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India's biggest challenge at NSG meet will be to deal with China's nuclear policy: US experts

News Agencies | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

India's biggest hurdle at the upcoming Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Meeting on 9 June will be to overcome China's "two-faced" policy of opposing India's application to join the group on the one hand and violating NSG terms by supplying banned nuclear materials to Pakistan on the other.

Analysts in the United States believe that India's NSG application is in a precarious position for several reasons, chief among them being China's assertion that if the NSG countries make an exception for India, they should do the same for Pakistan, even though Pakistan has been caught selling nuclear weapons secrets to Libya and was named and shamed globally.

"Pakistan and China have played their cards really well this time around. Pakistan has an application for NSG membership and China can, therefore, argue what's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Micheal Krepon, a nuclear proliferation expert and co-founder of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington DC.

According to Krepon, the Chinese will underline the point that if the NSG makes an exception for India, the informal group of nations should allow Pakistan in too and that will compound the nuclear proliferation consequences because India becomes saddled with Pakistan's terrible track record.

US experts say that it is a fact that Pakistan's nuclear program from concept to delivery is dependent on supplies from China in violation of international norms. The heavy water plant and the plutonium production reactors at Khushab were made with Chinese assistance. Also in the civil nuclear field, China assisted Pakistan with the construction of nuclear power plants at Chashma. China is also involved in the proliferation of missile technology, say experts.

China's objection to India's membership to the NSG is by no means a principled stand given its own proliferation history which one analyst called a "very bad record". It is no secret that Beijing's continued assistance to Pakistan for the latter's civil and military nuclear program is in flagrant violation of the obligations and commitments it made as a member of the NSG.

"It would be very surprising if China lets India in without an equal concession for Pakistan," said Colin Cookman, program officer at the United States Institute of Peace.

China has in the past talked of same status for Pakistan, but analysts believe that the Chinese know that the US and several other NSG members will never agree to Pakistani membership.

Beijing does not want New Delhi to have "full legal acceptance" as a nuclear armed power and have an equal footing in the global nuclear regime. Analysts widely believe that China's stand at the NSG is part of a strategic battle being fought in Asia. China was vehemently opposed to approval of the 2008 nuclear deal, but pulled back in the face of US and Indian pressure.

"China feared that a negative vote at that time would drive the Indians closer to the US - in context of strategic hedging. Moreover, China believed that it could use its backing down as a carrot for India to move away from a closer strategic relationship with the US," says Walter Andersen, Administrative Director of the South Asia Program at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

"China still does not want to antagonise India and will try to make an argument that it is not anti-India," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert.

"They will try to suggest that they are purely not anti-Indian, but their opposition is out of a sense of due equality of nations and so on, and there is a principal to be upheld here," he said.

But, China's opposition is not the only hurdle for India. Nuclear proliferation experts point out that several NSG members are squeamish about supporting India's membership because of its refusal to sign the CTBT and the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. However a bigger issue for some NSG members is that the promise of nuclear reactor construction contracts with India never materialised.

"All these countries were drooling at the possibility of selling power plants to India and that made them enthusiastic backers of India's exceptions. But it hasn't worked out that well," says Krepon.

But India strongly believes that it has walked the mile when it comes to meeting some of the concerns raised by member countries. India has resolved nuclear liability issues and officials readily point to reports of Westinghouse finalising a deal to build six nuclear reactors in India as proof that the domestic nuclear power market is finally ready and open for business.

While the US administration has backed India's claim for membership, analysts feel that in 2008, the Bush administration led a "remarkable diplomatic effort that was quite strenuous" and such an effort is missing under the current administration.

"I think the Obama administration does not have as much on the line as the Bush administration did. They are supportive, but India has to basically pull a lot more of the weight. It looks like PM Modi is trying to do that, but it's hard," said Markey.

India has carried out a massive diplomatic exercise over the last decade in order to secure its membership to the NSG with President Mukherjee's recent trip to China and PM Modi's trip to Switzerland and Mexico seen as part of the final push.

India's diplomatic efforts may manage to convince several NSG members to back India, but no one is ready to predict what will happen at the NSG meetings on 9 June and 23 June. China's objection certainly stacks the deck against India because the informal grouping of nations works on a consensus basis and it needs every country to at least not object its membership.

While some analysts feel that if China is left standing alone they will back down again like in 2008, others say that there is more at stake this time around, and China might go all the way. China knows that India in the NSG will have a say on nuclear issues in a way in which the waiver didn't allow them and it also shuts down Pakistan's chances of entering the NSG.

"When push comes to shove, will they actually oppose? They might. If you look at Chinese behavior in the UN with respect to protecting Pakistanis against sanctions over terrorism, they have been willing to veto and hold up," said Markey.

China has been supporting Pakistan as a terror promoting state and it is in that backdrop that China's support to Pakistan is being seen by US experts.

Washington-based think tanks believe that by backing Pakistan, China is set to isolate itself globally and would be seen as standing on the side of a known nuclear proliferator.


First published: 5 June 2016, 11:55 IST