The NSG and South Asian Security

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal cartel of 48 countries that regulates nuclear commerce for civilian uses and prevents nuclear weapons proliferation met in Vienna on 9 and 10 June to consider a request for membership by India. To stake its claim for equal and non-discriminatory treatment, Pakistan has also applied for membership.

What is ironic is that the extra-ordinary NSG session was convened at the behest of the US to consider India’s membership, the very country whose nuclear test in 1974 led to the creation of the NSG in order to prevent what India had done – the clandestine diversion of nuclear fuel from civilian uses to nuclear weapons production. If India is admitted, not only would it be a self-inflicted wound for the NSG, but would also undermine the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime and strategic security in South Asia by unleashing a new round of a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.

The latest reports from Vienna suggest that the US and a few other countries have expressed support for Indian membership, mostly as a result of American pressure and the lure of commercial gain. But another group of countries, led by China, is resisting this pressure on the basis of principles – that before any decision is taken about India’s membership, the NSG needs to agree on equitable and non-discriminatory criteria for membership of those countries that are nuclear weapon states, but are not signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and/or members of one of the existing nuclear weapon free zones in the world – requirements for NSG membership. They are also arguing that if any exception to the rules is to be made, then it should apply equally to both India and Pakistan. Since all NSG decisions are made by consensus, even one member of the group can block a decision.

The implications of granting exclusive membership to India are already very clear, especially in South Asia. After the US pushed through an India specific waiver for nuclear cooperation by the NSG in 2008, a decision which Pakistan regrettably at the time did not contest due to American pressure, has enabled India to expand its nuclear arsenal. As was then expected by Pakistan, India has been able to use the imported nuclear fuel to operate its civilian nuclear reactors while being free to use its indigenous nuclear stocks for increased fissile material production. Moreover, since India has not fully separated its civilian and military nuclear reactors, which it had committed to do to gain the waiver, it has been diverting this fissile material from civilian to military use. This diversion, pointed out repeatedly by Pakistan, has now been confirmed by independent sources such as the Belfer Center of Harvard University and the US think-tank Arms Control Today. Even US Senator Ed Markey has raised such concerns in a recent Senate hearing.

The waiver for India has been supplemented by the Indo-US strategic partnership agreement involving transfer of sensitive, state of the art military technologies to India, which has significantly contributed to its massive conventional and strategic military buildup. India, the largest arms importer in the world for the last 3 years according to SIPRI reports, is also now the largest buyer of US weaponry. In addition, India has developed its strategic arsenal by acquiring a triad of nuclear capable delivery systems of air, land and sea based short, medium and long range missiles. It has raised the nuclear profile in South Asia by pursuing Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and developing a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. This rising conventional and strategic asymmetry has made the prospect of India pursuing its aggressive doctrine of “Cold Start”, which envisages limited conventional war under nuclear overhang, a realistic possibility.

With the international non-proliferation regime, India has continued to flout even its limited commitments to earn the 2008 waiver. It has not fully separated its civilian and military nuclear reactors; refused even limited transparency regarding use of imported civilian nuclear fuel and refused to sign the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) nor stopped production of fissile material.

In such circumstances, Pakistan has been compelled to purse a policy of full-spectrum deterrence by enhancing its range of strategic and tactical delivery systems. This has met with international concern. However, instead of recognizing the legitimate threat to Pakistan’s security posed by Indian conventional and strategic acquisitions, which the US has helped promote, the Obama Administration has asked Pakistan to commit to a freeze in the quantity and range of its nuclear and missile programmes without pushing for a commensurate regional framework for nuclear and missile cutoffs which would include India.

Against this backdrop, Indian membership of NSG would actually accelerate an already dangerous and intense strategic arms race in South Asia. Exclusive Indian membership would also ensure future Indian ability to block Pakistan from becoming a member of the NSG via the consensus rule. Equally important, NSG membership would grant legitimacy to India as a “responsible” nuclear weapon state while consigning Pakistan to being a virtual “rogue” nuclear power.

A strong view in Pakistan assumes a much larger American objective behind its vigorous support for India at the NSG, while opposing Pakistan. This view flows from the China-containment framework and cautions that continued discrimination may impact an already fragile bilateral relationship.

The discussions in the Vienna NSG meeting and its regular session in Seoul later this month are likely to have crucial and far-reaching effects on strategic stability in South Asia. Hanging in the balance now is not just the future of security and stability in South Asia, but perhaps the future of Pakistan-US relations.


The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and was Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and to the Conference on Disarmament.

Please note that the views in this publication do not reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2016