India’s Quest for Nuclear Suppliers Group Membership: An Analysis

There is a difference between sitting outside a room seeking the indulgence of others and being inside making the rules.

Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister of India on why India is seeking NSG membership.


India sought membership of the NSG in 2008, but its application hasn’t been decided on, primarily because several countries expressed concerns over the entry of members who aren’t signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that India has refused to sign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried his best but to no avail. The closely watched annual plenary session of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ended on Friday (June 24, 2016) without taking any decision on India’s application for membership.

The main opposition to India’s bid to get NSG membership comes from China saying that any country joining the NSG should sign the NPT first. It says that all the multilateral non-proliferation export control regime including the NSG have regarded NPT as an important standard for the expansion of the NSG. Hence, members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group should be party to NPT.

China denies blocking India’s membership bid at the NSG, repeatedly asserting that the question of its signature to the Non Proliferation Treaty needs to be resolved first. It is speaking of the process for membership and thereby making it difficult (or nearly impossible) for India to become a member of NSG without signing NPT.

Besides China, countries such as Brazil, Austria, New Zealand, Ireland and Turkey have opposed India’s NSG bid citing its non-NPT status.


How India defends its move?

India wants each to be judged on their own merit. Instead of speaking about criteria, India wants to be looked at its credentials and track record.

In fact, India fulfils all the criteria to be admitted to the NSG membership.

  • It has the ability to supply items on NSG control lists.
  • It has been following all the NSG guidelines. Whatever commitments and undertakings India gave prior to receiving the NSG waiver in 2008, India has kept.
  • India has legally based export control system. Under India’s agreement with the US, its export laws and regulations has to be amended to incorporate the changes in the NSG guidelines. In fact, India has harmonised its export control legislation and regulations with those of the NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group and has adhered to their guidelines.
  • India has also been supporting non-proliferation efforts.

Only one criteria it has not fulfilled and on the ground of which its entry to the NSG is opposed is India being a non-signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, signing of NPT is not a prerequisite mandatory criteria for NSG membership. It’s only a concern.

India has been asserting that the NSG is an ad hoc export control regime and France, which was not an NPT member for some time, was a member of the NSG since it respected NSG’s objectives. Also, the NPT allows civil nuclear cooperation with non-NPT countries.

India wants the member states of NSG to make a fair and objective assessment of India’s bid for membership to the NSG on its own merit.

India’s case is being pressed by the US and other influential countries based on the India’s record in non-proliferation and the India-US civil nuclear accord.

Countries such as France, United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Canada, Mexico and many other countries which are members of NSG support India’s bid to its membership.


Why India should be granted NSG membership

In developing nuclear weapons India has not indulged in any dubious/clandestine activity and its programme has been developed solely by years of hard work indigenously. India has a credible nuclear weapons programme.

By declaring a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear tests, India has effectively acted in sense and spirit of NPT/CTBT provisions. By steering its programme only as a minimum deterrence and pledging NFU (No First Use Policy) unless faced with an attack of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), India has established itself as a responsible nuclear state.

India has also closely cooperated with IAEA.

Considering these credentials and track record, India’s case should be judged independently without prejudice or on requests to block it following lobbying from other countries.

In 2008, China was among the last few countries to lift its objection to clean waiver by NSG to India. During American President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, the US had announced that India was ready to join the NSG. This position was reiterated by the US recently.

India’s participation in the NSG would have further strengthened nuclear non-proliferation regime and made global nuclear commerce more secure.


Does India really need NSG membership that much?

Some analysts think that India’s quest for NSG membership is misplaced. They argue that India already enjoys a unique status given by the 2008 NSG waiver and do not need to pursue NSG membership in a desperate manner.

The waiver which was the result of Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement covers all the items in the NSG lists and it has no sunset clause. India needs no further waiver to import from willing exporters anything it needs for “IAEA-safeguarded cicvil nuclear facilities.” This would exclude enrichment and reprocessing though.

[The NSG issued revised guidelines in June 2013 with respect to what is known as Paragraph 6 saying that transfers of sensitive exports remain subject to it. And, in 2011, before the 2013 guidelines were adopted, Paragraph 6 was revised to prohibit trade in enrichment and reprocessing with any country that has not signed the NPT].

These analysts further say that bars on export of nuclear materials and technology to India have been removed. Membership of the NSG gives us nothing more on imports, and there is no visible queue to buy nuclear technology from India

The NSG waiver made India unique. Pleading to be let into the NSG now, is to drag ourselves down and tie ourselves again to Pakistan. According to them, the Government of India is trying to join NSG as a second-class member.


Towards conclusion

The Government of India and other policy-makers however see certain inevitable benefits associated with NSG membership.

Being a NSG member would make India to get:

  • Timely information on nuclear matters
  • Contributes by way of information
  • Has confirmed credentials
  • Can act as an instrument of harmonization and coordination
  • Is part of a very transparent process.

Being an emerging power in the world platform, India’s quest for NSG membership is a necessary one. It is true that India has the NSG waiver, yet at the same time securing a membership in the elite nuclear club would still be in the greater interest of the country. This would be in tune with India actively eyeing membership of the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia group after securing the MTCR membership recently (June 2016).

India’s nuclear doctrine is non-proliferation-oriented and it is widely accepted that India is a responsible nuclear state. Having accepted IAEA safeguards and Additional Protocol and having effectively subscribed to and practised the principles of non-proliferation, it is immaterial if India has formally signed the NPT, CTBT or any other such treaty. India has already acquired high-level expertise in the peaceful use of nuclear energy in industry, power, agriculture and health care.

India’s membership of the NSG shall not only benefit it but also encourage civil nuclear trade globally without compromising on world peace and harmony.


*Pakistan (backed by Turkey) and Namibia also applied for NSG membership in 2016.
* NSG membership can be obtained only after getting the unanimous consensus of all its member states. In fact, all decisions of NSG are taken by consensus.

Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement

Also known as the 123 Agreement or Indo-US nuclear deal, this agreement was signed between the United States of America and the Republic of India in 2008. The framework for this agreement was a July 18, 2005, joint statement by then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then U.S. President George W. Bush, under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and, in exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India.

The deal places under permanent safeguards those nuclear facilities that India has identified as “civil” and permits broad civil nuclear cooperation, while excluding the transfer of “sensitive” equipment and technologies, including civil enrichment and reprocessing items even under IAEA safeguards. On August 18, 2008 the IAEA Board of Governors approved, and on February 2, 2009, India signed an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

The deal is seen as a watershed in U.S.-India relations and introduces a new aspect to international nonproliferation efforts. On August 1, 2008, the IAEA approved the safeguards agreement with India, after which the United States approached the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant a waiver to India to commence civilian nuclear trade. The 48-nation NSG granted the waiver to India on September 6, 2008 allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The implementation of this waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill to approve the deal on September 28, 2008. Two days later, India and France inked a similar nuclear pact making France the first country to have such an agreement with India. On October 1, 2008 the U.S. Senate also approved the civilian nuclear agreement allowing India to purchase nuclear fuel and technology from—and sell them to—the United States. U.S. President, George W. Bush, signed the legislation on the Indo-US nuclear deal, approved by the U.S. Congress, into law, now called the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act, on October 8, 2008. The agreement was signed by then Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his counterpart then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on October 10.


Important Points:

  • The major point of this deal was that India places its nuclear power reactors under the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) safeguards permanently. IAEA is a United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group.

  • In addition, India agrees to sign an additional protocol which gives the IAEA the power to subject the India’s civilian nuclear facilities to more intrusive inspections.

  • India commits to establish a national reprocessing facility to re-process the safeguarded nuclear material and this agreement allows prior consent to re- process and transfer nuclear materials and its products.

  • India continues its voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.

  • India commits to strengthening the security of its nuclear arsenals.

  • U.S. companies will be allowed to build nuclear reactors in India and provide nuclear fuel for its civilian energy program. (An approval by the Nuclear Suppliers Group lifting the ban on India has also cleared the way for other countries to make nuclear fuel and technology sales to India.)

Challenges the deal faced followed by the provisions made in the deal to navigate these questions and challenges:

  1. India’s right to conduct nuclear tests was one thing the Indian negotiators fought for. Although India pledged in July 2005 to continue a nuclear testing moratorium, New Delhi opposed any explicit provision in the 123 agreement terminating cooperation if it conducts a nuclear test in the future. Such termination provisions are standard features of U.S. agreements with non-nuclear-weapon states. The India-U.S. agreement does not contain the word ‘test’ and it is suggested that countries will maintain cooperation in “accordance with its national laws.”

  2. Another major point on which discussions were held was the point of fuel re-processing. Re-processing involves separation of plutonium from nuclear fuel after it has been used in a reactor and plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons and is as such considered a proliferation risk. The agreement does grant consent to India for fuel reprocessing although, as mentioned before, it has to be under IAEA safeguards in a new national reprocessing facility.

  3. One of the unique points of this 123 agreement was the feature of inclusion of fuel assurances for India. In this deal, US has assured India on fuel supply in case of a fuel disruption and negotiating with IAEA on India specific fuel supply agreement. This is an important feature of the India-US agreement as generally, 123 agreements do not contain fuel guarantees.


Important terms associated with the Agreement

“123 Agreement”

An agreement which establishes co-operation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the United States and any other nation as described under the Section 123 of the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1954 is called a “123 Agreement”.

The 123 agreement defines the terms and conditions for bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation, and requires separate approvals by the U.S. Congress and by Indian cabinet ministers.

“Hyde Act”

The Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, also known as the Hyde Act, is the U.S. domestic law that modifies the requirements of Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act to permit nuclear cooperation with India and in particular to negotiate a 123 Agreement to operationalise the 2005 Joint Statement (by George Bush and Manmohan Singh).

As a domestic U.S. law, the Hyde Act is binding on the United States. The Hyde Act cannot be binding on India’s sovereign decisions although it can be construed as prescriptive for future U.S. reactions. As per the Vienna Convention, an international agreement such as the 123 Agreement cannot be superseded by an internal law such as the Hyde Act.


*Wikipedia and an article in Stanford University website (article link) are the major sources of this post.