India’s attempt to join NSG with US help was a bridge too far

Beijing’s advancement of Islamabad’s cause muddied water and spoiled New Delhi’s chances.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on June 23, 2016. Photo via PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on June 23, 2016. Photo via PIB

By Michael Krepon

WASHINGTON, DC: India tried hard to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group with strong backing from the Obama Administration. It was a bridge too far. There was no consensus at the NSG meeting in Seoul to accept India’s candidacy, which was muddied by China’s advancement of Pakistan’s cause. No country besides China (with the possible exception of Turkey) appeared enthusiastic about Pakistan’s candidacy, but advancing Pakistan’s case was a smart move by Beijing, as it magnified the normative stakes of expanding the NSG’s membership.

The notion of a criteria-based approach to new membership resonated with enough NSG members to give Beijing — which dislikes going it alone — the company it sought. India advocated a merit-based approach, but this begged the question of how to measure merit. Standards are needed to assess merit, whether they are called criteria or not. Whatever merit- or criteria-based approach is pursued for new members ought to reinforce the objectives and purposes of the NSG. Which, in turn, raises the central question of what the NSG is all about, or might choose to become.

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India’s drive for membership and Pakistan’s concerns about being left behind have invited useful conversations on these matters. There is now a process in place to think through the role of the NSG in our nuclear future, and standards of membership necessary to support this role.

Memberships matter. Treaty ratifications are a crucial form of membership. The Non-Proliferation Treaty has a huuuge membership, which matters more than the actions of a small number of states that block consensus at NPT Review Conferences. The lack of ratifications among the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s Annex 2 states restricts membership and treaty implementation. The non-ratification of the CTBT by its leading champion, the United States, is an embarrassment.

The U.S. Senate’s consent to the CTBT’s ratification could well bring China, India and Pakistan on board, as well as Israel. This would be highly relevant to the NSG’s deliberations. No single step by the next U.S. administration would reduce the global salience of nuclear weapons more – which is why Barack Obama would be wise to ramp up momentum on the CTBT this fall at the United Nations. Who knows what the next composition of the Senate will be, and whether some Republicans on Capitol Hill will re-evaluate postures that ill serve their Party and the country?

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The NPT and the CTBT are rigid instruments. The NSG is inherently more adaptable because it is not a treaty. The purpose of the NSG is to support the NPT. The NSG has supported the NPT in the past by tightening export controls. If this remains the primary purpose of the NSG in the future, then new NSG applicants need only to tighten up their export controls to NSG standards to gain entry. Let proliferation bygones be bygones, and disregard the ongoing expansion of fissile material dedicated to making bombs and the nuclear stockpile growth of new applicants. Pakistan’s application clarifies far more than India’s that this narrow mission for the NSG is insufficient.

A broader conception of the NSG’s mission makes more sense, especially given the hard-to-adapt nature of treaty instruments to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons. But doesn’t this constitute changing the goal posts? Point well taken. The counterpoint is that the goal posts are being changed for the worse every day that fissile material stockpiles dedicated to bomb making and nuclear arsenals increase.It is also relevant to ask whether new applicants deserve to get a pass on refusing to sign and ratify the CTBT, blocking negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, and not engaging in nuclear risk reduction measures. These actions and non-actions combine to increase nuclear dangers as well as nuclear weapons.

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The civil nuclear deal that granted India an exception from the NSG’s rules of nuclear commerce accentuated these negative dynamics. New entrants into the NSG are worth considering if negatives can turn into positives. Let’s dispense with the canard that new members of the NSG ought to be members of the NPT. What matters most isn’t NPT membership, but actions, criteria and measures that support the NPT’s objectives of non-proliferation and disarmament.

 (Michael Krepon is Co-founder of The Stimson Center. This piece was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.)