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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Indian Membership in the NSG? A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Not Come
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Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

Global efforts to prevent the spread of the world's most deadly weapons depend on universal compliance with rules that constrain the sale of nuclear technology.

Too often, however, powerful states try to make exceptions from these rules, or simply ignore them, in order to help powerful commercial nuclear interests score profits or to curry favor with key allies, or both.

The latest example is the Obama administration's proposal to create a process for India to join the 46-member 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 heavy water from United States.

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

The Obama administration announced its support for Indian membership in the NSG last November when the president visited India.

As we noted in an earlier post, President Barack Obama's proposal would further compound the damage to the global nuclear nonproliferation system caused by the George W. Bush administration's push to exempt India from long-standing U.S. laws and international standards barring nuclear trade with states, such as India, that have conducted nuclear tests and do not allow comprehensive international nuclear safeguards.

The Obama proposal for Indian membership in the NSG could also potentially undermine the NSG's ability to ensure that India respects the nonproliferation commitments that it made in order to win the NSG's support for the September 2008 decision by the group to exempt New Delhi from most of its rules and guidelines.

Background: The Indian Nuclear Deal

The Indian civil nuclear cooperation initiative was strongly opposed by a wide array of nonproliferation and security experts and became a controversial topic in the U.S. Congress.

Opponents, including the Arms Control Association, argued—and the U.S. intelligence community confirmed in a classified assessment—that opening civil nuclear trade India would allow New Delhi to import uranium for its civil nuclear program, thereby easing constraints on uranium availability in India.

This, in turn, could enable India to use more domestic uranium for its nuclear weapons program. This could constitute a potential violation of Article I of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires member states "not to transfer ... nuclear weapons ... and not in any way assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons ...." Under the NPT and U.S. law, India is a non-nuclear-weapon state.

The nuclear deal could give India access to modern nuclear technology and opportunities to train scientists and engineers that it can transfer into its weapons program. We pointed out that India's so-called civil-military separation plan was not credible and that the plan for facility-specific international safeguards on Indian civil nuclear power plants is inadequate and leaves India's military nuclear facilities outside of international safeguards.

We argued that the arrangement did not bring India into the nonproliferation "mainstream" because India refused to meet standards of behavior expected of responsible nuclear-armed nations, including halting production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, signing the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and not expanding the size and reach of its nuclear arsenal.

Congressional and NSG Conditions

After more than a year of debate, Congress approved changes to U.S. nuclear trade law but mandated several key conditions on U.S. nuclear trade with India and demanded regular reporting from the executive branch to ensure that civil nuclear trade would not lead India to produce more fissile material for nuclear weapons.

One of the key conditions in the legislation, which is known as the Henry J. Hyde Act and was strongly supported by then-Senator Obama, makes it clear that the United States has the right to terminate all nuclear trade with India if it resumes nuclear testing.

In a November 16, 2006, exchange on the floor of the Senate with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Obama said:

"I rise today to express my support for the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act.... However, I remain concerned about the issue of nuclear testing. A decision by the Indian Government to conduct such a test could trigger an arms race in South Asia that would be extremely dangerous and destabilizing."

"The good news is that the joint statement between President Bush and Prime Minister Singh of July 18, 2005 declared that India's unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing will continue. I take Prime Minister Singh at his word, but also believe in following President Reagan's mantra of "trust but verify."

"... is it the chairman's interpretation of the legislation that, in the event of a future nuclear test by the Government of India, nuclear power reactor fuel and equipment sales, and nuclear technology cooperation would terminate; other elements of the United States-India nuclear agreement would likely terminate; and the United States would have the right to demand the return of nuclear supplies?"

Mr Lugar: " Yes ..."

Obama wasn't the only one concerned about the nonproliferation impact of the proposal. Through the course of 2008, NSG member states debated the United States' proposal to exempt India, with several states seeking to bar trade involving uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technology (which can be used to produce bomb-grade uranium and plutonium), expand the scope of international safeguards over Indian nuclear facilities, and formally condition the exemption on the continuation of India's nuclear test moratorium.

For the most part, those efforts fell short. On September 6, 2008, the NSG reluctantly agreed to the exemption, over the protestations of the governments of Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, and others. The full text of the NSG decision on India is available online from ACA.

In the end, the decision by the NSG to make an exception for India was premised on India's voluntary compliance with several nonproliferation commitments that were outlined in a statement by India's Minister of External Affairs made the day before.

These include: a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons; working with others towards the conclusion of a multilateral fissile material cutoff treaty in the Conference on Disarmament that is universal, non-discriminatory, and verifiable; an existing, comprehensive system of national export controls and a commitment to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime and NSG guidelines.

Several NSG states, including Japan, made it clear that they would demand that the NSG revisit the India-specific exemption if India violated any of those nonproliferation commitments, including the nuclear test moratorium.

Allowing India to join the NSG would make it difficult if not impossible to revisit the September 2008 decision to exempt India from NSG guidelines in the event that India violates any of those pledges in the future.

The U.S. Proposal for Indian Membership in the NSG

In a discussion paper circulated by the U.S. delegation ahead of the NSG's June 23-24 annual plenary meeting in the Netherlands, the Obama administration has suggested that in order to allow India—which does not meet all of the current criteria— to join the NSG, the group could either:

1) "revise" the existing criteria for membership in the NSG; or

2) only "consider" the existing membership criteria when making judgments about membership, rather than making the criteria a requirement.

In other words, the Obama administration is suggesting that NSG's long-standing membership criteria should either be dumbed-down or ignored in order to fulfill the president's pledge to accommodate India's desire to be a member of the NSG club.

The full text of the May 23 U.S. "Food for Thought" paper on Indian NSG membership is available online through the ACA Web site.

Existing NSG procedures state that new member states should:

  • be able to supply the items on the NSG control lists;
  • adhere to and act in accordance with the guidelines;
  • be supportive of international efforts towards the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of their delivery vehicles;
  • be a party and in full compliance with the obligations of the NPT and various nuclear weapon free zone treaties; and
  • have in force a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Obama administration officials have argued that if India were allowed to participate in the discussions and the exchanges of information that take place within the NSG, New Delhi would have "more of a stake" in the regime.

That's wishy-washy logic given that India already has made a commitment to meet the NSG's export standards, which are nonbinding anyway. The NSG is free to engage with India as part of its outreach and consultations program with non-members.

Furthermore, the U.S. proposal would require nothing from New Delhi in return for granting India the benefits of NSG membership, which include de facto recognition as a responsible nuclear state and the ability to have a say in the group's decisions.

Compounding the Damage

At the NSG meeting in the Netherlands this week and in the months ahead, responsible NSG governments should also consider that:

  • opening the door to Indian membership in the NSG would further harden Pakistan's resolve to produce more fissile material for nuclear weapons and block negotiations on a global fissile material production ban;
  • 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 flout NSG rules by selling two additional nuclear reactors and fuel to Pakistan;
  • efforts to shoehorn India's entry into the NSG will likely trigger a further lobbying on the part of nuclear-armed, non-NPT members Pakistan and Israel for a similar exemption to the NSG's rules and/or to allow them to join the group.

Though some well-meaning nonproliferation analysts think "criteria-based" guidelines might be established that might "incentivize" better nonproliferation behavior on the part of Islamabad or Tel Aviv, discussions along these lines would undermine the viability of the NPT itself.

The vast majority of the 189 NPT member states have remained true to the original NPT bargain and forsworn nuclear weapons in return for access to peaceful nuclear technology under strict and verifiable control. Many of these states made this choice despite strong pressure to spurn the NPT and pursue the nuclear weapons path. They might make a different choice in the future if India, Pakistan, and Israel are allowed to have their radioactive cake and eat it too.

Proponents of loosening standards for civil nuclear commerce should recall that just last year, all NSG members and all other NPT member states agreed that "new supply arrangements" for nuclear transfers should require that the recipient accept IAEA "full-scope safeguards and international legally-binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons." For the foreseeable future, that should effectively rule out nuclear trade and NSG membership for Pakistan and Israel.

Lowering or Strengthening Standards?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the U.S. "Food for Thought" paper on Indian NSG membership is the suggestion that India has already met the conditions for "responsible nonproliferation and export control practices and willingness to contribute substantially to global nonproliferation objectives."

The paper, which was presented by Richard Stratford, the State Department's director of nuclear energy, safety, and security affairs, completely ignores other statements outlining the standards expected of responsible members of the international community that have been endorsed by the U.S. government, the UN Security Council, and members of the NPT.

The NSG should recall that all UN member states are obligated to support Security Council Resolution 1172, which was approved just weeks after tit-for-tat nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998.

Resolution 1172 calls on Pakistan and India to refrain from further testing, sign the CTBT, stop producing fissile material for weapons and undertake other nuclear risk reduction measures. To date, neither Pakistan nor India has halted fissile material production for weapons or signed the CTBT.

The NSG, as well as the White House, should also recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1887 outlines key steps to advance and strengthen the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime, including ratification of the CTBT, and seeks to address post-Cold War threats stemming from nuclear terrorism and unsecured nuclear material. Resolution 1887 calls upon all states to adopt more thorough inspections under the IAEA's additional protocol.

Resolution 1887 was adopted at a special meeting presided over by Obama, which was the highest level discussion of nuclear security issues in more than a decade.

The NSG, as well as the White House, should also recall the 64-point action plan that was endorsed by the 2010 NPT Review Conference. That statement calls for implementation of a number of additional nuclear risk reduction steps, including ratification and entry into force of the CTBT.

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:

"[I]n 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."

Right on, Mr. President. Unfortunately, the administration's gambit to bring India into the NSG undermines the nuclear nonproliferation system and Obama's own stated goals.

First, Do No Further Harm

At the NSG meeting in the Netherlands this week and in the months ahead, responsible NSG governments should reject the Obama administration's poorly conceived proposal for Indian membership in the NSG.

Before even considering membership options for India (or Pakistan or Israel), NSG members should actively encourage India to take concrete steps to end the production of weapons-usable nuclear material, translate its existing nuclear test moratorium into a legally binding ban by signing the CTBT, and freeze further development of long-range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.

The NSG should also clarify that all trade with India by NSG member states will be terminated if New Delhi's leaders resume nuclear weapons testing.