'Wuhan spirit' fails to break NSG deadlock as China continues to play hardball over India's entry into elite club

China once again ensured that there was no discussion on India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), arguing that the issue can be discussed only after a consensus evolves over the entry of all countries who have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NSG plenary concluded recently in Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, in Kazakhstan.

 Wuhan spirit fails to break NSG deadlock as China continues to play hardball over Indias entry into elite club

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese president at Bishkek. Twitter/@narendramodi

The NSG is the most important global multilateral governance body to regulate the export of nuclear materials and technologies, including dual-use items. India is not a signatory to the NPT by choice, but it remains outside the NSG due to global non-proliferation norms as well as geopolitical manoeuvrings. The NSG functions as an informal group that has certain guidelines. If India is admitted into the NSG fold, it will mark a formal acknowledgement of India’s nuclear status while also enabling India to play a more active role in the global nuclear trade.

India has tested nuclear weapons twice and incorporated them into the strategic defence posture of the country. The creation of the NSG was in direct response to India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in Pokhran in 1974, using materials supplied to India by America and Canada. After the nuclear tests, both countries decided to discontinue nuclear cooperation with India and joined other nuclear-supplier states to prevent further assistance to India’s nuclear energy programme.

Since its beginning in 1975, the membership of the NSG has expanded from just seven to 48 countries, with the European Union and the Zangger Committee as observers. Initially known as the ‘The London Club’ due to its regular meetings in London, the group was later officially named as the ‘Nuclear Suppliers Group’.

On the other hand, the NPT is almost a universal treaty with 190 adherents. New Delhi refuses to sign the NPT because of its discriminatory nature; one of India’s major objections to the NPT is the arbitrary decision to freeze 1 January 1967 as the cut-off date for a state to be a legitimate nuclear-weapon state. By conducting nuclear tests in May 1998, India challenged the global nuclear order and proclaiming itself a de-facto nuclear weapon state.

India’s relationship with many multilateral nuclear export control regimes, including the NSG, has seen a remarkable change in recent years. One of the drivers for this change has been the deepening relationship between India and the US, resulting in the relaxations of America’s domestic export control regulations. Beginning in last days of the Bill Clinton administration, through the George W Bush administration, the US made a decisive push to de-hyphenate its relations with India and Pakistan, giving momentum to Washington’s efforts at broadening and deepening the scope of its bilateral engagement with New Delhi.

The ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ (NSSP) in January 2004 paved the way for the historic joint statement by president George W Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005 for initiation of dialogue for an Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. India’s formal admission into the NSG was part of this Indo-US package deal. In September 2008, president Bush successfully persuaded upon the NSG members to accord India an exceptional status.

As the NSG operates by consensus, and any member could have blocked the India-specific waiver by voting against it. However, the US stood solidly behind India. As a result of the NSG exempting India from its full-scope safeguards condition, India became the first country to be permitted to have nuclear trade with the NSG members while also retaining its nuclear weapons programme. The Bush administration had publicly declared at the time that the major aim of Indo-US nuclear agreement was to help India become a great power and assist India to fulfil its energy needs. Besides hoping to strengthen India’s strategic-military power to counter China’s regional hegemony, America’s flexible stance towards India was also aimed at opening the Indian nuclear energy market for the US companies.

Continuing the American policies of bringing India into the global nuclear order, the previous US president Barack Obama was also supportive of India’s entry into the NSG. During his January 2015 visit to New Delhi, Obama clearly stated that since India meets the NSG requirements, the US would support India’s early application for membership. India formally applied for the NSG membership in May 2016. But immediately after this, Pakistan also made a similar application with strong Chinese support. Since then, New Delhi has been lobbying hard with the NSG members to support its application, but there has been no consensus on the issue. Though Russia, France, Australia, Britain and many other NSG members have already extended their unequivocal support to India’s bid, China is one of the few NSG countries to thwart India’s entry to the nuclear export control regime, arguing that New Delhi has not signed the NPT.

At the June 2017 annual plenary meeting in Bern, Beijing opposed India’s membership, insisting that the NSG membership for non-NPT members should be on the basis of a criteria-based approach, not case by case. China argues that if the ‘NPT signatory’ criterion is diluted to admit India into the NSG, it should also be applied for other non-NPT countries, including Pakistan. Hence, the primary reason for New Delhi’s rejection of so-called criteria-based approach or any other non-India specific process stems from the fact that it would only lead to backdoor entry for Pakistan into the NSG. Moreover, India also cannot agree to any other terms that exceed the voluntary commitments communicated by New Delhi to the NSG during the 2008 waiver.

China also refuses to give a timeline for consensus to emerge among the NSG. Responding to India’s quest to join the NSG, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, has said that “I would like to emphasise that seeking to join a multilateral institution requires consensus and indeed must be fully negotiated. No one can predict that it will be decided tomorrow, next year or at any time. Relevant issues need to be based on non-discrimination and full discussion before seeking consensus.” Nothing, however, could be more ironic than Kang’s assertion that Chinese “goal is to uphold non-proliferation and the NPT which is the cornerstone of the international arms control system.” It needs no elaboration that when the NPT had come into being, China had adopted an entirely dismissive attitude towards it. Only in 1992, China decided to come on board.

It has been a documented fact that China was a supplier of weapons of mass destruction and allowed both North Korea and Pakistan to stealthily acquire missile and nuclear weapon technology. It was China’s perfidious assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme that sowed the seeds of nuclear tension in the South Asian region. Under this nuclear umbrella, Pakistan’s security establishment continues to export terrorism against India through various violent non-state actors. Noted strategic thinker, C Uday Bhaskar, rightly terms this Pakistani strategy as NWET – nuclear weapon enabled terror – with tacit Chinese support.

On the other hand, India’s nuclear non-proliferation record is impressive and duly acknowledged by the international community. Since it is not in China’s interest for this inconvenient facts to be highlighted that it is the nuclear proliferation coach of North Korea and Pakistan, Beijing claims to be acting as protector of global non-proliferation norms; a height of hypocrisy.

New Delhi’s desire to participate in the non-proliferation rulemaking in the NSG is perfectly logical and justified since India possesses nuclear weapons and has well-established civilian nuclear industry. If accommodating India in the global nuclear order is a part of the US strategy to balance China, Beijing seeks to frustrate India’s rise in the emerging international order. In 2008, China could not gather sufficient courage to oppose American push for the NSG waiver for India, Beijing now feels emboldened to take a more adversarial position against India as it has acquired significant power and influence.

India’s entry into the NSG has become a major bone of contention between India and China. It was wishful thinking on India’s part if it had hoped that China would change its position this time – given the projected bonhomie between Modi and Xi. However, despite the so-called ‘Wuhan spirit’ permeating India’s current engagement with China, Beijing is not likely to change its approach towards India’s NSG application. The Modi government will have to invest significant diplomatic energy to win the required consensus for NSG membership. It remains to be seen whether Modi will raise this issue with Xi for their second ‘informal summit’ in October in Varanasi.


Updated Date: Jun 24, 2019 14:22:03 IST