India Needs to Understand the Causes of its NSG Embarrassment

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Whatever narrative India internalises will have interesting implications for Indian foreign policy – and by extension the Asian security order – for years to come.

India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – a 48-country cartel that controls nuclear exports – failed this past Friday during the group’s plenary session. Despite a well-publicised diplomatic full-court press by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his foreign secretary with meetings across the globe to advocate on India’s behalf – including with Chinese President Xi Jinping – the NSG was unable to reach a consensus on granting India membership. The unfavourable outcome for India has been described as an “embarrassment,” a “car wreck,” a “fiasco,” and an abortive bid where India “found itself alone.” Though the government has refused to treat this as a policy failure, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman admitted the result was unexpected.

Most analysts agree that India’s application faced predictably long odds due to China’s opposition. Nevertheless India charged headlong into the plenary session. The puzzle then is if India faced such daunting odds, why did it raise expectations and put so much diplomatic capital on the line? There appear to be four dominant explanations being proffered: miscalculation, sunk costs, abandonment, or a strategic move for longer-term returns.


First, New Delhi may have simply gotten the math wrong. It knew the cost of gaining membership would be high, but miscalculated it could squeeze out a win. China’s opposition to India’s membership bid was unexpectedly tenacious. Beijing – which has historically gone to great lengths in order to avoid diplomatic isolation – demonstrated no such compulsion in taking the lead in blocking India. But India also underestimated opposition from countries like Austria, Brazil, Ireland, and Switzerland – countries with strong nonproliferation credentials uncomfortable with a non-NPT member like India joining the NSG. Once China’s position was clear, these countries gained political space to voice reservations about India’s application. The problem with this explanation is that there were early signs of Beijing’s willingness to stand alone to oppose Indian NSG membership given its expanded interests, power, and commitments since 2008. In fact, many analysts anticipated Chinese opposition, which makes Delhi’s futile pursuit all the more puzzling.

Sunk costs

Another logic may have compelled India to knowingly fight and lose the NSG battle. The Modi government sought a low-cost diplomatic win that turned out to be much more challenging than expected, but it had already invested too much to walk away. India – originally shut out of the NSG on the grounds that it hadn’t signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) – received a waiver from the group to engage in nuclear commerce in 2008. This allowed the country to ink civilian nuclear cooperation deals with countries as a de facto member. Full NSG membership, then, was less about enhancing security or energy interests (since it would likely continue to be denied new enrichment and reprocessing technology). Instead, India truly sought the prestige and recognition of its “place in the world” that accompanied an institutional seat at the high table governing the global nuclear order.

As India tread further down this path, it faced more formidable opposition than expected. As its leadership increasingly staked India’s reputation on this vote, backing down became more costly than losing. In other words, India miscalculated early, committed to pursuit of full membership in the NSG, and the tyranny of sunk costs compelled it to throw good diplomatic capital after bad.

Read the full article on The Wire here

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