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The Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Indo-US nuclear deal

Arun Vishwanathan teaches at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore. He was previously Assistant Director, National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India. Prior to NSCS he was Junior Research Fellow, Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi.
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  • September 26, 2007

    In the midst of the domestic hullabaloo surrounding the nuclear deal in India, the United States convened a special meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on September 20, 2007 at Vienna on the sidelines of the IAEA Annual General Conference to brief members on the deal. The NSG derives its important position in international civil nuclear commerce from its membership, which currently stands at forty-five and includes a majority of countries engaged in nuclear trade. NSG members control roughly 80 per cent of the global uranium reserves and about 78 per cent of global uranium production.1 Currently, Namibia, Niger and Uzbekistan are the only three non-NSG countries producing significant amounts of uranium. However, they are party to Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaties and once the African and Central Asian nuclear weapon free zones come into force they too would insist upon full scope safeguards for any transfer of nuclear material or technology to non-nuclear weapon states as defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). NSG members possess a stranglehold on the entire spectrum of nuclear technology, given that there is no supplier country outside of the NSG with civilian nuclear technology.

    Till recently, India has been suspicious of the NSG's activities given that the Group was set up in response to its Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in May 1974. Because NSG guidelines do not possess the sanctity of an international treaty and their implementation is left to the will of the member countries through their respective national export control laws, India initially managed to circumvent them by approaching supplier countries directly. But this route was blocked in 1992 when the Warsaw Guidelines were drawn up, which made a full-scope safeguards agreement with the Internal Atomic Energy Agency a precondition for the supply of Trigger List items to 'non-nuclear weapon states'.

    Modification of the NSG Guidelines is imperative to allow India to embark on civil nuclear trade with supplier countries. However, the fact that the Group works on the basis of consensus makes this a complex issue. The NSG is an amalgamation of several supplier countries, each working with its own set of priorities and motivations. It therefore becomes important to map out the manner in which member states have received the Indo-US nuclear deal and how they are likely to vote on an India-specific waiver as and when the matter comes up for discussion.

    NSG members can be broadly classified into five groups (see Table below). The first group comprises of countries that have supported the deal over the last two years. The second group consists of states that are likely to go along with the United States and Russia on the issue. Members of the New Agenda Coalition comprise the third group. The fourth group consists of countries that do not wish to see the dilution of the NPT as a consequence of the India deal.

    China is one country that does not fit into any of these categories and thus remains a class apart. Initially, in the wake of the July 18, 2005 joint statement, Beijing had maintained a studied silence on the issue. Subsequently, it launched a verbal tirade against the US move, depicting as an example of American 'double standards'. It went on to say that if the US made a "nuclear exception" for India other powers could do the same with their friends, which would ultimately weaken the global non-proliferation regime. 'Hypocrisy' is the word that comes to mind here, given China's past proliferation record of extending wide-ranging assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme including complete weapons design, ring magnets, missile systems, etc.

    There have been subsequent reports, mentioning unnamed sources in the Chinese delegation to the IAEA Board of Governors, that China would give its assent to the US proposal for an NSG exception clause for India in return being allowed to continue exporting power reactors to Pakistan. This is in total contrast to the de-hyphenation that the Bush administration has introduced in its ties with India and Pakistan, with Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns going to the extent of declaring that the nuclear deal is unique to India and will not be extended "in any way, shape or form" to any other country including Pakistan.

    In recent months, however, China has adopted a more ambivalent stand. On September 6, 2007, for instance, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson blandly pointed out that "…within the Nuclear Suppliers Group there are different views about relaxing the restrictions on nuclear exports to India" without any hint about what China's views in this regard are.

    Possible sub-groupings within the Nuclear Suppliers Group on the Indo-US deal2

    NSG Grouping Member States
    Countries that support the Nuclear Deal Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, United Kingdom, United States
    Countries likely to support the deal under American or Russian influence Argentina, Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine
    States with significant non-proliferation concerns Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland
    Non-committal States Switzerland3
    Possible Spoiler China
    New Agenda Coalition Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden.4

    Over the last two years India has been lobbying various member states of the NSG to secure support for an exception in its favour. In June 2005 the Minister of State for External Affairs, Anand Sharma visited Brazil and South Africa and held discussions on this issue. In July 2006, Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and currently the Prime Minister's Special Envoy on the nuclear deal, hosted NSG Ambassadors at Washington in a bid to assuage their concerns. Also, in the run up to the Rio Plenary, Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the United States, met several representatives of NSG states in a bid to energise opinion in favour of the agreement. India's diplomatic efforts have reaped benefits in the form of support from several NSG members like France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Cyprus, Australia and South Africa.

    There are, however, several countries that have expressed concerns about providing an exception for India. Most are concerned about the impact the deal will have on the NPT. Norway and Ireland, for example, have in the past expressed concerns about the deal. During the Plenary session of the NSG held at Rio de Janeiro on May 29, 2006, Norway, Sweden and Ireland were three significant hold outs. During his visit to New Delhi in December 2005, Norwegian Prime Minster Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that Norway appreciated India's need for civil nuclear energy, but insisted that India sign the NPT if it wanted the NSG to modify the guidelines in its favour. But Norwegian diplomats were quick to clarify subsequently that their government did not intend to make India joining the NPT a pre-condition for its membership in the NSG.

    The issue of NSG membership, though separate from the current debate on granting an exception to India, is likely to arise subsequently. Currently, the NSG criterion for membership requires the applicant to be a NPT signatory. In future, when India begins to engage in civil nuclear commerce with NSG members, it would not like to be in a situation where it has to adhere to NSG Guidelines including any future amendments without being a party to the decision-making process.

    The internal dynamics of the NSG are quite complex. One example of this is the fact that Brazil and South Africa, despite being members of the New Agenda Coalition, have extended support for the Indo-US nuclear deal. Members of this Coalition are otherwise vociferous supporters of full-scope safeguards as a condition for transfer of trigger list items and technology to 'non-nuclear weapon states'. It is thus possible that there may be other NSG members who would similarly extend support for the India-specific waiver in spite of their existing allegiances.

    Amendment to the NSG Guidelines

    It is understood that the existing NSG Guidelines need to be modified to enable India to participate in civil nuclear commerce with the Group's members. As India is not a member of the Group, it has to rely upon the United States and its allies to pursue the matter. In the July 18, 2005 statement, the US had agreed to work with "like minded states" to modify NSG Guidelines. Key Indian decision makers have made statements to the effect that they expect the US to work out a "clean and unconditional" exemption for India from the NSG.

    A clear cut exception would necessarily mean that the NSG allows participating governments to conduct civil nuclear commerce with India without insisting upon full scope safeguards. Currently Article 4(a) of the NSG Part I Guidelines requires full scope safeguards for transfer of trigger list items or related technology to 'non-nuclear weapon states'.

    The US had circulated a pre-decisional draft prior to a NSG consultative group meeting in Vienna held on March 22-23, 2006. It provided for a clean India-specific exception and for removal of the requirement of full-scope safeguards, thereby allowing NSG members to "transfer Trigger List items and/or related technology to the safeguarded civil nuclear facilities in India…" It has been reported that China and Japan raised several questions at this meeting, many of which were critical of the deal. As Siddharth Varadarajan pointed out in a March 2006 article, the American draft cleverly skirted the issue of India's 'non-nuclear weapon state' status by referring to it as "a State not party, and never having been a party, to the NPT." Such phraseology allows an exception to be granted without referring to India as a 'non-nuclear weapon state'. By adopting this line, the US seeks to assuage the concerns of its domestic non-proliferation lobby while at the same time paying due heed to India's concerns about being classified as a 'non-nuclear weapon state'.

    It has been reported that China subsequently circulated a draft at the NSG, which allows civil nuclear cooperation though without an India specific exception. The Chinese draft reportedly lays down criteria for granting such an exception without naming India.

    During its initial stages, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was called the London Club, and the standing joke is that it still very much functions like one. Therefore, what actually transpired last week at the special meeting held in Vienna will take some time to seep out. In any event, India and the US need to work towards building a consensus at the NSG and strategise means to overcome the possible opposition of China and/or states that have non-proliferation concerns to the grant of a clear and unconditional exception for India.


    • 1. Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)
    • 2. The table is not definitive. It is meant to serve as a pointer to the positions of various countries on the India specific exception based either on statements made on the issue or on their national policies.
    • 3. Switzerland has not come out with any reaction to the US proposal on granting a permanent exception to India. However, it is possible that domestic nuclear industry might convince the government citing the enormous economic potential that a waiver in favour of India would open up.
    • 4. Ireland and Sweden were critical of the deal at the Rio Plenary held in May 2006.