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Can India Revive Its Quest for Nuclear Suppliers Group Membership?

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Can India Revive Its Quest for Nuclear Suppliers Group Membership?

Although China still presents an obstacle, India’s current G-20 presidency should be leveraged by policymakers to restart NSG membership talks.

Can India Revive Its Quest for Nuclear Suppliers Group Membership?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the Nuclear Security Summit in 2016.

Credit: Depositphotos

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long pursuit of membership for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) seems to have stagnated, incrementally losing momentum after a lack of forward progress — thanks to China — since the NSG Annual Plenaries in 2016 and 2018. 

In 2022, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar declared that India looked forward to join the NSG and overcoming “political impediments that are against global interest.” Despite Modi’s intense lobbying, India still remains outside the elite nuclear club, unable to extract the same benefits as its 48 participating states. New Delhi desperately needs to revive its membership efforts. Joining the NSG with full membership remains a key priority for the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for two principal reasons. 

First, it would mark a major foreign policy achievement for the BJP and Modi, completing India’s accession to all the key multilateral export control arrangements, after already securing membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (2016), Wassenaar Arrangement (2017) and Australia Group (2018) — all under Modi’s premiership.

Second, impediments to India’s NSG membership also provide political leverage to India’s main opposition party in the Parliament, the Indian National Congress (INC), which was largely responsible for championing the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal and securing India’s NSG waiver during the first Manmohan Singh-led government (2004-2009). 

India’s nuclear program, once under severe sanctions and immense scrutiny for adopting the path of weaponization and not signing onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has now transformed itself into a leading partner for civil nuclear cooperation. Initially, the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal (123 Agreement) ended India’s isolation from the international stage when New Delhi placed its civilian facilities under an IAEA safeguards agreement, further quelling concerns over its non-NPT status. Although the NSG guidelines prohibit its participating states from engaging in nuclear commerce with a non-NPT state, the 2008 clean waiver approved by members of the NSG — under Washington’s active diplomacy — lifted nuclear trade sanctions on India. The 2010 Obama-Singh Joint Statement further confirmed the United States’ intention to support India’s full membership in multilateral export control arrangements. 

While the NSG waiver unequivocally helped India to successfully negotiate more than a dozen civil nuclear cooperation agreements, Washington’s unconditional support and India’s rising ambitions over political status had also strengthened demands in New Delhi’s strategic circles to secure full NSG membership. Simultaneously, the unique Indian waiver has also greatly diminished any possible scenarios for India to ever accede to the NPT.

After India’s membership ambitions were stalled at successive NSG plenary meetings, its renewed efforts to secure membership have tried to lay more emphasis on joining the NSG to fulfil India’s long-term low-emissions growth strategy and support its climate transition goals. Equally, there is less talk and little emphasis on the prestige factor and recognition of India’s nuclear status. India’s G-20 presidency — even though overshadowed by the Russia-Ukraine war and China-U.S. competition — is an opportunity for the Indian leadership, which at least merits the issue of raising its pending NSG membership in a bid to revive multilateral arrangements. 

As India transitions to low-emission energy pathways in a bid to reduce its climate footprint, NSG membership can remedy some structural deficits for India, such as constraints it faces over the cumbersome procedures to secure an adequate supply of nuclear fuel. India’s minister of commerce and industry and former G-20 sherpa, Piyush Goyal, brought up India’s pending NSG bid during a G-20 meeting on climate action under the Italian presidency in 2021. Goyal positioned success in achieving India’s climate goals as contingent on their NSG seat, asserting that India’s climate transition depends on the kinds of technologies that will be available as well as its pending NSG bid to secure “adequate availability of raw materials for nuclear supply.” India’s diplomatic and political circles further remain convinced that NSG membership is still possible and will improve India’s nuclear energy program and upgrade its nuclear power infrastructure to further enhance its nuclear exporting capacity. 

There remains the challenge of balancing international norms with geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations. In this sense, the NSG’s consensus-based voting procedure, which requires participating states to show unanimity while approving decisions and admitting new members, presents a fundamental challenge to India’s membership. The principal obstruction to India’s bid comes from China, which in turn points to Pakistan’s own pending NSG membership. India’s membership bid is also opposed by three other states — Ireland, New Zealand, and Austria — which are firm advocates of nuclear disarmament and parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). 

However, similar to Australia a decade earlier, New Zealand and the remaining states are now facing intense pressure to lift their opposition to India’s bid. Opposition from other states provides political cover for Beijing to strengthen its position against India’s bid based on shifting geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific. However, the reality also seems to reflect that New Delhi has been unsuccessful in persuading NSG members that its membership will yield dividends to the non-proliferation regime. Many participating states are likely to still underscore the significant difference between lifting trade sanctions and allowing India to participate in NSG decision-making procedures.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal, who served in the Obama administration, said in a 2017 interview that “clearly there is one outlier that needs to be addressed and that is China.” When Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Modi for an informal summit in Wuhan in 2018, New Delhi had a range of concerns to be discussed, including its pending NSG membership application. China’s position remained unchanged, with it justifying “exempting India as unfair especially to other non-NPT states who want to join the NSG.” Beijing’s firm opposition to India’s NSG membership further reflects two factors. 

First, Beijing, actively involved in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, disapproves of the increasing spotlight given to New Delhi’s membership bid and the discrimination against Islamabad’s. Second, it realizes that Washington’s successful lobbying and India’s rising clout has greatly reduced the transaction costs for its bid, and China is keen to retain question marks over India’s complicated insider/outsider status in the non-proliferation regime by denying it NSG membership. 

China also previously had serious concerns over the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal and believes that India’s enhanced civil nuclear capabilities will aid its nuclear weapons modernization due to constraints in verifying diversion of dual use items. Although China does not consider India a security threat and views relations with its neighbor through the prism of China-U.S. strategic competition, its perceptions about India as a nuclear weapons power and the intensifying Sino-Indian border dispute render significant costs for India’s NSG bid.

It is worth also noting the organizational efforts that have been undertaken to admit new NSG members, especially non-NPT states. Former NSG Chairman and current IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s 2016 nine-point plan for admitting non-NPT states into the NSG would have given a green light to India’s application while putting Pakistan on hold, given that New Delhi has already completed the commitments listed under the plan, such as having strict separation of civilian and military facilities, concluding an IAEA safeguards agreement and a declaration applicable on all civilian facilities, further concluding a limited Additional Protocol, and not jeopardizing future NSG membership applications (with reference to Pakistan’s bid) among others. 

Beyond the China conundrum, India’s stalled NSG membership also reflects the institutional perspective within the NSG that members still remain unsure about whether the bloc should in the future include all states that engage in nuclear trade, or only those states that engage in nuclear commerce within the NPT regime. 

India’s G-20 presidency can be an opening and should be leveraged by policymakers to restart NSG membership talks by constructing pragmatic pathways to further its bid, which may need to involve some level of bargain and cooperation with Beijing. Equally important will be the role of Brazil, which currently presides over the NSG and will assume the G-20 presidency later in 2023 from India. As South-South and BRICS partners, Brazil under Lula da Silva’s presidency will present a new opportunity for Modi’s government to start on a fresh note and convey its interests for securing membership, which may rekindle India’s bid during Brazil’s NSG presidency.