Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully convinces the global community during his foreign visits that India should be allowed into the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), given the country’s impeccable nonproliferation record and nuclear know how, China is doing its best to deny India the exalted status.
India applied for NSG membership on 12 May, 2016, and the fate of the application will be known when the extraordinary plenary meeting of the NSG is held on 9 and 10 June. The United States, Russia and other major powers support India’s contention. Switzerland, which was against the Indian bid, has now agreed to support – a major diplomatic victory that Modi scored in Geneva on 5 June.
The NSG comprised 48 nuclear supplier states that have voluntarily agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. It aims at averting nuclear exports for commercial and peaceful purposes from being used to make nuclear weapons. Its members are expected to forgo nuclear trade with governments that do not subject themselves to international measures and inspections designed to provide confidence that their nuclear imports are not used to develop nuclear arms.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Ambassador Rafael M Grossi, chairman of the NSG, during his visit to Delhi. Underscoring the importance of the NSG, he told me that global demand for clean nuclear energy is growing, notwithstanding what the critics may say (China has or proposes to have 30 Nuclear Power Plants (NPP). India wants to have eight or 10 of them. Bangladesh is building one. NPPs are under construction in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and East Europe. And here, one is not talking of the already well established NPPs in the developed world). Hence, there is going to be more and more nuclear trade – fuel, machineries and technologies. And here comes the importance of non-proliferation and transparency. The NSG tries to ensure transparency in nuclear trade. The NSG guidelines require that importing states provide assurances to NSG members that proposed deals will not contribute to the creation of nuclear weapons. Potential recipients are also expected to have physical security measures in place to prevent theft or unauthorised use of their imports and to promise that nuclear materials and information will not be transferred to a third party without the explicit permission of the original exporter.
In addition, final destinations for any transfer must have International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in place. The IAEA is charged with verifying that non-nuclear-weapon states are not illicitly pursuing nuclear weapons. IAEA safeguards are to prevent nuclear material or technology from being stolen or misappropriated for weapons include inspections, remote monitoring, seals, and other measures.
The guidelines comprised two parts, each of which was created in response to a significant proliferation event that highlighted shortcomings in the then-existing export control systems. Part I lists materials and technology designed specifically for nuclear use. These include fissile materials, nuclear reactors and equipment, and reprocessing and enrichment equipment. Part II identifies dual-use goods, which are non-nuclear items with legitimate civilian applications that can also be used to develop weapons. Machine tools and lasers are two types of dual-use goods.
In sum, Grossi told me, “The mandate of the NSG is to produce, export, import nuclear material and equipment; exchange information on export and import policies; prevent misuse or abuse of legitimate trade of nuclear goods for hostile use and offer technological expertise to countries seeking its assistance.”
Once a country is admitted as a member of the NSG, what benefits do accrue to it? Does it make access to technology, equipment and material easier? Does each transfer have to be approved by the NSG? Grossi’s answers were, “In today’s world, no country operates in isolation. Nuclear industry is a big industry and you must have international cooperation as well as the needed mechanisms. Here, the membership of the NSG helps in providing comforts both to the nuclear supplier and recipient. Once admitted, a NSG member (1) gets timely information on nuclear matters, (2) contributes by way of information, (3) has confirmed credentials, (4) can act as an instrument of harmonisation and coordination , and (5) is part of a very transparent process with regard to the material, equipment and technology. These advantages cannot be quantified, but these generate a very positive atmosphere.”
However, the NSG chairman made it clear that not each transfer of information related to the nuclear field has to be approved by the NSG. “The NSG is not a supra-national authority. It is only a mechanism for exchange of information; it provides a forum for consultation," he said.
Importantly, Grossi was evasive on India’s prospects for joining the NSG. “India’s membership quest is a work in process. India is important. No member in NSG is against India. India is far more advanced in nuclear energy than many NSG members. You just cannot ignore India. India is a key nuclear power that has focused on developing its nuclear energy for use in the agriculture sector, in the field of medicine, in the development of its nuclear plants. It has an excellent reputation, an indisputable role, which will be much more in the future. The globalisation of India's nuclear programme is something to be welcomed.
“But then, ultimately, it (decision on India’s membership) is going to be a political decision. The NSG functions on the premise of compatibility and consensus through established guidelines. If I were to talk about how India could contribute to strengthening the NSG, I would say, in a very general statement, that all countries active in the nuclear field have something to contribute. Nobody denies this fact. The important thing is to fine tune the process; where consensus can be achieved, to do it in a fair, concise and transparent manner.”
However, Grossi was hopeful that there would be a consensus on India. And he had a point when he said, “My role as the chairman of the NSG is to facilitate the process of consensus on India’s membership. As it is, without being a member of the NSG and without being a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), India has already got some concessions from the IAEA in 2008 on nuclear trade. So in India’s case, we are no longer very orthodox and legalistic. My responsibility, therefore, is to tell everybody where we can meet half-way. I am playing the role of an honest broker on the question of India’s membership. In fact, my experience in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) tells me that we can find a consensus on India. If in CWC India, Pakistan and China could agree, it is not impossible to see India joining the NSG.”
I will like to emphasise the particular sentence of the NSG chairman – “So in India’s case, we are no longer very orthodox and legalistic.” But this is precisely what China is being, when it talks of blocking India on the grounds that it is not a member of the NPT. Even legalistically, China does not make any sense when it says that membership of the NPT is a prerequisite for NSG membership. When the NSG was set up in 1974, France, then a non-signatory to the NPT, became a member. Japan had not ratified the NPT when it became a member of the NSG. Neither had Argentina and Brazil.
The truth is that the Chinese objection to India’s membership in NSG is essentially political. Despite all its talks on the desirability of a multipolar world, China will never tolerate India emerging as one of these poles. In Beijing’s multipolar world, there is only one Asian pole, and that is China. For China, India is part of the "strategic periphery" which China has historically sought to weaken, control, or diplomatically manipulate. Pakistan is a pawn in this Chinese diplomatic game. There are, thus, obvious limitations to the “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers)” idea. And they constitute the biggest challenge to Modi in the realms of foreign policy.