The plenary meeting of the 48-member NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) in Seoul ended on June 24 with no specific reference to India’s application as a participating government. China supported by a few other nations was able to block any meaningful discussion on the subject – much to India’s disappointment.
This inconclusive result, for sure, is a tactical setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government but not quite the disaster that some voices in the political spectrum have made it out to be. However, the fallout of Seoul can have long-term implications for the India-China bilateral relationship and the related realization of the ‘Asian century’.
Apropos Seoul, the first question that needs to be addressed objectively is whether formal admission to the NSG as a participating government is a desirable objective for India to pursue. The context is that Delhi was accorded an exceptional waiver in late 2008 by the same group -the NSG which enabled it to engage in nuclear commerce.
The short answer is yes – the objective is desirable. The non-linear benefits of such status are not insignificant. The NSG represents one forum of global nuclear regulation-cum-governance and being part of this grouping for Delhi, which till recently was both an outsider and an outcaste – is both victory and vindication for its principled stand on the complex nuclear issue.
Concurrently, being a member of the NSG or a non-member has an embedded collateral benefit in the intricate nuclear material and technology supplier chain. If India is to realize its ambitious civilian nuclear programme, many commercial agreements with a large range of global suppliers would have to be concluded swiftly. And Indian entities would benefit by Delhi being listed as a participating government in the export control procedures with a non-linear linkage to risk-insurance-safety clauses; again, tangible benefits in the long run that are not to be scoffed at.
While noting that the outcome of Seoul is disappointing, there is a related political strand which merits notice. The China factor in the global nuclear conduct has become unambiguously visible. To the extent that nuclear restraint, fidelity to non-proliferation and rectitude in husbanding nuclear material and knowhow are the benchmarks of nuclear capable powers, Beijing has skilfully ensured that the deviant has become the norm.
China, which became a nuclear weapon power in October 1964, is a recent entrant to the global nuclear fold – it signed the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) only in 1992 and joined the NSG in 2004. However in the mid-1980s Beijing entered into a strategic relationship with the Pakistan military that included the transfer of nuclear weapons and missiles. When charged with transgression of its NPT/NSG commitments, Beijing claimed that all its actions were pre-1992.
The global nuclear domain punctuated by the Hiroshima-Fukushima trajectory is characterized by many contradictions, carefully embroidered narratives and a rhetorical commitment to high principle even while being mediated by cynical realpolitik compulsions.
The Chinese narrative in summary is that Beijing’s nuclear weapons enhance global stability and security, similar Indian capability is de-stabilizing and Pakistan needs both nuclear weapons and an investment in terror groups to balance India; and A.Q. Khan is a fictional character.
Thus Beijing, which reluctantly endorsed the 2008 NSG consensus to accord India an exceptional nuclear status, has cited procedures in 2016 and invoked the NPT to successfully filibuster the Seoul proceedings.