β€œIt will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Obama's Message to India: Proliferation Violations Don't Have Consequences
Share this

Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

Today in Mumbai, President Barack Obama told U.S.-Indian business leaders that he would seek India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)--the nuclear technology control organization established in 1975 in response to India's first nuclear weapon test blast, which used plutonium produced with nuclear technology from Canada and the United States.

According the official NSG Web site, India's 1974 test explosion "demonstrated that peaceful nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused."

U.S. support for Indian membership in the NSG undermines U.S. efforts to shore up the global nonproliferation system, prevent the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies, and makes it far more difficult to slow the South Asian nuclear arms race.

In a statement Saturday from Mumbai, Mike Froman, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs said "...the United States will support India's full membership in the four multilateral export control regimes. These are the Nuclear Suppliers Group; the Missile Technology Control Regime; the Australia Group; and the Wassenaar Arrangement."

These voluntary, multilateral, dual use export control groups were all created to advance global nonproliferation efforts. The Australia Group deals with chemical and biological weapons; the Wassenaar Arrangement deals with conventional weapons and dual use technology; and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) deals with nuclear technology and material.

The move to bring India into the NSG would further compound the damage caused by the U.S.-India civil nuclear initiative announced in July 2005 when George W. Bush traveled to India. Soon after, Bush pushed for an exemption in U.S. law and international nuclear export rules that bar trade with states (including India) that do not allow comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards for all nuclear facilities. Washington strong-armed the 45 other members of the NSG into making an India-specific exemption to its guidelines in September 2008. Since then, French and Russian firms have moved in to strike lucrative reactor and nuclear fuel deals with India. U.S. companies seeking to sell reactors to India have been hindered by the fact that India has not yet adopted laws on nuclear liability that are consistent with international standards.

By exempting India from U.S. and international trade restrictions, India now has access to international nuclear fuel markets, which will free up domestic supplies for bomb production and could allow India to accelerate its rate of production of fissile material for nuclear bombs, Pakistan has reacted negatively and is working even harder than before to accelerate its own fissile material production capacity.

Obama's pledge to bring India into the NSG itself would cause a lot of nonproliferation pain and absolutely no gain.

It would further harden Pakistan's resolve to produce more fissile material for nuclear weapons and block negotiations on a global fissile material production ban. (Click here for an analysis of this problem.)

Trying to bring India into the NSG would make it harder to enforce the NSG's voluntary guidelines. For instance it would only encourage China to flaunt NSG rules by selling two additional nuclear reactors and fuel to Pakistan.

It would also make it tougher to strengthen current NSG guidelines against the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies that could be used to build bombs. For instance, the NSG is currently considering tougher guidelines on the transfer of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technology, which can be used to produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons. The proposed guidelines would bar enrichment and reprocessing transfers to any state that has not signed the NPT and does not have comprehensive safeguards or is in a region of proliferation concern. The Group of Eight industrialized nations have endorsed the draft NSG guideline pending its approval.

Currently, India is seeking advanced enrichment and reprocessing technology from some NSG states. If India were brought into the NSG, it would be able to block consensus on any new rules restricting such transfers.

NSG membership currently requires that the state be a member in good standing with the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). India remains one of only three countries (along with Israel and Pakistan) never to have signed the NPT. Unlike Pakistan, India has not engaged in black market proliferation. Like Pakistan, however, India has refused to accept certain disarmament responsibilities and practices expected of responsible nuclear states, including a legally-binding commitment not to conduct nuclear tests (such as signing the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), halting fissile material production for weapons, and reducing (not building up) its nuclear and missile arsenals.

The NSC's Froman went on to say that "this membership will come in a phased manner. And we will consult with our regime members to encourage the evolution of a membership criteria of these regimes consistent with maintaining their core principles. So as the membership criteria of these four regimes evolves, we intend to support India's full membership in them. And at the same time, India will take steps to fully adopt the regime's export control requirements to reflect its prospective membership."

Since India already claims to have a nuclear export control system and policies that are consistent with the NSG's guidelines, there would be no nonproliferation benefit to its membership in the NSG.

And, unless the Obama administration is willing to exert maximum diplomatic effort to convince the 45 other NSG members that the NPT requirement for membership should be dropped and that India should be invited to join, it is unlikely that the NSG members would go along with the ploy. The effort will create friction among NSG members and members of the NPT who are bothered by the fact that India, which has not lived up to the responsibilities of NPT membership, is getting the benefits of NPT membership.

President Obama came into office seeking to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation system and take steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. As he said in his landmark April 2009 speech in Prague "... in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons, rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. And all nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime."

Unfortunately, his gambit to bring India into the NSG undermines the nuclear nonproliferation system and his own stated goals. Rather than enable the expansion of India's arsenal and deepen Pakistan's drive to produce more bomb material, the United States should be more actively encouraging Asia's nuclear weapon states--India, China, and Pakistan-- to exercise nuclear restraint, beginning with an end to fissile material production for weapons and a legally-binding pledge to stop nuclear testing.