In the meeting, Modi will attempt to seek China’s support for India’s application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a day ahead of its plenary meeting in Seoul. To the uninitiated, the NSG is a 48-nation club that frames and implements the rules for exporting nuclear equipment and fissile material with an aim to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
India’s desire to join the club is based on its apparent need for easier access to nuclear fuel and technology. In the past decade, civilian nuclear power has been one of the cornerstones of India’s energy policy. Over the past few weeks, New Delhi has made India’s membership of the NSG the main focus of its diplomacy.
Both Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have reached out and received the support of many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. However, the one country standing in the way is China.
Beijing has argued that potential members must ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India has not. Although its argument based on procedural reasons is valid, it is no secret that that Beijing’s actions come from its desire to support its ally, Pakistan, which has also applied for membership. But China’s desire to equate the bids of both India and Pakistan for membership to the NSG is riddled with fundamental concerns.
Pakistan is also not a signatory to the NPT. But more than that Pakistan has a poor record as a proliferator of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. In other words, Pakistan is unlikely to receive much support from other NSG members. Meanwhile, in an act of delicate diplomacy, which may not bear fruit, India has sought to avoid any confrontation with China and even implicitly insisted that it will not obstruct Pakistan’s bid to join the NSG. To avoid confrontation with China, India has gone to the extent of not mentioning the disputed South China Sea in the last Indo-US joint statement.
New Delhi also sent Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to China last week for closed-door meetings with Chinese officials, which has prompted Beijing to loosen its hard-line stance against India. Can the Indian Prime Minister seal deal ahead of the NSG plenary meet in Seoul? Meanwhile, there is also hope that China may trade-off its opposition in return for its own membership into the Missile Technology Control Regime—a voluntary association of 34 countries that controls the supply of missiles and other unmanned delivery technology.
China needs America’s help for membership. Is NSG membership critical to our nuclear energy programme? Experts contend that membership will make no real difference. India already has access to key nuclear technology, as a result of the waiver granted for the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. In a recent column, Praveen Swami, a leading analyst on international and security issues wrote about the benefits of that waiver: “India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes, and put the civilian part under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
India also changed its export laws to line up with the NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement, and Australia Group — the four key nuclear control regimes. The US agreed to shepherd Indian entry into these regimes, which meant India would for all practical purposes be treated like an NPT member, even though it wasn’t one.” In other words, under the one-time waiver, India agreed that it would follow any rules that the NSG may make in the future.
Moreover, NSG membership is also unlikely to matter much in terms of uranium supply. India has already finalised agreements with the likes of Canada and Australia, among others, for the supply of uranium. “In fact, membership of the group will not immediately open up nuclear trade as India has already pledged not to transfer nuclear know-how to other countries,” according to T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Membership of the NSG will only mean greater pressure on us to sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and commit in advance to a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would impose restrictions on existing stockpiles of fissile material.” The only possible benefit that India may hope to reap is to participate in the NSG's rule-making process. However, despite its stated aim, the group has been ineffective in countering proliferation.
China’s decision to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan faced meek opposition. Moreover, unlike India, Pakistan did not even bother to seek an exemption under the NSG. International prestige and a desire to sit at the high-table seem to have driven the Modi government’s decision to seek NSG membership. Thus, failure to convince China will not mean the end of the world for India.