Fun And Games At The Nuclear Suppliers’ Group

India has applied to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. It’s not going well. 

The Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) was formed in 1974 in response to India’s underground nuclear test. At that time, Russia and the United States were investigating the use of nuclear weapons for large-scale construction projects, like another Panama Canal. Peaceful nuclear explosions, they called them. India said that its test was for such peaceful purposes.

The plutonium for the test device came from a peaceful nuclear reactor supplied to India by Canada. It was a wake-up call for the countries that could supply nuclear technology. The purpose of the NSG is to agree on export restrictions on technologies that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Fast forward to 2005 and the US decision to establish nuclear trade with India, even though India had not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which says that signatories will not trade such things with countries outside the treaty. That took some politicking at the NSG to make work, and it was approved.

A decade down the road, India would now like to be part of the NSG. And, oh yes, Pakistan would as well. Pakistan has been smarting since that US decision and has loudly made it known that it would also like nuclear trade opened. Not only is Pakistan not a signatory to the NPT, it is also the home of Dr. A. Q. Khan, who is probably responsible for more proliferation (to North Korea and Iran, for example) than any other single human being. Pakistan has not allowed outsiders to interview Dr. Khan.

India built its nuclear arsenal because of its nearby enemy, China, who is an ally of Pakistan. And, of course, Pakistan and India hate each other with a white-hot passion. Each is now the primary target for the other’s nukes.

What could India bring to the NSG? The United States is supporting India’s application. It is easy to be cynical and say that, like George W. Bush’s desire to open nuclear trade with India, Barack Obama would like to seal that deal, which hasn’t been going well either, largely because of India’s idiosyncratic insurance laws. Those may have recently been worked out.

I think there is more going on, though. Filling out the membership of the NPT is at an endgame stage. Only four states remain outside it; all have nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India are two; Israel and North Korea are the others. The NPT opens countries’ nuclear programs up to scrutiny. But it allows only the first five nuclear nations – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China – to possess nuclear weapons. If the last four were to join the NPT (or rejoin in the case of North Korea, which withdrew), they would have to pledge to eliminate their nuclear weapons and not make more. They aren’t going to do that any time soon.

But it would be desirable for them to allow inspections to see that their reactors are operating safely, that their radioactive sources for mineral prospecting and medical uses are being secured from terrorist theft, and generally behave as good nuclear citizens outside their weapons programs. Ways need to be found to encourage them to open that much to international inspection. NSG membership might encourage that.

On the other hand, India and Pakistan might want membership in the NSG to validate themselves implicitly as nuclear weapon states, along with having a say in how nuclear materials and related technologies are limited in trade. Or they may want the ability to veto restrictions they don’t like. Pakistan has blocked action on treaties by the United Nations Commission on Disarmament for a decade or more.

Mark Hibbs lays out the issues here. He is following the actions closely and reporting via Twitter.Sharon Squassoni, also following the ongoing meeting, comments on China’s role here. China opposes India’s membership in the NSG, for reasons consistent with the NSG’s purpose. China, however, is also partial to Pakistan, which is not currently applying for membership.

In a media supplement to the direct politicking of the NSG members, Al Jazeera reports that India has trained North Koreans at a research center. Connections to nuclear issues seem thin. India fires back, in a report based entirely on anonymous sources, that Pakistan is selling nuclear material to North Korea and China knows it.

The NSG makes decisions on consensus, which is far away as I write.

Update (June 26, 2016): Very good article on the nonapproval of India and the membership of treaties more generally.


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