India’s bid to become a respectable nuclear power is facing powerful resistance
By the time you read this, we will probably know whether the UK’s future lies within the EU. But Narendra Modi, India’s president, will still be eagerly waiting for the result of another vote. After hours of inconclusive discussions on Thursday, members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 48-nation body that governs the global nuclear trade, have another day to decide whether Delhi should be allowed to join them.
India has applied many times before. It has never worked. Yet the country is pinning high hopes on the outcome of this week’s special NSG session, held in Seoul. Outside observers also believe Delhi has more chances than ever to finally make the cut. So what’s different this time round?
India has been excluded from the NSG since the group’s creation. In fact, the club was established in reaction to India’s own clandestine nuclear test in 1974; one of its stated aims is to ensure that civilian trade of nuclear material is not diverted for military uses. All of its members have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – something India has always refused.
Yet Delhi’s bid has lately benefitted from powerful tailwinds. Chief among them has been open support from the US, which has grown more vocal since the ‘bromance’ between Modi and Barack Obama started two years ago. India had scored an initial victory in 2008, when it secured a unilateral waiver from the US allowing it to buy nuclear equipment. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia – aimed at containing Beijing’s growing clout in the region – has given the bilateral relationship a new impetus. Earlier this week India and the US held their annual joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan, their most complex ever.
Indian diplomats have spent most of year touring the globe to convince others. Odds have since tilted in their favour: Modi enlisted new allies after visiting Switzerland and Mexico earlier this month. Soon Delhi will also gain entry to the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime, whose aim is to keep rogue states from acquiring missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Reports from Seoul suggest early objections from Brazil, Austria and New Zealand have now whittled down.
But a notable obstacle remains. A member of the NSG, China doesn’t like seeing the West cosying up to its giant neighbour – particularly at a time when Indian military officials are actively seeking co-operation with Washington. It is friendly to Pakistan, Delhi’s archenemy, and sees India as a rival. Because the club’s decisions have to be unanimous, Beijing’s veto is enough to derail Delhi’s bid. Noises coming out of the summit suggest it is exercising it.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Pakistan also wants to join. China says it would be happy to consider India’s membership, but only if membership criteria can be defined for NPT non-signatories. But that would mean considering Pakistan as well, which given Islamabad’s dreadful non-proliferation record few nations would be accept.
From a technical standpoint, another rebuff may not matter much to India. Delhi has already secured access to nuclear fuel, and US-based Westinghouse says it is finalising contracts to build six reactors in Southern India. Still, the issue is not about to go away. Being a member of the NSG would allow Modi to roll out nuclear plants more cheaply; it would also open markets in which to sell its own technology. And India, eager to rid itself of its pariah label, is also motivated by pride. Don’t expect it to pull the plug on its ‘In’ campaign.