The issue of the membership of non-NPT signatory states in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group has been hanging fire since the last annual plenary of the cartel in Seoul in June this year. Since both India and Pakistan had applied for membership earlier in May, the plenary reportedly considered the matter but reached no conclusion as some members demanded that the group adhere to the requirement of its ‘procedural arrangements’ which stipulates signature and ratification of the NPT as a ‘factor for participation’. This ruled out the entry of both India and Pakistan into the NSG.
A debate then ensued over the criteria that non-NPT states should meet to establish some kind of NPT equivalence to be able to enter. NSG membership, which works by consensus, was divided in three broad groups. One group held that no non-NPT state should be admitted unless it accedes to the treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS). This group consisted of China, Switzerland, Austria as well as Turkey, Finland and Ireland.
On the other extreme were the supporters of India’s membership, principally the US, France, UK, Russia, and a number of other members, which held that the commitments undertaken by India under the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2008, its subsequent agreements with the IAEA on Safeguards and the Additional Protocol qualified it for membership.
The third group of members had equivocal positions. Eventually the NSG joint statement, issued after the inconclusive plenary, recorded a bland account of the session, stating: “The NSG had discussions on the issue of …participation of non-NPT states in the NSG, and decided to continue its discussions”.
Meanwhile, given the support for India’s membership by the US and other influential members of the group, the matter was not left to rest. These countries persuaded the chairman of the NSG to appoint Argentine ambassador and former NSG chairman, Rafael Grossi as ‘Facilitator of the chairperson to have informal consultations with the Participating Governments (PGs) in the group’, with a view to developing consensus regarding India’s membership bid.
According to a June 26 report in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, “The decision indicates that despite opposition from China and other countries on the issue of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that India has refused to sign, and the desire of several NSG countries to look for non-discriminatory membership process that includes all non-NPT states, India’s application was acknowledged to have some merit of its own”.
Ambassador Grossi was mandated to assist the new chairman of the NSG, who was going to be from Switzerland, in holding consultations with the membership at large. Ironically, the position of Switzerland in the NSG is known to be in favour of applying the NPT criteria strictly.
In a subsequent development, the Chinese government embarked upon its own consultative process, and with both India and Pakistan, to ascertain their respective positions. Ambassador Wang Qun, director general of Arms Control in the Chinese foreign ministry visited India and Pakistan for informal consultations in the matter. A Chinese foreign ministry press release issued at the end of Wang’s India visit made two points: (a) China wishes to see the ‘early commencement of an open and transparent inter-governmental process to undertake … a comprehensive and thorough study on the question of the non-NPT states’ participation in the NSG…’, and (b) ‘China supports the notion of a two-step approach … to address the above question, ie the first step, to explore and reach agreement on a non-discriminatory formula applicable to all the non-NPT states, and to proceed to take up country specific membership issues at the second stage’. China also expressed its readiness to ‘actively participate’ in the process within the group.
The Chinese initiative for an inter-governmental consultative process seems to bypass the Grossi process of informal consultations on behalf of the NSG Chairman, as it does not amount to an inter-governmental exercise. Thus, even if Ambassador Grossi were to reach some conclusion and report it to the chairman, which is still unlikely, the latter cannot act on it until the Chinese proposal has been considered and appropriate action taken.
This means that the US administration’s avowed intention to have India admitted to the NSG by October – before President Obama relinquishes office – will not materialise since the chairman cannot call a special session to induct India until the Chinese proposed consultative process is undertaken and consensus on membership criteria for non-NPT member states is reached. In all likelihood, this matter may well drag on till the next annual plenary in June 2017 or even beyond. No one knows what would happen in the November US elections.
But it is likely that US keenness to make India a member of the NSG may flag, especially because the NSG waiver given to India has brought no substantial benefits to the US nuclear industry, which is reportedly in terminal decline. In fact there have been some voices raised to call upon the NSG to revoke the waiver given to India on technical grounds of non-fulfilment of its commitments made in 2008.
This hiatus in the consideration of the question of entry of non-NPT states into the NSG may well work to Pakistan’s advantage. Our credentials for entry can be effectively publicised and fully articulated with NSG states. Our commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, starting from Pakistan’s call for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South Asia (NWFZ) during the years after the Indian tests in 1974 and till we went nuclear ourselves, our adherence to international instruments on non-proliferation and disarmament, nuclear safety and security and participation in voluntary arrangements are all evidence of our positive role in regard to non-proliferation. Moreover we have a dire need of access to state-of-the art nuclear technology in peaceful areas of nuclear development, especially power generation, given our severe energy shortage.
Thanks to the Chinese, we have some power reactors for energy production. When I think of Chinese help in this regard, I am reminded of a cold night in the winter of 2004, when the then Chinese ambassador in Vienna, Ambassador Wang Yan, invited me to a one-to-one dinner at his house, and informed me that China had just joined the NSG, but he wanted to assure me, on behalf of his government, that China intended to abide by its commitments for nuclear cooperation made to Pakistan in a 2003 bilateral agreement, under the ‘grandfather’ clause. China remains steadfast in its commitment to this day. Meanwhile the NSG membership issue continues to hang fire.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for International Strategic Studies.