There are few things more galling, to those thus inclined, than having their applications to enter an exclusive gentlemen’s club denied by blackballing — and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s possibly feeling just that this week, with his high-visibility bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group once again denied. There’s little possibility that India’s effort to join the NSG — the most hallowed high table of the nuclear élite — will meet with success any time soon. The problem is a simple one.
China argues that since India is being allowed to join the NSG without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, until now a precondition, the rules of club membership need to be amended for all. The argument is designed to benefit Pakistan, but the NSG’s other members do not wish to be seen to be rewarding that country’s unedifying record of proliferating nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Indian diplomats have worked hard, in recent months, to bring other countries with reservations on making an exception for India on board — among them, Switzerland and Mexico. There’s now a broad consensus that Indian membership of the NSG would strengthen the global non-proliferation regime. However, since that broad consensus doesn’t include China, it means nothing.
How significant a setback is this for India? In practical terms, the stakes in this battle are relatively low. The fight is, in some senses, about prestige, not tangible ends. India needs nuclear technology and fuel; an exemption granted to India by the NSG in 2008 allows it access to both. The truth is that India, mired in domestic debates over liability for nuclear accidents, has been slow to capitalise on the opportunities the exemption opened up. Indian companies like Larsen & Tubro or Walchandnagar Industries, who have experience with construction of nuclear power plants, could find markets overseas if the country gains NSG membership. They are not, however, likely to emerge as major exporters of nuclear technology, at least in the short term.
How might things proceed from here? There are at least three options. First, India could relegate its NSG bid to the back-burner, and focus on growing its domestic nuclear energy infrastructure. It could, alternately, work towards a bargain where China is allowed entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime, where India is now assured of membership, in return for dropping its veto in the NSG. Finally, India could explore whether a door could be opened for Pakistani membership of the NSG, in return for that country opening up its notoriously opaque nuclear programme to international scrutiny. Pakistan has been the sole international hold-out against the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would cap stockpiles meant for the production of nuclear weapons; NSG membership might be a means to induce it to come on board with a verifiable means to cap its arsenal. Instead of the sometimes undignified preening India’s pursuit of a place in the nuclear club has been given to, it’s time for quiet, and creative diplomacy.