After the first Indian nuclear test on May 18, 1974, the US, Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, the UK, France and the Soviet Union joined hands to coordinate their nuclear export controls. All these seven nuclear supplier countries were totally convinced of the fact that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was not doing enough to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The plutonium used in India’s nuclear test was diverted from the ‘safeguarded’ CANDU reactors supplied by Canada. The group of seven countries met for the first time in 1975 in London, and is thus popularly referred to as the ‘London Group’. In 1977, membership was expanded to 15 states and, after the 9/11 attacks, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) emerged as the world’s leading multilateral nuclear export control body that governs international trade of nuclear-related materials and technology.
The NSG’s original aim was to supplement the NPT, which permits peaceful use of nuclear energy but also prevents nuclear technology from being used for military purposes. Yet, in the light of major developments, particularly the increasing nuclear proliferation outside multilateral controls, the NSG faces a host of challenges ranging from big question marks on its credibility to a growing debate about engaging nuclear states outside the NSG framework. In the course of globalisation, the world’s nuclear industry is rapidly evolving into a system of complex proliferation transactions involving independent financiers and traders whose shady dealings are totally disconnected from the world of nuclear trade controls.
India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries that are non-signatories to the NPT, have expressed interest in joining the NSG. However, it is not easy to decide about accepting Delhi and Islamabad into the NSG. The question of expanding membership will have to be decided from the perspective of the NSG remaining fundamentally committed to the goals of the NPT or developing into a group of states that is capable of engaging in nuclear exports. Many countries have frequently complained that the NSG constitutes a cartel of nuclear technology owners. Pakistan also demands a civilian nuclear deal similar to the India-US accord that allows India access to nuclear technology despite being a non-signatory to the NPT. However, there is not considerable diplomatic support in favour of Pakistan’s request due to our poor non-proliferation track record. While conducting my research on nuclear terrorism at a US-based institute, I raised this issue with many US nuclear experts about whether the US should extend cooperation to Pakistan in civilian nuclear technology. The experts opined that, in addition to proliferation threats, Pakistan, due to its poor economic situation, might not be able to buy sensitive nuclear technology even if the US agrees to any such kind of deal.
Approval of a country’s bid for the NSG membership hinges on several factors and admission must be consented to by all NSG members. The criteria include adherence to the NPT or a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty, thus strictly barring a non-NPT nuclear weapon state, the capability to supply the goods listed in the NSG guidelines and the ability to ensure implementation of nuclear export control regimes in compliance with NSG rules.
New Delhi strives hard to gather broad international support before formally applying for entry into the group. Some member states, including the US and France, have promised to back India’s membership of the NSG, as well as other multilateral export control regimes like the Australian Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement. From the NSG’s point of view, the advantages of Indian membership would be the integration of an important potential exporter into its regime and that many other countries may also profit from India’s nuclear market. The watershed event in this process occurred in 2008, when the NSG issued an India-specific waiver allowing it to engage in nuclear trade. Later, India signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, South Korea and many other countries. By securing full membership in the NSG, India would have its voice heard in determining new export guidelines.
From a nonproliferation perspective, India’s NSG participation seriously threatens the credibility of the NSG, particularly given the irony of adding a member whose action was the very impetus for the body’s creation. However, India’s acceptance would make it the first non-NPT country in the NSG and encourage Pakistan to seek membership, emboldened by China’s support. Acceptance of India as a member would permanently preclude later admission of Pakistan, as Delhi is most likely to vote against Islamabad’s entry. NSG membership for India would increase resentment among those non-nuclear NPT states that regard the NSG as an illegitimate instrument of industrialized countries, which aim to refuse less developed countries access to economically significant technologies. India is thus far unwilling to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); it is more likely that India would try to relax existing guidelines and thus be an obstacle to addressing future proliferation threats. This will also be a dangerous precedent with serious ramifications for international efforts to roll back Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
At the moment, it is certainly difficult to predict the outcome of the debate over expansion of the NSG membership but if a decision is taken in favour of expansion, admission to the group should be based on some consistent criteria. Creating an exception only for India has the potential to render the NSG irrelevant, to the detriment of nonproliferation norms. How the NSG resolves this issue will inevitably shape its future role in the future nonproliferation agenda.
Perceptions matter and who better than Oscar Wilde to put perceptions into perspective: “We ...