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India's membership in the NSG is symbolic; Lack of success does it no harm

Debak Das | Updated on: 10 June 2016, 15:45 IST

The decision on India's membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will be made on 20 June at its plenary meeting in Seoul. While the signing of the Hague Code of Conduct, and imminent membership into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), has helped India ratchet up some diplomatic momentum, the NSG membership is very unlikely to happen this year.

This became more evident after Thursday's NSG meeting in Vienna. The question however is two fold:

  1. How important is the membership in the NSG for Indian nuclear trade?
  2. Could India have foreseen the Chinese opposition to its membership and prevented it?

The fact is that Indian membership into the NSG is not terribly important for the purposes of nuclear trade. In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Board of Governors approved the nuclear safeguards agreement with India, and shortly after, the NSG gave India a 'clean waiver' thus allowing member states to conduct nuclear trade with India. The Indo-US nuclear deal was a direct result of this. While nuclear energy trade with the US didn't really take off, much to the US' chagrin, India's nuclear trade with a host of countries increased exponentially.

In the aftermath of 2008, India signed nuclear deals with major countries like France, Japan, Australia, Canada, and Russia among others. With nuclear deals with about 11 countries, and the active import of uranium from France, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Canada, the lack of membership into the NSG has not really been an impediment to India's nuclear trade.

Symbolic entry?

The quest for Indian membership into the NSG is thus more symbolic than anything else. Indian membership into export control regimes like the NSG, MTCR, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group, is aimed at increasing India's legitimacy in the nuclear order as a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) state. A step towards this has already been taken, with Italy removing its opposition to Indian membership, to the MTCR (a prudent exchange in lieu of India easing up on its marines implicated in the Enrica Lexie case).

The NSG, however, is a different ball game altogether. Membership to the NSG would remove any doubt as to the legitimacy of India in the nuclear order and greatly improve its standing. This is, thus a question of status, more than of efficiency in trade.

Chinese opposition

Membership into the NSG would also help India dehyphenate itself from Pakistan permanently in the nuclear realm. It is no wonder hence, that China's opposition to India's membership has rested on the condition that Pakistan be included in the regime as well. China knows this is not a realistic demand. However, for the time, it will be enough to thwart India's membership bid.

The more legitimate problem that the Chinese point to, is that every case dealing with India has been 'ad-hoc' in nature, and strongly dependent on the exceptionalism of Indian nuclear behaviour. The former, points to the need for a 'rules based' approach to the international order, which in the absence of an institutional mechanism for India's membership to the NSG, is a problematic issue for the latter to deal with. In 2008, China was the main opposition to India's waiver in the NSG, citing the same reasons.

That the Chinese would oppose Indian membership this time around on similar grounds was a well known fact. To that extent, it was quite imprudent on the countries behalf to have sought to isolate China, and allowed it to couple India and Pakistan thus leading to a formidable challenge. It would have served India better to have done business with the Chinese, and leveraged their partnerships in the BRICS and other regional alliances like the SCO.

India and China at loggerheads

To be sure, if India and China are at loggerheads with each other on the NSG membership issue, this rivalry is bound to spill over to other multilateral fora as well.

India's wholehearted embrace of the US' defence partnership and support, has every reason to have the Chinese suspicious of Indian aspirations, in international regimes. The onus was on the latter to allay these misgivings, not accentuate them.

While the cost of this is that India's membership to the NSG will not happen this year, some are still hopeful that like in 2008, the US can step in and singlehandedly push India through. This is unlikely to happen, as India and the US has diplomatically isolated China far too much, this time around. More moderated positions on the South China Sea, and less targeted joint military exercises would have gone a long way in ensuring that.

The positive news out of all of this is that, regardless of Indian membership in the NSG, its nuclear trade has no imminent barriers from the group, and can continue unabated, as it seeks greater legitimacy in the international nuclear order.

Edited by Sahil Bhalla

First published: 10 June 2016, 15:45 IST