserve discrimination from the regime; moral arguments against the spread of nuclear weapons can be molded accordingly.

Pakistan’s national narrative has been that it is a reluctant entrant to the nuclear club and its policies have always been responsive to those of India. Even then Pakistan has been hyphenated with India when being penalized or sanctioned, and de-hyphenated when being rewarded. The Indo-U.S. deal of 2005 is a clear case in point. However, this was not the first case of discrimination against Pakistan’s nuclear program. There is a history of threats and of slapping and lifting sanctions on Pakistan’s nuclear program that had little or no relation to Pakistan’s so called nonproliferation credentials.

The basic criterion for any future membership in the NSG is defined philosophically, in terms of whether the potential new membership would be a net positive for the nonproliferation regime. Yet the yardstick for measuring if the prospective member is contributing to the nonproliferation regime is extremely difficult to create. One example of how difficult the task can be is coming to a clear answer for the following question: Does it harm the nonproliferation regime to bring a non-NPT member nuclear weapons state to the NSG that also does not adopt full scope safeguards or does it benefit the NSG to formally include a potential supplier of dual use nuclear technology that is currently running a complete fuel cycle independently?

It is understandable as a principle that both India and Pakistan’s inclusion in the NSG should strengthen the nonproliferation regime instead of making it weak. But how much has the NSG contributed to controlling the arms buildup in nuclear weapons states, that it can now ask for India and Pakistan to limit fissile materials production? Is it even NSG’s mandate to ask Pakistan and India to support the fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) or Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)? Do all NSG members support FMCT and CTBT at the moment? Would it not be discriminatory against states that have signed the NPT and comply with it if two new nuclear weapons states without NPT membership are included in the NSG?

Then there is the question of how to measure the appropriateness of the criterion proposed — for example the condition that Pakistan should create and actively support programs to suppress and combat domestic terrorism to make a strong case for NSG membership. Ignoring for a moment the dynamics of terrorism within South Asia, is it even the NSG’s mandate to ask Pakistan to dismantle the alleged terrorist outfits on its territories? How far beyond the NSG’s official mandate should the negotiations go to make sure the new members’ addition will strengthen the “nonproliferation regime”? These, along with many questions put forth by Mark Hibbs in his recent article need to be answered to have a viable discussion on the membership of India and Pakistan without decaying the nonproliferation regime.

The only positive at the moment about the feverish NSG-related discussions is the emphasis of the nonproliferation lobby in the West on adopting a criteria-based approach for any future memberships in the NSG. A lot of homework still needs to be done on the possibility of universal criteria for future members, what the criteria should be, and how they should be devised.

One future scenario could be the new members’ inclusion based on geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations instead of international norms. This has already been done in the case of the India-specific waiver from the NSG in 2008 that would lead to a technically new category of IAEA safeguards accommodating the Indian needs (read: demands).  Nevertheless, the India-specific waiver in 2008 did not see a strong pushback from Pakistan. Islamabad was under the impression that once the principle of adopting a nonproliferation related criterion for engagement with the three de facto nuclear states had been ignored, it would be easier for Pakistan to be mainstreamed as well. The last decade of Pakistan’s strategic dialogue with the United States has proved the contrary.

It should be noted that once a 2008 type exception is made, the United States and India are likely to renege on their assurances of applying the same criteria for other non-NPT States. Instead of considering non-NPT States by creating exceptions, the NSG’s participating governments should first decide what the criteria should be for such states. The group was created because of India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1975. The NSG, with or without Pakistan, will lose its meaning if it fails to remember the reason for its existence.

Sobia Paracha works as a consultant with Islamabad Policy Research Institute. Previously she has been a Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Dr. Christine M. Leah is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Grand Strategy Program at Yale University.

The views expressed are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the views of their respective organisations.