On 11 November, the Nuclear Suppliers Group met in Vienna to discuss the membership of the Non-Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) countries. As the meeting took place under the shadow of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan where the historic India-Japan civil nuclear energy deal was signed, the Indian media did not report or give even reasonable coverage to the meeting. Interestingly, the run-up to the 11 November 2016 meeting of the NSG had some media coverage. The June 2016 plenary meeting of the NSG had got massive coverage.
Besides, a section of the media discussed Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s personal statement on nuclear doctrine. The NSG secretariat and the website also did not tell much about the meeting. So, as usual, very limited information on the NSG meeting is available. The release of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, gave some idea of the action in the meeting.
Earlier in a conference of the European Union Consortium on Nonproliferation and Disarmament, the Argentinian ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi, the outgoing chair of the NSG who has been appointed the facilitator by the current chair of the NSG, had this to say about the 11 November meeting.
"... what we are looking for is something which is of general application. We are not working on the basis of Country A or Country B or Country C. We are working on something that, if successful, it is a big if because it is a big issue and the problems are big. If successful, this is not something which is going to be for the benefit of Country A or for the benefit of Country B or for the benefit of Country C. It is, if I may put it like this, an attempt to address the challenge or the question put to the group by the existence of three non-NPT countries which actively aspire to become members of the NSG. This is as much as I think I could say," Grossi told the conference when a participant asked whether the 11 November meeting would complete a two-stage or two step process for deciding the membership of the non-NPT countries.
What the two-stage process meant was that in the first stage criteria or principles for the membership of the NPT would be decided and in the second stage, the individual country’s application for the membership will be decided. He told that there was nothing called ‘a two-step or stage process’ designated by the NSG, but he admitted that in practice, something like this was happening.
So, what really happened on 11 November 2016 and what were the member countries or the participant governments of the NSG expecting to happen? Grossi informed that he had undertaken the consultation process as per the desire of the present chair and participating governments of the NSG to build a consensus about new members. Of course, India is a prime candidate whether spoken openly or not. Quite significantly, the consultation process of the facilitator has demonstrated ‘a massive interest in all Participating Governments’.
That the meeting of 11 November was convened to discuss membership of non-NPT countries has been endorsed by even China which is seen opposing India’s membership on technical grounds. It issued a press release informing that on 11 November, NSG met in Vienna "to discuss ‘Technical, Legal and Political Aspects of Non-NPT States' Participation in the NSG’, in accordance with the mandate adopted by the Seoul Plenary in June this year." The release noted that China along with several countries had submitted papers regarding the membership of the Non-NPT countries. It stated that China’s participation was constructive and ‘contributed its substantive inputs’.
The Chinese government also observed that for the first time in the history of the NSG (ever since it had been formed in 1975), the issue of the membership of the non-NPT countries had been taken up ‘in an open and transparent manner.’ It is not clear what China wants to convey. If it indicates openness and transparency regarding proceedings of the NSG meet, it may be debatable. If it means that for the first time the matter of non-NPT countries was taken, it is a distortion of the NSG history.
It is an open secret that the NSG was formed to bring a non-NPT country like France into a control framework. This fact can be endorsed not only by diplomats who had participated in the process of the formation of the NSG but also by available archival materials. Leave alone a number of articles in journals and newspapers and several books on the subject. In fact, available archival materials in the US and Canadian libraries also inform that a non-NPT country like India, which had conducted Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974, was also considered for the NSG membership in the very beginning.
The outcome of the 11 November NSG meeting, if the Chinese press release is to be believed, remained inconclusive. For China, the convening of this meeting was necessary for taking the first step of the two-step process. The release further notes that “China supports the continuation of this open and transparent inter-governmental process, in accordance with relevant rules of the Group, and to ensure a solid first step taken towards an early formula on the above issue, so that the Group can proceed to the second step of taking up country specific membership application by non-NPT states at an early date." The statement implies that even the first step of formulating principles is to be completed before considering any individual application.
The most intriguing part of the release reflecting the Chinese thinking is “any formula worked out should be non-discriminatory and applicable to all non-NPT states; without prejudice to the core value of the NSG and the effectiveness, authority and integrity of the international non-proliferation regime with the NPT as its cornerstone; and without contradicting the customary international law in the field of non-proliferation."
It is a common knowledge that China is playing the Pakistani card to block India’s entry into the Group. Jane’s Group and the King’s College London published a report highlighting the dubious proliferation track record of Pakistan. Several reports on the Pakistani proliferation network are already in the public domain. The entire world knows what Pakistan is doing with non-proliferation norm and practices. In fact, about a year ago, an American Congress Committee discussed the idea of a 2008 India type waiver to Pakistan, and overwhelmingly, the committee rejected the idea. China knows it fully well that Pakistan needs more than the two-stage process for the NSG membership.
What is going to happen next? India is going to get the membership soon. The signal emitting from other member countries suggest that China is being forced to decide. Apparently, in the 11 November meeting, the leading countries of the NSG conveyed China the cost of resisting India’s membership. Before conveying this, seemingly, some of the countries, which in principle support India’s membership but had participated in the discussion led by China in the Seoul Plenary for evolving criteria for non-NPT members, were asked to join the consensus. Now it appears that there is a solid block minus China supporting India’s membership for the NSG. The idea was to isolate China completely.
The reading between the lines of the Chinese press release tips off that even China has started reconciling about membership of the NSG to a non-NPT country like India. It may take an extra meeting or two of the NSG to finalise India’s membership. India should continue its bilateral discussions with China and communicate that a cooperative, not confronting approach with India is the need of the hour for global and Asian governance.