Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have got Switzerland's support for India's membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but with China bent on blocking its entry, the going will be tough for India. Much will depend on President Barak Obama, who Modi will be meeting in Washington on Tuesday. The President is already committed to India's membership, but will he be in the mood to do the heavy lifting which his predecessor George W Bush did for Manmohan Singh in 2008?
The 46-member NSG group is meeting in Vienna on 9 and 10 June. One of the issues on the agenda is to consider India's application for admission into the world's premiere body which controls nuclear trade. India applied for entry on 12 May. A week later, Pakistan also sent in its request for admission.
Thanks to Bush, the NSG had made an exemption for India in 2008. It was touch and go till the last moment. Not just China, but many other countries including Ireland, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland and Norway argued the waiver for India, reluctant to give India, a non signatory to the nuclear non proliferation treaty, the green signal. But Bush and his team, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, were personally involved in persuading the opposition. Bush himself was on the phone line with the then Chinese president Hu Jintao to persuade him not to block the move. The Chinese abstained and paved the way for the waiver. China finding itself alone in the end, raised no objections.
India is hoping now that it will persuade all the nay-sayers to come around as China usually does not want to be the lone voice of opposition in a multilateral group. Prime Minister's visit to Switzerland and Mexico is to gently persuade these two members. He has succeeded in getting the go-ahead from the Swiss.
After restricted talks with Swiss President Johann Schneider, followed by a delegation level meeting, Prime Minster Narendra Modi said in a press statement:
"I am also thankful to the President for Switzerland's understanding and support for India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group."
Prime Minister Modi will hope to use his persuasive skill also in Mexico. Noway and the Netherlands had also proved difficult the last time round, not because of any animosity towards India but because of the NPT.
President Obama, like many other democrats, is strong on non-proliferation and was not initially a supporter of the India-US nuclear deal. He has since revised his views and has been publicly saying that India needs to be part of the larger global non proliferation regime. Obama first expressed support for Indian in a November 2010 joint statement with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Since then, the NSG has discussed whether and how to revise its membership criteria with the view toward determining whether India meets the revised criteria.
The Obama team now argue that India's membership will make the non proliferation movement stronger. But even in America, where there is bipartisam support for closer ties with India, mainly as a counter to China's growing economic and military power in Asia, there are many skeptics. Democratic Senator Edward Markey from Massachusetts is one such voice. He is a member of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee.
"If India joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group it would be the only participating government that was not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," Markey had said earlier. He criticized President Obama for trying to facilitate India's entry, saying it will begin a fresh nuclear arms race between sub continental neighbours, India and Pakaistan.
"Today," the senator argued, "we are not only granting India exemptions from global nonproliferation rules, but we are actually proposing to include India in the body that decides on those rules."
He believes India's membership will further weaken the non proliferation regime, built from scratch by those against the spread of nuclear power. The argument among many sections is that India's entry will send Pakistan into a tailspin and encourage it to go ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Already Pakistan is said to be ahead of India in the race and has battlefield nuclear weapons.
China will play the NPT card to the hilt, knowing full well that many countries have problems of India joining the NSG without fulfilling this basic obligation. Ironically the NSG was established in 1975, to counter India's 1974 nuclear test.
India had been lobbying hard for entry. But China holds the key. Beijing has always been wary of India's growing co-operation with the US, and believe Washington is hoping to checkmate its influence by giving India a seat in the high table. Unlike in 2008, China may be unwilling to back off. It will push hard for Pakistan to also be included. If India pulls it off, it will be a great diplomatic victory. But chances are New Delhi may have to wait longer. Perhaps the Missile Technolgy Control Regime membership will come easier. With the two Italian marines back home, Rome is unlikely to block the move. All other countries in the group have already agreed. China is not a member of the MTCR.