India’s Bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group

India’s Bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group

Becoming a member of the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) would be a major achievement for the Narendra Modi government as it heads into general elections in 2019. While most of  48 members have endorsed the Indian bid, China continues to veto India’s ability to join the Group by stating it is not an Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory. This article examines the importance of NSG for India and its case for membership.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group is an elite club of forty-eight countries that deal with fissile materials and nuclear technology commerce by controlling exports that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. It was formed in the aftermath of the 1974 Indian atomic tests in order to avert nuclear proliferation and consists of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and 43 other signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Decisions, including on membership, are made by consensus and current guidelines state a non-NPT nation cannot become a member. This is the barrier to India’s entry — China has repeatedly vetoed Indian presence by insisting it is not an NPT signatory.

New Delhi argues the geopolitical and security risks of signing the NPT outweigh those of not signing it. Firstly, India views it as a discriminatory framework since nuclear weapons states are defined as those that tested devices before 1967, while India conducted its first test in 1974. The treaty does not call for pre-1967 nuclear states to give up their weapons but compels newer states to not possess them. Nor does the NPT offer a clear timeline for disarmament. This insinuates that security threats faced by nations with more recent nuclear programs are not legitimate or as important. Beyond these inequitable grounds, signing the treaty would require India to abandon its entire military nuclear arsenal, which is impossible given the instability and unpredictability of the South Asian region. Neighbouring nuclear Pakistan is also not an NPT signatory but has a strong ally in China.

Beijing’s overt opposition to India is why PM Modi has made a public push for NSG membership. Establishing India’s credibility as a stable and transparent nuclear-power to gain the confidence of NSG members is a core tenet of recent foreign policy. The government has spent constant diplomatic capital on trying to convince member nations about its non-political and energy driven agenda to join the Group. Gaining membership before the 2019 general elections would be a boost for the current BJP-led government.

Importance of NSG to India

Since the inception of the Indian nuclear program, the country has relied solely on indigenous technologies to create weapons, power, etc. With growing security and energy demands, along with a move towards ‘Make in India’, it has become imperative to adopt newer technologies the NSG possesses.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) committed to reducing dependence on fossil fuels and ensuring that 40% of energy was sourced from renewable sources. Currently, India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and relies heavily on coal-fired power plants. Pollution is a major health and safety risk faced by the country. The most likely and viable source of achieving cleaner and higher energy generation is through nuclear power production. However, current reactors in India do not work at optimal potential given a lack of resources such as uranium. An NSG entry would increase the amount of fissile material India can access and increase its nuclear power production.

This membership would also offer India an opportunity to initiate talks about plutonium trade for its thorium program — often referred to as India’s pride — that has been waiting in the wings. This early adoption of thorium technology would not only provide huge domestic benefits of energy independence and security but can also benefit other members from buying it from India. After Russia, India has the largest and most advanced thorium program based on fast breeder reactors – these generate more fuel than they consume, providing a sustainable source of energy. The United States, France, and Japan have all abandoned their fast breeder reactors because of technical difficulties. Thus, India possesses an unique opportunity to become a world leader in providing thorium powered energy.

With latest technologies, India would be able to build more advanced versions of its fast breeder reactors and even supply them to states without nuclear programs. An entire industry would be able to spawn within the country with the commercialisation of nuclear power and equipment. This would boost economic growth and development through the ‘Make in India’ initiative and also offer strategic benefits. Members of the NSG as a whole would benefit from India’s potential to engage in nuclear commerce in the future rather than isolating it. French, Russian, and American nuclear energy firms that invest in the country will also gain from this increase in high-tech manufacturing at competitive prices.

The case for India’s entry

In 2008, India signed a civil nuclear deal with the United States which committed India to a separation between its civilian and military nuclear programs. Since then, successive Presidents — Bush, Obama, and Trump — have voiced their support for this deal. 2008 also saw a clean waiver from the NSG to India which meant the country had a legal right under the global nuclear regulatory regime to trade for civilian nuclear fuel and technology. This was based on the country’s outstanding track record of adhering to all NSG rules despite being a non-member. It also led to a flurry of nuclear cooperation agreements India signed with Russia, France, the United States, among others.

However, Beijing is unlikely to be able to continue countering India’s application in the long run for numerous reasons. This is because India is now also a member of three of the four export control mechanisms that deal with weapons of mass destruction and other strategic equipment. It signed the Missile Technology Control Regime in June 2016, the Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017, and the Australia Group in January 2018. After accession to the Australia Group, other members announced, “With its admission into the AG, India has demonstrated the will to implement rigorous controls of high standards in international trade, and its capacity to adapt its national regulatory system to meet the necessities of its expanding economy.” India is using these means to compensate for not signing the NPT and convince the NSG, especially China, to assess its membership on a merit-based system instead of criteria-based. Since China’s primary opposition rests on the non-NPT clause, New Delhi has signed these commitments highlighting its adherence to the international nuclear regime. This also allows key Indian allies such as the United States, France, and Russia to strongly promote its membership case with Beijing.

Ironically, after leading the opposition to New Delhi’s nuclear program since the 1970’s, the United States has been advocating for India’s NSG membership for the past decade. It is likely that President Trump will make India’s bid a cornerstone of his foreign policy. On 3rd August 2018, US gave India a Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) allowing high-technology product sales in civil space and defence to New Delhi. STA-1 status is specifically reserved for signatories of the four above-mentioned export control regimes and has not even been extended to close US ally Israel. This now makes India the only nuclear nation to possess it and signals New Delhi’s entry into the inner circle of America’s closest partners. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated, “it finally reflects India’s status as a major defence partner of the US”. Experts consider this a strong message to China over American willingness to push for India in the NSG.

Furthermore, China’s opposition to India becomes untenable because it supports Pakistan’s case for joining the NSG without being an NPT signatory. Islamabad has also been sanctioned for its tainted non-proliferation record since nuclear scientist A.Q Khan sold indigenous nuclear technologies to countries such as North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Seven Pakistani firms were also sanctioned by the US in 2018 for illegally conducting nuclear trade and posing a threat to American national security. There is no basis for comparison between India and Pakistan on NPT compliance, therefore, China’s stance of supporting Pakistan’s bid and not India’s is a double-standard it cannot support in the long run.

Most importantly, China has been compelled to rebuild strained ties with many countries, such as Japan, Russia, and India. A mounting trade war with America and President Trump’s unpredictability in negotiations has led China to smooth regional relations and increase cooperation. It is unlikely that Beijing will also risk regional isolation by indefinitely blocking India’s NSG bid while it is wading economic uncertainties with the United States.

Will China relent?

The June 2018 round of the NSG meetings did not offer any headway for India’s entry as the discussions were centered around the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. There is nonetheless a general mood of optimism and cooperation with a marked improvement in military relations. Chinese media states, “Friendly relations and win-win cooperation have become the mainstream of the relations between the two countries and their militaries.” China will likely relent during the December session of the NSG, and start considering Indian membership. This will remain contingent on good relations between the leaders of both countries and the strong confidence building measures undertaken are also a hopeful indicator. Due to severe uncertainties with the United States under President Trump, Beijing is looking to deepen ties with India and Japan. Given these circumstances, if China agrees to support India, it would have a long-standing positive impact on Sino-Indian relations, and for wider Asian power dynamics too. In an era that is pitched as the Asian Century, this will be an important decision to establish and strengthen cooperation.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Malvika Singh

Malvika is an analyst specialising in the political economy of developing countries. She has previously worked at NITI Aayog, the official think-tank of the Indian Government, and as a campaign assistant to Members of Parliament during national elections. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics with a specialisation in Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a BA Honours in Politics from the University of Nottingham.