Recent developments suggest that President Obama’s promise made last November during his visit to India that the United States would promote India’s entry into the four major non-proliferation control regimes including, prominently, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), is in trouble.
It would be worth recollecting that the path-breaking Indo-US nuclear deal reached in 2008 placed India in a special category within the non-proliferation regime; it was made eligible to access civil nuclear technology despite remaining outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not accepting full-scope safeguards (FSS) over its entire nuclear program. India was thereby enabled to acquire civil nuclear cooperation from the United States and the other 44 members of the NSG, including France and Russia, while retaining its nuclear weapons.
However, it became clear during the negotiations with the United States, and, thereafter, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the NSG that there could be a backlash. Several NSG adherents were unhappy with India being accorded an exemption from the NSG’s mandate, which included non-proliferation purists like the Scandinavian countries, and states that had abjured their nuclear option to join the NPT like Brazil and South Africa. China’s approach was devious. It initially opposed India being exempted from the NSG’s regulations but changed its stance, while hinting that Pakistan, too, should be exempted if it sought a similar exemption.
In other words, China did not block the Indo-US nuclear deal nor the NSG making India an exception to its regulations, while expressing its reservations. Now it is seeking to supply two 340 MW Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs), Chashma-3 and -4 to Pakistan, in continuation of its earlier supply of the similar Chashma-1 and -2 reactors. China justifies the supply of these two additional reactors arguing that they are “grandfathered” by the original agreement which was reached before China joined the NSG. The creativity of these specious arguments apart, there are serious nuclear safety issues that gain salience after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Briefly, the PWR reactors being supplied for the Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 power plants date back to the 1970s, and are of the first generation. Significantly, they lack the safety features incorporated into China’s newer reactors. China’s double standards are worth flagging; it is supplying the Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 reactors to Pakistan using a design, which is not considered safe enough to build in China.
This issue raises global nuclear safety concerns with Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and China’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But, it also complicates India’s case for entering the NSG by highlighting that the exception made for India in the Indo-US nuclear deal has structurally weakened the international non-proliferation regime. New complications have arisen in consequence. The NSG has laid down a pre-condition now that India must adhere to the provisions of the NPT if it wishes to receive enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies. India’s plea that it was provided a ‘clean waiver’ by the United States by the Indo-US nuclear deal has fallen on deaf ears. Anil Kakodkar, former head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, has argued that the NSG decision “has changed the logic completely; it essentially targets India as we are the only country outside the NPT eligible for nuclear transfers.” No doubt India possesses indigenous capabilities to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium for its three-phase nuclear program as envisaged by Homi Bhabha. But this issue is one of principle.
Both these adverse developments viz Sino-Pakistan efforts to operationalise a nuclear deal and denial of ENR technologies to India flow from the Indo-US nuclear deal and raise considerable uncertainties regarding India’s entry into the NSG. The question does arise: what can India do, despite these roadblocks, to improve its case for membership of the NSG? What could it do individually and multilaterally to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament? Stating convincingly that nuclear disarmament is its unequivocal objective is important especially because India’s hortatory statements are contradicted by actions like proceeding apace with its missile testing and this casts serious doubts on its sincerity. India could also work with the United States to establish an alternative forum for negotiating and finalising a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty bypassing Pakistan, which has blocked these proceedings in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Further, India could also establish a new forum to take energetic steps to deal with the serious nuclear security issues presented by non-state actors, especially groups that have the support of State actors.
However, these discussions on India’s entry into the NSG must be qualified. How important is it for India to pursue the Holy Grail of nuclear energy and access civil nuclear cooperation for this purpose? But, that raises a debate that must be reserved for another occasion.
The author is a research professor at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.