Opinion News
October 14,2016

Balancing non-proliferation and commercial interest

Saima Aman Sial

India’s bid for membership in the NSG didn’t get accepted in the June Plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Though the US had earlier arm-twisted states into giving India a waiver from the NSG for nuclear fuel supply agreements, this time the US had limited leverage. This was especially in the case of states like Switzerland, Austria and China among others, which didn’t wish to relent on non-proliferation principles as determining the future expansion of membership.

The current criteria for NSG states membership entail prospective aspirants to either be a party to the NPT, or be a member of the NWFZ, have comprehensive IAEA safeguards, and have good non-proliferation standing – apart from having the capacity to export nuclear items.

Interestingly enough, Pakistan and India simultaneously applied for membership in the group. Both South Asian nuclear weapon powers aren’t party to the NPT and seek to gain membership in the group. The non-proliferation lobby in the US has been very explicit about membership in the group being made contingent on strong non-proliferation commitments from prospective entrants. Other concerns have included a criticism of the country-specific treatment of the issue and propagation of a criteria-based approach that serves as a win-win for the suppliers from the commercial perspective alongside serving the normative stance of nuclear non-proliferation.

To put things in perspective, the NSG – being an export control arrangement – had significant commercial interest in giving India a clean waiver for nuclear trade back in 2008. The waiver was expedited by the US, mainly based on commercial and geo-political interests. But now the situation is fairly different. Most of the countries that had at that time succumbed to US pressure to grant India the waiver, regret the lack of Indian interest in following up on the commitments originally undertaken.

It is widely known that India failed to fulfil its commitments on signing the CTBT, pursuing a moratorium on fissile materials, modernising its arsenal circumventing any semblance of a good nonproliferation record. This argument is also substantiated by the Belfer Centre report, ‘The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Programs’, which specifically mentions that neither is India exercising any restraint on its nuclear weapons program nor has it undertaken any substantive obligation in relation to its additional protocol (AP). The lax rules in the AP allow India to “remove weapons-grade plutonium from safeguards and use it nuclear weapons, provided it places an equal amount of reactor-grade plutonium under safeguards.”

This is why many states want that any prospects of new membership in the NSG be made contingent on a criterion that serves the non-proliferation credentials of the group and helps evade the negativity amongst various non-nuclear weapon states regarding membership evolution.

If the membership of supplier cartels for nuclear energy is set forth on a stringent criteria for all prospective outliers, essentially states that are non-parties to the NPT, then the new criteria will raise/set the bar for non-proliferation compliance to a level that all aspiring states, that are not party to the NPT, will have to fulfil to be eligible for nuclear commerce.

This would assuredly be a criteria-based approach. Moreover, any criteria for membership made for a specific state in mind would not be criteria, but country-specific conditions for membership eligibility. Thus if non-proliferation is a priority for states like the US and other suppliers of the NSG, they should set forth a criteria for membership for aspiring non-NPT nuclear weapon states. Such an approach would lead states like India and Pakistan to adjust their postures and policies accordingly to be eligible for nuclear commerce.

If seen from an independent perspective, Pakistan’s non-proliferation credentials are far better than India’s. Recent analysis originating in Washington, like the Nuclear Materials Security Index, outlines how Pakistan far surpasses India on issues like nuclear security. It states that Pakistan has substantially strengthened its nuclear security over the past two decades while changes in organisations governing nuclear security, training, equipment and approaches to screening personnel, requirements for nuclear material accounting and control, approaches to strengthening security culture as well as substantial changes in every other aspect of nuclear security have added to an overall improved nuclear security.

Pakistan also scored higher than India due to the existence of an independent regulatory agency, measures like invitation of peer review of its nuclear security arrangements and security and additional vetting and scrutiny of personnel with access to nuclear materials.

This should make Pakistan’s case stronger than any other non-NPT nuclear weapons states, if approached on the basis of objective criteria. However, the point that needs to be highlighted here is that if the current drive for acceptance in the NSG is governed solely on commercialism it would trump non-proliferation considerations.

The implications of this approach are dire. Not only would this lead to a failure of future multilateralism in NPT Review Conferences it would also promote exceptionalism as a trend in the international non-proliferation regime. Outliers might be compelled to circumvent the system, creating a challenge for the non-proliferation regime.

Therefore, preserving or reinforcing the wrong precedent (set in 2008 by the NSG waiver for India), by advocating country-specific membership for India in the NSG, could be a key point in making or breaking NSG credibility as well as permanently damaging the already distressed non-proliferation regime.

The writer is a former Nuclear Nonproliferation Fellow MontereyCalifornia, USA and fellow Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Centre (NEREC), South Korea.

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