Will the US Keep China at Bay to Push for India’s NSG Membership?

India is now an MTCR member, but will the US back its bid for NSG despite Chinese hostility, asks C Uday Bhaskar.

4 min read
(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/ <b>The Quint</b>)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently in the US for what is being billed as his last one-on-one bilateral summit meeting with President Barack Obama. Obama demits office in January 2017 when the White House will have a new incumbent (a she or a he?) and for Modi it is a working visit with a packed agenda.

The most tangible outcome has been the de facto admission of India to the 34-member MTCR (Missile Technology Control regime) and the US president has welcomed this “imminent entry”. Certain procedural issues will need to be addressed and by year-end India will be a formal member of one of four important WMD (weapons of mass destruction), nuclear material and high-technology-related regulatory bodies.

The other three are the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group) and the Australia and Wassenar groups, respectively. The last two focus on the export of dual-use high technology that has a bearing on WMD capability, including chemical and biological weapons.


Gains from MTCR Membership

It is instructive to note that many of these initiatives were mooted by the US and its allies after India carried out its PNE (peaceful nuclear explosion) in May 1974. India was then subjected to stringent technology control and denial regimes, and it was only after the rapprochement with the US in late 2008 that these constraints are being progressively lifted.

The membership of the MTCR is symbolic of a formal acknowledgement of India’s profile as a responsible WMD state and brings New Delhi under the ambit of the ‘global missile tent’ as it were.

The more important membership for India is the 48 nation-strong NSG. This group, formed in the mid-1990s, seeks to ensure nuclear non-proliferation through regulation of nuclear and nuclear-related export controls – in short, the entire spectrum of nuclear commerce.


Clearing the China Hurdle

However, the AQ Khan clandestine nuclear Walmart, exposed in 2002, also demonstrated how a determined and devious group could by-pass these filters with tacit state support – in this case the Pakistani ‘deep-state.’

In late 2008, then US President George Bush was able to prevail upon the NSG collective to accord India exceptional status, even though it is a non-NPT signatory, and at the time Beijing’s ambivalent posture was discernible in Vienna. During the deliberations, China did not openly oppose this US-led initiative but sought to encourage other NSG members to deny the consensus that is required for such decisions.

It was later revealed that Bush was able to convey his resolve to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, and India was accorded the exceptional status, whereby it could engage in nuclear commerce for its civilian nuclear programme on a bilateral basis.

Currently, China has denied India support for NSG membership, and has linked this with Pakistan – which means that Beijing would like a similar status to be accorded to Islamabad, despite the many transgressions ranging from AQ Khan to supporting terror groups.

American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter  with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Blair House in Washington DC, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. (Photo: AP)
American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Blair House in Washington DC, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. (Photo: AP)

How Far Will America Go?

  • By entering the Missile Technology Control Regime India will be able to buy high-end missile technology.
  • MTCR is one of four international non-proliferation regimes which had excluded India after it conducted atomic tests in 1974.
  • MTCR entry can pave the way for India joining the NSG, which controls commercial trade in nuclear technology.
  • China has so far tried to block India’s entry into the NSG and has chosen to support Pakistan instead.
  • Entry into the NSG will enable India to participate actively in global nuclear commerce.

Entry Into Nuclear Club

Formal admission into the NSG (and other regulatory bodies) was part of the package that was arrived at between the US and India in the July 2005 civilian nuclear agreement, and Modi’s current effort at garnering international support (Switzerland and Mexico) is towards this objective.

Admission into the NSG will be a formal acknowledgement of India’s nuclear profile, and will also enable New Delhi to play a more active role in the management of global nuclear commerce with appropriate non-proliferation markers. Whether the China-Pakistan opposition can be overcome by the Obama team remains to be seen. The stakes for Beijing are also high, and it would be imprudent on China’s part to display its opposition, veering towards hostility, against India in such a brazen manner.

India’s nuclear non-proliferation track record is globally acknowledged – even by the most zealous non-proliferation advocates, and China cannot ignore the reality that it is seen as the mentor and benefactor of both North Korea and Pakistan.

Nuclear matters have always been mediated by hard realism and this was elliptically stated by Henry Kissinger when India carried out its nuclear tests in May 1998. Yet India has sought to leaven the principle of power with the power of principle, and a commitment to restraint underpins the national nuclear doctrine.

Bringing India into the NSG fold will be an acknowledgement of the exceptional status accorded in late 2008. It will make Delhi a stakeholder in the management of a complex domain (nuclear energy) that can challenge global stability in as much as it can contribute to greater prosperity.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies)

Also read:

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