A Time Out for New NSG Membership

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The changing of the guard from the Obama to the Trump Administration might be a good time to pause and reflect on India’s efforts to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. President Barack Obama promised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help secure India’s membership. In doing so, the goal of India’s entry superseded the goal of constraining proliferation – the NSG’s very reason for existence. Since New Delhi opposed criteria for membership that would impinge on its sovereign right to expand its nuclear arsenal, Washington struggled to devise criteria for India’s inclusion even though they would necessarily come at the expense of the NSG’s mission.

Pakistan’s national security enclave has always viewed India’s inclusion with alarm, both for practical and perceptual reasons. If India were granted entry, Pakistan fears that New Delhi could forever veto its own ascension, given the NSG’s decision-by-consensus rule. On perceptual grounds, too, Pakistan feels compelled to join any nuclear club in which India is accorded membership. India, on the other hand, is deeply ambivalent, if not disinclined, about joining an exclusive club that allows Pakistan membership.

It made perfect sense, then, for China and Pakistan to craft a strategy of linking Pakistan’s entry to India’s. Pakistan’s credentials are far weaker than India’s, as Rawalpindi is expanding its arsenal faster than New Delhi is, while blocking negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty and being sanctioned by Washington for continued proliferation-related imports.

The criteria the Obama Administration lobbied for in Vienna on behalf of India’s membership were framed in terms of the following questions, according to a Bloomberg News report:

  • “Do “clear and strict separation of current and future civilian nuclear facilities from non-civilian nuclear facilities” exist?
  • Do documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency identify “all current and future civilian nuclear facilities?”
  • Is there an adequate IAEA safeguards agreement “covering all declared civilian nuclear facilities and all future civilian nuclear facilities?”
  • Is there a so-called Additional Protocol in effect giving IAEA inspectors the ability “to detect the diversion of safeguarded nuclear material and to ensure that safeguarded nuclear material is used exclusively for peaceful purposes?”
  • Is there “a commitment not to use any item transferred either directly or indirectly from a NSG Participating Government” for military purposes?
  • Is there adequate “commitment not to conduct any nuclear explosive test?
  • Will there be adequate “support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty upon becoming” an NSG member?
  • How will support be given to “strengthen the multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime by working towards the total elimination of all nuclear weapons and enhancing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy?”

In addition, the United States pursued the following procedural device to address the issue of Pakistan’s inclusion: The understanding that should India eventually gain NSG access, it “would join a consensus of all other Participating Governments on the merits of any additional non-NPT Party applications” like that of Pakistan.

These are all good questions, but an indirect approach for new NSG membership is insufficient, since a candidate could meet all these criteria while still increasing its stocks of fissile material to increase its nuclear arsenal. One key determinant here, which the proposed guidelines sidestep, is the extent of facilities that would be declared to be for military purposes, and thus off-limits to IAEA inspectors. There’s no reason for diversion from civilian to military purposes when New Delhi has already placed so many dual-use Indian facilities in the military column.

The standard for an “adequate” barrier against nuclear testing is also lax. Defining adequacy in terms of a statement of intent not to resume testing unless national security imperatives dictate otherwise would constitute a mere placeholder. Granted, the same standard also applies to states that have signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Treaty signatures are, however, a far more meaningful and formal way to convey adherence to the object and purpose of the CTBT. All other members of the NSG have met this standard. To accept a lower standard for new members would weaken existing non-proliferation norms that would, in turn, weaken the objective and purpose of the NSG.

The Obama Administration’s push for India’s entry was unsuccessful because some members stood up for higher standards, and because China flexed its muscles and gummed up the works by seeking to place Indian and Pakistani entry on the same plane. Pakistan’s belated, parallel candidacy served its intended purpose of further diminishing New Delhi’s chances, which were not great in any event because of Beijing’s veto power. The procedural device regarding sequential entry addresses the possibility of Pakistan’s membership in a creative way. It would not, however, address matters of substance, which matter the most with regard to expanded membership.

One important question is missing from the above list: When disarmament and non-proliferation norms (and the treaties and institutions that backstop them) have become wobbly, does it make sense to weaken the NSG, as well? If the answer to this question is “no,” then a time out for expanding NSG membership seems warranted.

New Delhi has now taken two runs at NSG membership and has come up short. It might be wise for New Delhi to reconsider how much of a priority to attach to its quest for NSG membership, particularly since the civil-nuclear agreements it has negotiated already provide the means to expand its nuclear power sector. The exception India has been granted to the NSG’s rules of nuclear commerce is de-hyphenated from Pakistan. Moreover, this exception is unlikely to be extended to Pakistan, absent significant steps approved by Rawalpindi to improve its international standing. For the Government of India to continue to make high-profile attempts to gain a seat at the NSG’s table would empower Beijing, which retains a veto on new membership, more than New Delhi.

It might also be a good time for the Trump Administration to reassess the priority this initiative merits. The United States has clarified its commitment to India’s national security in many ways. More are available that do not weaken non-proliferation norms. Why make a priority of one that would further damage the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime?

A time out would also allow India and Pakistan to reassess their reluctance to take steps to reduce nuclear dangers that existing NSG members have already taken. These steps would improve their candidacy for membership more than shortcuts.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 24, 2017.

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