Politics or policy? What’s thwarting India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group ambitions

By Lauryn Williams | October 14, 2016

India was not invited to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—a 48-nation group that sets guidelines for global nuclear exports in an effort to prevent proliferation—in June and is now injecting renewed energy into its campaign for membership. Due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations, little information has been released. Current NSG members remain deeply divided about whether India—or other states that have not signed and ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including Pakistan—should be considered for membership.

In a September 2016 interview, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that the Obama administration hopes to “make [Indian membership] happen before the year end.” To improve India’s chances for success and to capitalize on any future Obama administration efforts, India must focus less on the political reasons why its campaign failed and more on aspects of its nuclear policy that have long concerned key NSG members. Indeed, the most strongly opposed NSG members are looking intensely at what Indian officials choose to do in the coming months, rather than what they say.

Despite little public information, Indian analysts and policymakers quickly identified several political reasons why they believe the country was denied entry. These included Chinese opposition to India’s rise as a regional and global power, US inability and/or unwillingness to convince holdout NSG members, and overeager Indian diplomacy. Each argument has some merit but is missing a larger point. Several NSG members (including China) harbor serious concerns about India’s domestic and international nonproliferation policies. Unless India is willing to address these concerns, any efforts in the coming months to secure a consensus vote will likely fail. Here are some of the common assertions made by Indian analysts and policymakers, and the evidence that undermines these claims:

Chinese opposition. The first claim is that China opposes India’s rising global status and is its most significant challenger in the NSG. Immediately following the June NSG meeting, a spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs singled out “one country”—read China—to explain why India was not admitted. To some Indian analysts, Beijing used the meeting as an opportunity to block India’s global rise. Others contextualized China’s actions within the broader US-China rivalry.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese analysts and state-run media disputed these interpretations, claiming that China was “wrongly blamed.” According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing, along with roughly 10 other states, encouraged the NSG “to discuss the issue of non-NPT states’ entry in an innovative format in a bid to uphold the NPT as the bedrock of the international nonproliferation regime.”

It is true that China led the opposition, including by coupling India’s application with that of Pakistan. In a significant development, Secretary Kerry announced in September that the United States would engage Chinese President Xi Jinping on NSG membership for India during the G-20 summit. The Indian and Chinese governments have also engaged directly. Still, a fixation on Chinese qualms obscures the deeper issues at stake. Many other NSG members—including European states otherwise friendly to Indian interests—did not back India’s application because of substantive policy concerns such as India’s decision not to adhere to the NPT, its continued production of fissile material, and its insistence on a blurry line separating civilian and military nuclear reactors.

Weak US support. The second claim made by Indian analysts and policymakers is that the United States was unable and/or unwilling to lobby for Indian membership in the NSG. For some in India, the episode demonstrated that, despite its declared support for India’s membership, the Obama administration either chose not to, or could not, “deliver what we want.”

It is not publicly known how much attention the Obama administration devoted to this issue, but Indian critics citing American ambivalence may have a point. Secretary of State John Kerry divulged that he “worked hard personally” and that President Obama called various leaders. Even so, US efforts to persuade the Chinese, Europeans, and others did not prove as effective as those used by President George W. Bush and others who delivered the 2008 NSG exemption that, for the first time, permitted India to import civilian nuclear fuel and technology. In 2016, due to memories of heavy-handed tactics in 2008 and a shifting global balance of power, it has yet to be seen whether an all-in US approach can assuage the concerns of holdout states. Despite the setback in June, US officials—including Kerry and the US Ambassador to India—are optimistic that progress can be made on Obama’s watch.

Overeager Indian diplomacy. Experts in India have also claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s obvious “keenness” for membership contributed to the disappointing outcome. Some analysts criticized Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party for appearing too “desperate to project a political triumph”—an approach that some believe weakened India’s hand.

This argument is difficult to assess without inside knowledge. However, the problem is likely more complicated than analysts admit. Prior to the meeting, Modi and Indian diplomats clearly did not engage effectively with key NSG members to identify and address their concerns about Indian nuclear policies. As a result, the possibility of achieving a consensus within the group was never really within reach.

The bigger picture. One can argue that any combination of these three issues doomed India’s NSG application in June, as they all contain elements of truth. However, it is clear that highlighting political reasons for the failed effort misses a larger point: Because the NSG operates by consensus, China, the United States, and India were not the only players that mattered.

Along with China, a number of other NSG members opposed India’s application. Among these states were Austria, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Turkey, and South Africa. Although Indian media claimed that the Swiss government and others reversed support during the June plenary, there is some evidence that these countries’ positions were clear from the outset. It is impossible to definitively adjudicate such claims. However, it is possible that some of the challenges seen in Seoul—for which Indian analysts blamed China, Switzerland, and others—could have been overcome by more adept Indian engagement on the policy issues.

India’s campaign for membership failed primarily because these NSG members remain unconvinced that India shares their views on nuclear nonproliferation. These states likely do not see the challenges ahead as purely political ones that can be easily resolved through a more rigorous diplomatic effort led by Modi and Obama, or even through bilateral consultations with China.

On the whole, representations of the Seoul session in Indian media have not acknowledged the legitimate policy concerns raised by current NSG members. One Indian commentator did acknowledge this, writing that some NSG members remain concerned about the unique rules governing India’s civilian and military reactors: “All material supplied to [India’s] civilian stream can be easily diverted to military [uses] within the unsafeguarded civilian reactor complexes,” said one diplomat in Vienna.

Meanwhile, Indian news reports revealed that NSG members are currently engaging with former NSG chairperson Rafael Mariano Grossi to discuss specific “procedural issues” pertaining to criteria for any non-NPT applicants. These conversations are confidential, but NSG members are likely discussing longstanding concerns about India that have been raised by Western nuclear experts.

For example, Australian nuclear expert John Carlson called attention last year to Delhi’s fissile material production, as well as its decision not to fully separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities. A more recent Belfer Center report similarly found that the exceptional nature of India’s program—in which some ostensibly civilian facilities are safeguarded while others are not—may add to uncertainty that Indian membership will benefit the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is reasonable to assume that some NSG members will raise these arguments in their consultations. Before the Seoul meeting, India did not appear to address substantive concerns such as these, so many observers find it unsurprising that India was not admitted.

Where does this leave India? Currently, some NSG members believe Delhi would negatively affect the existing dynamic of the group—unless India adopts policies demonstrating an active commitment to nonproliferation. India is deeply opposed to signing and ratifying the NPT, a treaty it considers discriminatory because it gives five states the right to legally possess nuclear weapons while excluding everyone else from the nuclear club. Thus, officials must find other ways to address the grievances of nonproliferation-minded NSG members; this is especially true if India seeks to capitalize on the momentum in bilateral relations cultivated under Obama’s leadership.

To move forward, Indian officials cannot focus primarily on politics by only engaging with China or by simply pressing the Obama administration to play a bigger role. Instead, officials should critically review existing policies and practices to identify areas where there is potential for revision.

India could take certain actions to reassure NSG members in future diplomatic efforts. For example: signing the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, ending the production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel, and extending comprehensive safeguards to all civilian nuclear facilities. It is important to remember, however, that some NSG members believe India must ratify the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state before being admitted to the NSG. If Nuclear Suppliers Group members adopt a criteria-based approach to membership, the need for India to review and revise existing policies will become even more urgent.

In the coming months, India faces an important choice. It can stay on its current path—focusing on politics rather than substantive policy concerns—knowing that this approach is unlikely to ease the current gridlock. Or it can address NSG members’ concerns (despite the inevitable domestic backlash) and increase the odds of gaining membership. Unless and until Indian officials choose the second path, Delhi is unlikely to achieve the consensus it seeks—in 2016 or beyond.

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