From Pariah to Belle of the Ball: India and the NSG
4 September 2023
The Nuclear Supplier’s Group originated nearly five decades ago with India firmly in its crosshairs after conducting its first nuclear test. Today, most of the original seven NSG members are the leading supporters of India’s bid to gain entry into the same grouping. What does India to stand to gain from an NSG membership?
The Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) has been a central cog in the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture since 1975. Set up in the immediate aftermath of India’s 1974 Pokhran-1 peaceful nuclear explosion, the London’s Club as it was initially informally referred to, had seven members – the USA, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, West Germany, France and Japan. Since then, it has expanded to a formal organization having 48 member countries. India has been attempting to gain a membership in the NSG, having received a one-time waiver in 2008. The NSG waiver enables India to do nuclear trade and commerce with all the member countries for civilian nuclear energy purposes. However, what does India stand to gain from a full membership? Let’s find out.
The guidelines for nuclear energy management, particularly relating to the export of nuclear material, equipment and technology are established by two global agreements: the export restrictions laid down by the Zangger Committee, also known as the Exporters Committee of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the NSG. These arrangements have sought to ensure that state or non-state actors do not divert nuclear material and technology for weapon uses. In doing so, the existing regimes have been largely successful in their contribution to maintaining global peace and stability. Moreover, the NSG and the non-proliferation agenda was an area in which the USA and the Soviet Union had measurable success in cooperation during the Cold War era.
India’s tryst with the NSG has been rough since the Cold War years. India saw the NSG from the beginning as an oligopoly of the nuclear powers that was neither advantageous nor fair to developing nations. As the USA began to actively engage with India on an equal footing following its 1998 nuclear tests, the scenario began to change. After India put its civilian nuclear reactors under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards, India was granted a waiver by the NSG. The waiver effectively opened doors for India to engage in nuclear trade and commerce with all the 48 members of the NSG. The terms of the waiver allows India “to import and export nuclear and dual-use items subject to controls”. However, India cannot have access to items classified as “Sensitive Nuclear Technologies”. In the subsequent period, India has signed agreements on civil nuclear cooperation with at least 14 countries including Russia, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and Namibia.
India made its application for membership to the NSG at the Seoul Plenary meeting in June 2016. India’s application herein made a strong case for the fact that its “participation in the NSG would strengthen international efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.” India further submitted proof of its adherence to the NSG trigger list and showed willingness to bring its nuclear exports under “the same framework as other NSG countries”. However, China and several other member-states insisted that India could not be admitted without drawing up a process to admit NPT non-signatories.
China in particular has actively blocked India’s membership, while parallelly backing Pakistan’s. China has argued that the group should chart out a two-step plan for NSG members to decide principles based on which non-NPT members can be admitted, while the eligibility shall be judged on specific case basis. However, India has been able to secure backing for its NSG membership bid from countries including the USA, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France and Italy. India’s entry into the grouping is only likely to be realised after a modification of the NSG’s rules – either for a solitary case exemption or removal of the requirement of being an NPT signatory.
India has a stellar non-proliferation record and has been a responsible power as attested to repeatedly by the USA. Moreover, India already complies with NSG regulations and regularly updates its national export control list to reflect changes made by the NSG. Despite being a non-signatory the NPT, India continues to uphold the treaty's ideals. It has been argued that gaining a full membership in NSG would allow to India to scale up its deployment of nuclear energy, thereby allowing it to achieve 40% reduction in consumption of fossil fuels. While India has a strong indigenous capacity in nuclear energy, an NSG membership would allow it to gain access to a wide range of technologies with applications in fields ranging from nuclear energy to medicine.
India’s entry into the NSG would serve to formally legitimize its profound role in upholding the global nonproliferation agenda. India must clearly keep in sight the costs and benefits that a place at an organization such as the NSG would fetch for its long-term status aspirations. On the other hand, the NSG stands to gain from including India, a significant player in the global nuclear energy markets. India’s inclusion would strengthen the NSG’s record of accomplishment. However, any evaluation of the benefits will be influenced by geopolitics. Therefore, it is crucial for the NSG and its multilateral set up to include New Delhi to actively further its own goals.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Ishita Maity is a research intern at Trivium. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. on India's nuclear policy from Alliance University, Bengaluru. Her area of interest lies in India's nuclear policy across changing times and its geopolitical significance.
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