Showdown in Korea

China and the US will battle it out for Pakistan and India at this year's NSG meeting

Showdown in Korea
The twenty-sixth plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) scheduled for later this month in South Korea is expected to be overshadowed by a looming showdown between China and the United States over Indian and Pakistani candidatures for the nuclear trade cartel. The actual agenda for the annual session is about updating export control lists for nuclear material and technologies, and technical matters related to that.

Beijing and Washington have contrasting views on the membership of the group. The former, which is seen to be backing Pakistan, has been insisting on sticking to the admission criteria that requires entrants to be Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories, while the latter wants an exception for India for being ‘like-minded’.

The views of the 46 other members are equally important in the group that works through consensus, but they are likely to be influenced by Chinese and American positions.

In May, Pakistan had formally launched its bid for the membership for the 48 nation group, which controls trade and international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. While applying for entry into the group, Pakistan had based its case on the contention that it possesses “the expertise, manpower, infrastructure, as well as the ability to supply NSG controlled items, goods and services for a full range of nuclear applications for peaceful uses” and that it had harmonized its national control list with those of nuclear cartels like the NSG, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Australia Group. Additionally, it underscored that its national export control regime was underpinned by strong legislation, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms.

Success in getting the membership of the club would indeed be a major achievement, but Pakistan’s primary objective is to seek equality and non-discrimination, officials say, which is implied as an attempt to block Indian membership application.
Delhi's entry will put Islamabad in a permanently disadvantaged position

Both Pakistan and India are non-NPT countries and hence technically do not meet the admission criteria. But the US, which facilitated an NSG waiver for India for nuclear trade in 2008, wants to get Delhi in as a special case. The American support for the Indian case flows from a commitment made by President Barack Obama in 2015.

Pakistan’s concern, meanwhile, has been that India’s entry would permanently put it in a disadvantaged position. Delhi would be able to veto any future attempts by Islamabad at joining the group, as well as its civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreements. The latter could become a major impediment in the way to achieving the target of generating 40,000 MW of electricity from nuclear sources by 2050. Pakistan’s ongoing cooperation with China is useful, but it would have to get cooperation from other countries if that target is to be met. If India is sitting in the NSG, that would for become impossible for all practical purposes.

Therefore, the Pakistani position is that either both India and Pakistan should be admitted together, or no one enters the club.

A major objection to Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear programs in the past has been the concern about its proliferation record and the safety and security of its facilities. But that shouldn’t be an obstacle anymore with the US itself acknowledging the progress made by Pakistan.

“The US delegation recognized Pakistan’s significant efforts to harmonize its strategic trade controls with those of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other multilateral export control regimes,” according to a statement at the conclusion of the Pakistan-US Security, Strategic Stability, and Nonproliferation Working Group meeting.

Despite this acknowledgment, the US remains opposed to Pakistan’s entry in the NSG. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing in Washington that Islamabad’s request would be decided by consensus. On India’s case, he referred to President Obama’s commitment.

Realizing that the US would not get its way until Beijing lifts its veto on the entry of the non-NPT India, Washington has begun behind-the-scenes negotiations with Islamabad, according to sources privy to the developments ahead of the Korea meeting.

Tensions in bilateral ties caused by the recent developments – including the cancellation of the F-16 deal due to a Congressional restriction on partially funding the sale from the Foreign Military Financing program, cuts on the Coalition Support Fund reimbursements, and differences over reconciliation in Afghanistan –may not allow the two sides to reach an agreement.

The situation is similar to the 2008 voting at IAEA for country-specific nuclear safeguards for India, which eventually set the base for India getting an NSG waiver despite being a non-NPT country. Pakistan and China objected to the IAEA agreement, but the Pakistani government later succumbed to Washington’s pressure, and Beijing too withdrew its objection.

International politics apart, India seems to be struggling to convince the world about its honesty in fulfilling its commitments on the matter.

Petr Topychkanov, a senior Russian researcher at Carnegie Moscow Center ’s Non-Proliferation Program, believes world would be cautious about India’s quest for NSG membership.

“India wants to be part of NSG, but the nuclear waiver given to India became a very important part of the lesson for international community because Delhi then did not give a lot in exchange … it didn’t change policies and approaches,” he said in a lecture at Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad based think tank, during his visit to Islamabad in May.

At the time of the waiver following the India-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement, India had committed that it would  separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities in a phased manner, place civil nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards and sign and adhere to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. It promised that it would continue its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, work with the United States for the conclusion of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), refrain from the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology to states that do not have them and support international efforts to limit their spread. It had also vowed to introduce comprehensive export control legislation to secure nuclear material, and adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and NSG guidelines.

Topychkanov said it wouldn’t be the same this time. India would have to “show serious progress in relations with the IAEA, the UN and the international nuclear community.”

Even if Pakistan and India fail to get an entry into the NSG this time, the struggle is all set to continue.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr