The Seoul plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ended on June 24 without a “conclusive” decision on India’s membership bid. This has sparked partisan sniping in India, where the Congress party has accused the Modi government of showing “desperation” in its diplomacy. It has also spurred a flurry of commentary about the “failure” of India’s bid. Both statements are untrue, and miss the larger picture: India has made significant progress toward its quest for NSG membership, a long and complicated multilateral pursuit. This effort did not begin in June 2016, but has been underway for several years. India should keep pressing for a decision.
For those who woke up to India’s interest in NSG membership only over the past month, it likely appears that the run-up to the June plenary — with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Switzerland, the US, and Mexico — was a fast-and-furious diplomatic press with a disappointing outcome. A positive decision certainly would have been a welcome result, for New Delhi and for its supporters in Washington and in many other capitals around the world. But imagine the counterfactual: Had India sat back quietly, mentioning its NSG bid only in passing, the participating governments in the NSG would have concluded that New Delhi placed little priority on membership. I doubt that would have positioned India’s candidacy more favourably.
This leads to lesson number one. The 48 members of the NSG are seeing India’s clear interest in making the rules that organise the world, in consonance with its larger position in the global economy and rising global power. The fact that the prime minister made clear his search for support at the highest levels around the world shows leadership, not “desperation.”
India has interests in joining a number of other multilateral organisations in which it presently does not hold membership, from the UN Security Council to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to others, and will need to keep up active diplomatic strategies across multiple levels to advance its candidacies. That each of these will not come to fruition exactly when India wants is no reason for New Delhi to either stop trying or downplay its diplomatic efforts.
On the question of the NSG, India’s membership bid has always been a complex and ideological affair. The organisation was originally formed as a result of India’s 1974 nuclear test, and over the years it has developed its own “Factors to be Considered” for membership. India’s stance as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — for its own well-documented reasons — means that it will appear to a number of countries for which the NPT looms large as not meeting a basic threshold.
The US has stated publicly on numerous occasions that it views India, based on its record of responsible nuclear technology stewardship, its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, its export control laws, its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its publicly stated commitments to disarmament and nonproliferation, as ready for NSG membership. Essentially, Washington has argued that India’s responsible stance illustrates that India approaches advanced nuclear technology in the same way that the NSG members do. But some countries that have staked much of their international diplomacy on nonproliferation matters, like Ireland and New Zealand, may require further convincing still.
Which brings us to the matter of decision by consensus. A consensus-based organisation functions very differently from a majority or super-majority voting process. If the NSG used a majority vote process, India likely already would have been inducted as a member. However, it does not, and that means even one holdout can prevent a decision. As a US government official explained to me, at Seoul only a handful of countries continued to have process concerns. Notably, the NSG plenary public statement from Seoul does not speak of a negative decision on the question of how to induct non-NPT countries into the NSG. Rather, it “decided to continue the discussion.”
Lesson number two: Continuing the discussion is not a diplomatic failure. (If it were, the US-India civil nuclear agreement could have been called a failure many times on the road to its completion.) India’s diplomacy, and indeed the concerted engagement of high-level US State Department and White House officials over the course of the past weeks, have brought more than 40 countries on board as supporters of Indian membership. The challenge ahead — to convince remaining holdouts — is much smaller than when this process began.
A path to successful NSG membership still exists for India, including the possibility of calling an “Extraordinary Plenary” meeting of the NSG later this year instead of waiting for next year’s plenary meeting. (The September 2008 exemption for India took place through an Extraordinary Plenary.) India and the countries supporting its bid can and should continue building India’s case for membership, which will be strengthened even further with India’s Missile Technology Control Regime membership. The most vocal holdout, China, should hear from dozens of countries that have made firm commitments to support Indian membership, like Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. Holding out against Indian membership to seek parity for Pakistan on an issue in which Pakistan possesses the most egregiously bad track record in the world has no rationale, and is embarrassing for Chinese diplomacy.
Given its fraught history, nothing about India’s pursuit of NSG membership has been easy. But that is no reason to critique the effort or assume failure. If anything, the Seoul plenary sends encouraging signals to keep at it.