India and the Nuclear Suppliers Group: Time for Plan B

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2008 Volume 29 Issue 3

While ultimately unsuccessful, recent action at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) saw at least some brave attempts to preserve a core nuclear nonproliferation principle – namely, that civilian nuclear cooperation is to be reserved for states that honour the global norm against nuclear weapons and adhere to full-scope safeguards (i.e., full inspections of all of a country’s nuclear facilities) administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Canada was decidedly and regrettably not among those that fought to uphold the principle. By the time of the key August and September meetings, the Cabinet had already made the decision that Canada would support Washington’s request that the principle be waived in the case of India. It was not that Ottawa was indifferent to the long-established rule, as was implied in news reports that Canada had sent a non-expert delegation to the meetings.1 In fact, the Canadian Ambassador to Austria led the delegation, and it should be noted that the Ambassador is a senior nonproliferation diplomat who is accredited to the IAEA and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), two key nonproliferation posts, and is thus well equipped to be the Canadian lead. The delegation also included Ottawa-based officials from the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament division within the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

So the point is not that Canada failed to recognize the full import of what was being decided. The point is that the Harper Government understood and welcomed the fact that the central nonproliferation rule was being seriously compromised. Canada’s decision to support an exemption to the rule for India2 represents a major reversal in Canadian nonproliferation policy and is almost certain to be followed by the pursuit of nuclear trade with India, a state with nuclear weapons that persists in rejecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a moratorium on the production of fissionable materials for weapons purposes.

A dangerous decision

That the NSG exemption for India represents a danger to the nuclear nonproliferation regime is widely understood within the arms control and disarmament community. For that reason, the exemption was resisted with some vigour by Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. Observers used terms like “catastrophic” and “disaster” to describe the decision that was ultimately taken, and a Washington Post op-ed was headed, “Risking Armageddon for cold, hard cash.” On September 6, former UN Under Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, the widely respected Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, issued a last minute e-mail warning that “a gaping hole is being created in the NPT through which Israel and Pakistan will drive unless the US Congress or a new US Administration revise the proposed deal ensuring the survival of the NPT beyond 2010.”

The reasons to be wary of the decision are manifold.

  1. Accelerated production of fissile material for weapons purposes: Perhaps the most immediate impact of civilian nuclear cooperation with India will be the accelerated production of bomb ingredients. That danger is most clearly outlined in a 2006 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials based at Princeton University (Mian et al 2006). Based on its calculations, it can be determined that, over the next decade, India will be in a position to produce an arsenal of more than 300 warheads, which could rival or exceed those of the UK, France, and China. While it is not definite that India will do so, the world has now seen how extraordinarily tenacious India is in insisting that any civilian nuclear cooperation arrangements place absolutely no restraints on its military nuclear programs. Few observers believe that China will ignore the emerging possibilities next door.
    Another related outcome of the NSG decision is the setback it delivers to efforts toward a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT). India has declared its openness to join negotiations on such a treaty, but it steadfastly refuses to join those nuclear weapon states that have signed the NPT in declaring a moratorium on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes until such time as a Treaty can be negotiated. A declaration in support of an FMCT without a moratorium has little meaning since the start of treaty negotiations is hopelessly stymied in the UN Conference on Disarmament. Furthermore China, which is already wary of an FMCT even though it is formally open to negotiations, will be even more cautious if India is now granted the opportunity to expand its production of fissile materials.
  2. Test ban treaty opportunity squandered: Continued nuclear warhead production will generate internal Indian demands for more warhead testing; this explains India’s dogged insistence that the NSG decision not be conditional on a no-test requirement. India has affirmed its ongoing unilateral and voluntary moratorium on testing, but one of the NSG’s most flagrant betrayals of responsibility was its failure to call India’s bluff and require it to formalize its political statement on a testing moratorium as a genuine obligation. India’s refusal to sign the CTBT is a key obstacle to the entry into force of a treaty that is repeatedly declared by the international community to be one of the most urgent measures in the struggle to prevent vertical and horizontal nuclear escalation and proliferation.
  3. A violation of binding international rules: The NSG decision is in violation of at least three binding, hard-won, and collective decisions by the international community in relation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1995 NPT States decided, as a condition of the indefinite extension of the Treaty, that “acceptance of the [IAEA’s] full-scope safeguards and
    internationally legally binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons” is “a necessary precondition” for civilian nuclear cooperation. Nonproliferation experts now understandably ask where a self-selected group of 45 NSG states got the authority to override this requirement.
    The NSG decision on India also opens the door to violations of Article I of the NPT. Article I requires that states “not it any way…assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.” India, under the terms of the NPT, is required to meet the criteria of a non-nuclear weapon state. Thus if under the US-India deal Canada were to provide India with uranium (which would facilitate accelerated warhead production using domestic uranium), Canada would arguably be in violation of the NPT.
    In addition, the NSG states clearly ignored Resolution 1172 of the UN Security Council. Passed in 1998 following nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, it called on India and Pakistan “immediately to stop their nuclear weapon development, to refrain from the deployment of nuclear weapons, to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons….” The resolution also called on India and Pakistan to join both the NPT and the CTBT.
  4. Selective nonproliferation: With this decision, key players in the nonproliferation regime have bought into the Bush Administration’s policy of selective nonproliferation. Nonproliferation efforts, thus, are not to be guided by a set of rules that applies equally to all, but are to be based on judgments about good guys and bad guys. States that are regarded, or are being courted, as friends to key powers are allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. For those outside the select circle, it is an all-options-are-on-the-table commitment to prevent proliferation. The rule on which the NSG has heretofore been built – no trade or cooperation with any state that does not place all of its nuclear programs and facilities under safeguards – is now to be applied selectively. There are no special powers of insight or clairvoyance required to know what Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan will be thinking.

Beyond lamentations

The NSG decision is both dangerous and lamentable. Now that it has been taken, it is time to work with the hand the world has been dealt.

A significant number of states have been open to considering new approaches because the existing strategy toward India, Israel, and Pakistan – the three states with nuclear weapons that are outside the NPT – has not been notably successful. While civilian nuclear cooperation has long been prohibited for all three, they have nevertheless acquired nuclear weapons and continue to build up their arsenals. Simply continuing that policy was not going to induce any of them to give up those arsenals and seemed, in that light, to serve neither principle nor pragmatism.

Unfortunately, the new approach approved by the NSG makes no discernable nonproliferation gains. But neither was the deal a total and unambiguous caving in to India. During the process of getting to this unfortunate NSG decision, India made and reiterated a significant range of political commitments that now warrant close and continuing attention. In statements in 2005, when the agreement was first announced (White House 2005), and in 2008 when the waiver decision was before the NSG (Mukherjee 2008), India made significant disarmament and nonproliferation commitments.

In the statements, India

  1. agrees to separate civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs and to “place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards”;
  2. promises to sign and adhere to an Additional Protocol with respect to civilian nuclear facilities;
  3. promises to work with the United States and others for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty that is “universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable”;
  4. agrees to a policy of “refraining from the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them and supporting international efforts to limit their spread”;
  5. declares its interest in participating as a supplier nation in the establishment of international fuel banks;
  6. declares that it maintains comprehensive export controls;
  7. promises to harmonize its export controls with those required by the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group;
  8. remains committed to “a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing”;
  9. supports the elimination of nuclear weapons and the negotiation of a convention toward that end;
  10. agrees “to assume the same responsibilities …as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology” (a euphemism for states with nuclear weapons);
  11. affirms a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons.

While India rejected all efforts to make the NSG waiver conditional on any of these political commitments, paragraph 3 of the NSG waiver decision3 insists that the decision is “based on” India’s commitments and then makes explicit reference to items 1 through 8.

Daryl Kimball (2008), Director of the Washington Arms Control Association, makes the compelling point that while the NSG decision falls short of the standards of many NSG states, “it is not the ‘clean’ and ‘unconditional’ waiver India was demanding.” Given the clarifying statements of a number of NSG members, there is reason to believe that NSG states will not in fact engage in full nuclear trade with India, excluding enrichment and reprocessing technologies. In addition, states have signaled, and US legislation requires, that nuclear trade with India would stop in the event of a nuclear test by India. Furthermore, the NSG decision allows members to regularly reconsider issues related to the implementation of the decision, including India’s actions on the political commitments it has made.

There is no doubt that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has been seriously undermined by the NSG decision to exempt India from a central nonproliferation rule. Plan A was to prevent that decision, but it was made and has created a new reality. So that calls for Plan B: to ensure that the NSG and India now make good on the commitments announced, and to work to prevent the further erosion of nonproliferation regulations.

The looming test is the forthcoming 2010 Review Conference of the NPT. Without some concrete disarmament commitments to counteract the NSG’s de facto expansion of the “legitimate” nuclear club to include India, the NPT will be in genuine peril.


  1. See the author, as quoted in Berthiaume 2008.
  2. For related articles on India and nuclear weapons, see E. Regehr. 2005. US-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: A further threat to nuclear non-proliferation. Project Ploughshares Briefing 05/3. ; E. Regehr. 2007. Canada, India, and changing the nonproliferation rules. The Ploughshares Monitor, Summer.
  3. Available at Kimball 2008.

Berthiaume, Lee. 2008. Emerson, PMO met nuclear reps before India vote: Database. Embassy, August 27.

Kimball, Daryl G. 2008. Text, analysis, and response to NSG “Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India.” Arms Control Association, September 6.

Mian, Zia, AH Nayyar, R Rajaraman & MV Ramana. 2006. Fissile Materials in South Asia: The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal. International Panel on Fissile Materials, September.

Mukherjee, Shri Pranab. 2008. Statement by External Affairs Minister of India Shri Pranab Mukherjee on the Civil Nuclear Initiative. September 9.

White House. 2005. Joint Statement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. July 18.

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