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June 28, 2016

The NSG’s ‘goose and gander’ dilemma


June 28, 2016

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Marco Polo diplomacy and Washington’s full-throttle support all around, India’s application for membership in the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has hit a dead end at the NSG’s latest annual plenary meeting in Seoul.

While not on the group’s agenda, some of India’s overenthusiastic proxies opted to raise the questionable question for a ‘decision’ at this meeting. The decision has come indeed – in the form of a ‘no’. It has, thus, closed the door on India’s NSG membership at least for now if not indefinitely.

In a statement at the end of the plenary session, the participating governments “reiterated their firm support for the full, complete and effective implementation of the NPT as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.” The issue remains deadlocked with at least ten countries including China urging a criteria-based approach rather than selective country-specific decisions on the admission of non-NPT states into the group. This is a big setback for New Delhi, which had been making frantic efforts for a decision at this meeting to clinch a berth in the NSG before Obama leaves office.

In the words of a former senior Indian diplomat who writes regularly on India’s ill-conceived approaches regionally as well as globally, “the (Indian) government has only itself to blame for living in a fool’s paradise....Of course, we can ask why, then, President Barack Obama put this strange thought of India’s NSG membership (as also a permanent seat in the UNSC) into the Indian head in the first instance in 2010?” According to him, India’s policymakers suffer from a “unipolar predicament” that inhibits them from seeing the lay of the “diplomatic arena” and making rational judgement. If they had any sense of history, they would have never followed a “US-centric foreign policy predicated on the funny notion that Washington is committed to make India a great power.”

If the people in India, especially their media did not know that during all these years the question of India’s NSG membership was never on the group’s agenda, it is their own government that kept the truth from them. Indians should now thank China for at least letting them know the truth – that India’s membership was never on the NSG agenda. In response to a question the other day, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said “the inclusion of non-NPT members has never been a topic on the agenda of NPT meetings”. In her statement, she made three additional points to signal that India’s bid to make it into the NSG is going to be a long-drawn-out process.

Chunying’s first point was that the time was not ripe for Indian membership since “the NSG is still divided about non-NPT countries’ entry into the NSG”. Second, further discussions were required to achieve consensus, and finally, that China was not willing to make an exception for India’s NSG membership. The Chinese position has been consistent ever since India launched its NSG campaign eight years ago. If New Delhi still believed its membership was around the corner, there was something fundamentally wrong with its assessment. It should have known that, given the unanimity rule, its ‘waiver case’ in the NSG was inextricably linked to a similar treatment to Pakistan.

This linkage was clearly recognised by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998 by condemning both for their nuclear tests and giving common benchmarks to both as de facto nuclear weapon states. The fact that the US entered into a one-sided nuclear deal with India was further confirmation of the reality that Pakistan, like India, was also a de facto nuclear-weapon state. It is another matter that Pakistan, a perennial victim of double standards, remains deprived of the treatment accorded to India through a preferential country-specific waiver for access to nuclear fuel and technology. China now makes it clear that “NSG can discuss the entry issue of non-NPT countries as a whole instead of specific non-NPT countries joining.”

In other words, the group will have to agree on a criteria for admission of non-NPT states with no arbitrary ‘selectivity or exclusion’. The NSG is not a mere trading club controlling export of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment. It is a global body whose very raison d’être is to serve the cause of non-proliferation. In fact, it was created in response to the first act of nuclear proliferation by none other than India in 1974 when it conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 which was hailed by the West as a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion.

Contrary to India, Pakistan never challenged the non-proliferation regime when the NPT was being finalised in 1968. In fact, it supported the NPT objectives. It did not sign the treaty because India refused to do so and kept pursuing its nuclear-weapon programme. Since the negotiations for the NPT in 1968, every single non-proliferation initiative in our region came from Pakistan.

The NSG members know that it was not Pakistan but India which inducted the ominous nuclear dimension into the volatile security environment of South Asia. In May 1998, India carried out a series of five nuclear tests in May 1998 – leaving Pakistan with no choice but to respond later in the same month. While India’s tests were status-driven, Pakistan’s tests served the cause of peace by restoring a nuclear and strategic balance in the region.

After the nuclear tests, first by India and then by Pakistan, the US engaged both countries in a ‘strategic’ dialogue on an equal footing. In the last round of their dialogue in February 1999, a clear understanding was reached on nuclear parity between the two countries in the form of an implicit ‘strategic linkage’ promising them ‘equality of treatment’ in terms of any future coercive or concessionary measures, including access to nuclear technology. That linkage is no longer there.

In 2008, Washington de-hyphenated Pakistan from India. It signed a discriminatory nuclear deal with India giving it a carte blanche in the NSG for access to nuclear technology in violation of equitably applicable criteria.

This enabled India to keep its eight ‘civil’ nuclear reactors and the breeder programme outside IAEA safeguards which can produce a significant amount of weapon-grade plutonium. It is indeed amazing that the NSG, which was set up in response to an act of delinquency by India in violation of the non-proliferation regime should now be considering a single-country waiver for India in violation of the non-proliferation regime that it claims to champion.

India’s supporters within the NSG would do well to revisit their preferential approach on this issue. They must understand that only criteria-based approaches based on equality and non-discrimination between the two de-facto nuclear-weapon states would be sustainable.

The criteria-based approach only means even-handedness with no preferential selectivity or discriminatory exclusion. If NSG membership serves to bring India into the greater fold of the non-proliferation regime, why exclude Pakistan from this ‘promising’ deal? If granting an exemption to India, the NSG must keep in mind that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. There is no yardstick to differentiate between two of the same kind.

NSG members have an obligation not to widen nuclear disparities in the region. This requires an even-handed approach in dealing with the uneasy India-Pakistan nuclear equation, the only one in the world that grew up totally unrelated to the cold war, and as a direct offshoot of their long-outstanding disputes.

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