The India-US joint statement issued during President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India envisages India’s early membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal arrangement that aims to ensure responsible nuclear trade for peaceful purposes to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation. Expectedly, Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, stated in response that “Pakistan is opposed to yet another country-specific exemption from NSG rules to grant membership to India, as this would further compound the already fragile strategic stability environment in South Asia”.
It is instructive to recall that the NSG was created directly in response to India’s nuclear test in 1974. By diverting nuclear material from a peaceful programme, India committed the original sin of proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia. Pakistan was destined to pursue its own nuclear option, while knowing fully well that this would be a mammoth task, especially in view of technology barriers being erected by the newly formed NSG. Over four decades, the NSG has transitioned from a technology-denial cartel to a potent non-proliferation mechanism, whose export control guidelines are deemed a sine qua non part of the global non-proliferation regime. In a way, it has overtaken the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in curbing the supplier-driven part of the proliferation puzzle. It seemed logical for the NSG not to engage in full nuclear cooperation with India, Pakistan and Israel — a unique group of countries, which have never joined the NPT.
However, the NSG’s credibility has been tainted by its differentiated relationship with these non-NPT states. The NSG selectively reversed its policy by granting an unprecedented country-specific exemption to India from its trade rules in 2008. Though this exemption was built on the pretext of India’s ‘impeccable’ non-proliferation record, it is well established that the US intended to use the NSG to advance its strategic interest to build India as a counter-weight against China.
Now, blinded further in pursuit of its strategic interests, the US is pushing hard for India’s NSG membership. Pakistan clearly understands its implications. Since all decisions in the NSG are made through consensus, if India becomes an NSG member before Pakistan, it would veto Pakistan’s membership bid in the future. Sans nuclear cooperation with the NSG, the realisation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Nuclear Energy Vision 2050 of 40,000MW of nuclear power generation would become an insurmountable undertaking. It is perhaps in this backdrop that Sartaj Aziz stated that “Pakistan is not averse to civil nuclear cooperation and NSG membership for non-NPT states provided it is based on the principles of non-discrimination and objective non-proliferation criteria”.
The criteria-based NSG membership to non-NPT states is principally an antidote to an India-only approach spearheaded by the US. Generally, this approach is seen from a non-proliferation perspective by making non-NPT states accept certain nuclear arms control obligations, which would restrain their nuclear weapons programmes, but hardly any analysis has surfaced on how this could contribute to strategic stability in South Asia. It can become a viable alternative cooperative framework to promote strategic stability in South Asia as this approach transcends various regional/ bilateral complexities. Four compelling arguments can be made in this regard.
Firstly, this criteria-based approach can be a multilateral solution to a regional problem, which would not require any bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan. Rather they would be expected to conform to the criteria set forth by the NSG. Nuclear arms control commitments made as part of the criteria to gain NSG membership may help stimulate the stalled bilateral nuclear confidence-building measures (CBM) process, which has enabled the two states to conclude two significant agreements related to pre-notification of ballistic missile testing and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons related accidents.
Secondly, we have seen that after India’s nuclear tests in 1998, its political leadership hurled belligerent statements warning Pakistan to conform to the ‘new reality’. Nonetheless, sanity revisited once Pakistan responded in kind to restore the strategic balance in the region. Consequently, both sides recognised nuclear weapons as a “factor of stability” in a joint statement issued in New Delhi in 2004. However, following the India-NSG exemption in 2008, Indian dismissiveness to several CBM proposals made by Pakistan reappeared. These episodes hypothesise that nuclear differential between two states triggers instability, while nuclear parity restores stability. Going by this logic, the India-alone NSG membership would erode strategic stability whereas criteria-based membership of India and Pakistan has the potential to undo the India-NSG faux pas of 2008 and to restore strategic stability in South Asia.
Thirdly, the criteria-based approach has no entanglement with the so-called role of non-state actors in hampering the strategic relationship between the two states. India attempted to emulate the US following the 9/11 terrorist attack by alleging Pakistan’s complicity in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 by amassing its military forces on the Pakistani border for nearly a year. However, the efficacy of nuclear deterrence was proven with India’s peaceful retreat without firing a single bullet. India also had to calm down following the 2008 Mumbai incident when conventional deterrence played its part under the nuclear overhang. The best course of action for both nuclear states is to develop counterterrorism cooperation based on concrete intelligence rather than indulging in futile blame games.
Lastly, a criteria-based NSG membership has no implication for India’s preoccupation with China. India has rejected several nuclear and missile restraint initiatives by Pakistan, including a proposal to establish a Strategic Restraint Regime in South Asia, on the argument that India has to cater to the threat posed by China. While this remains a subject of detailed inquiry, apparently China would welcome a joint NSG membership for India and Pakistan through the criteria-based approach, which could ease the nuclear antagonism between two states and facilitate socio-economic development.
In a nutshell, the NSG can convert the problematic issue of India’s membership into a window of opportunity to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and to foster strategic stability in South Asia. The NSG must, therefore, adopt a cautious and deliberative approach to build consensus for India and Pakistan’s integration into the NSG on a criteria-based approach, and not in any other way.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2015.