India and the NSG: Are the Outliers Justified in their Opposition?

03 Jun, 2016    ·   5053

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra assesses the validity of the arguments offered in support of India’s exclusion from the NSG


While China’s opposition to India’s NSG membership is considered the main stumbling block, there is a powerful set of smaller countries perceived variously as “problem states” or as “Chinese fronts” in New Delhi. These include Austria, New Zealand and Ireland. Their opposition to India’s membership is neatly aggregated in an article this week by Daryl G Kimball titled “Obama’s India Nuclear Blind Spot.” The question this raises is: are India’s concerns misplaced?

While Kimball’s article is a masterpiece of vacuous activist rhetoric, with esoteric concerns that are impossible to translate into policy, the outliers seem to have a “clear” set of demands. These include India’s signature on the FMCT, CTBT, speeding up the civil-military separation plan and “clear commitments” to NPT articles I (preventing the transfer of weapons materials) and article VI (a commitment to nuclear zero).

On the face of it, these seem perfectly reasonable demands till you start dissecting them. The first issue is that of process and hiding behind this so called “process.” The line that is floated is, “What happens in the NSG stays in the NSG.” That is to say the NSG will first have to reach consensus within before it offers membership to India. Per se this is not an unreasonable argument till it is considered that discussions have been going on for the better part of 2 years without even so much as cursory movement beyond posturing. When Indian diplomats approach Austria, Ireland or New Zealand and say, “Tell us what specific concerns you have, and let us work with you” - the answer is, “We have to work this out within the NSG first,” followed by a stock standard regurgitation of “sign FMCT, CTBT etc.” This then becomes a classic case of chicken and egg – where India is accused of not doing enough to allay concerns but at the same time specific alleviation measures are not negotiated bilaterally to allay specific concerns of specific countries. It is little surprise then that India considers these countries as being thoroughly disingenuous if not outright hypocritical.

Why hypocritical? Consider this – the FMCT is not even a treaty to begin with, bogged down as it is in negotiations. India, if it enacts legal measures to cut off production and have its NSG membership linked to this, would be in a constrained position that no other member of the NSG would be in till such time as the FMCT is ready, signed and ratified. Take another member state – China - which at best has a voluntary, unenforceable and unverifiable fissile material production cut-off declaration. This declaration is even less concrete than India’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, which is anyway impossible to hide given the high sensitivity of seismic monitoring stations. China though has signed the CTBT but has not ratified it. Yet again India’s requests to talk through India-specific measures to allay concerns have been met with the stock standard generic, “We will first achieve consensus at the NSG before we talk to you.”

In private, diplomats of these countries harshly criticise the “bigger countries that want India in to further their commercial interests.” This is laughable. As for articles I and VI of the NPT, China has been the single biggest open proliferator and enabler of unsafeguarded technology. This has included the “grandfathering” supply of unsafeguarded reactors to Pakistan, and keeping illicit transfer routes between North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Similarly, Germany’s supply of the Type 209 submarines to Israel with enlarged torpedo tubes, transparently served one purpose – and one purpose alone – to enable the firing of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Again in this case, the silence of Austria, Ireland and New Zealand protesting the sale is deafening. In fact a case can easily be made that given the integration of German and Austrian industry, the German sale may very well have included components from and manufacturing processes whose intellectual property right (IPR) is owned by Austria.

India can therefore equally hold up the mirror to Austria, Ireland and New Zealand claiming that their refusal to act against China despite its blatant violations of NSG guidelines has as much to do with their commercial interests in China.

Let us be clear. Yes, India is guilty of much diplomatic clumsiness, bureaucratic ignorance and foot-dragging. But the outliers’ self-delusion of being the Holy Virgin Marys, and the self-appointed “stalwarts” of proliferation is a pathetic joke. The reality is there is much truth to India’s apprehensions of racism, collusion, hypocrisy and playing the ostrich, where each of these countries has been complicit by their silence in the most outrageous violations of NSG guidelines this decade. The fact that India lacks “credibility” does not mean that these countries have anything remotely resembling credibility themselves.