Nuclear Supplier’s Group: The India, China, Pakistan Saga

By Debalina Ghoshal —

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, India. China has little incentive to allow India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, India. China has little incentive to allow India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

India’s bid to join the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), a group that contributes towards strengthening nuclear non-proliferation, has been shattered as China is opposing the India’s entry into the group. China’s argument is clear: India is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore, its entry into the NSG is not possible. On the other hand, China also argues that if India becomes a member of the NSG, then similar concession should also be made to Pakistan which is also a non-signatory to the NPT.  Wang Qun, the head of Arms Control department in China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated this stance, “applicant countries [to the NSG] must be signatories of the NPT. It is universally recognised by the international community.” China’s state run Global Times news agency, stated that with the United States aiming to provide exception to India in the NSG membership, India is emerging as the “golden boy” of the West. The status quo of India (and Pakistan) being on the outside looking in to the NSG is likely to continue, as incentives for China to permit India join remain low.

Throughout the negotiation process, China has been the biggest obstacle blocking India’s entry into the NSG. India’s entry into the NSG brings several benefits for India.  First, it would elevate India’s global position in the international system and second, entry into the regime would acknowledge India’s non-proliferation efforts despite not being a signatory to the NPT. China’s support for Pakistan’s entry into the NSG is evident from the fact that soon after China sent Wang Qun to Delhi it also dispatched his deputy Li Yang to visit Islamabad.

China’s support for Pakistan’s entry into NSG is clear. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s statement, “We support Pakistan’s engagement with NSG, and hope such efforts could be conducive to the authority and effectiveness of the international non-proliferation regime,” leaves no doubt.

China’s interest in vouching for India’s NSG membership remains limited due to several key reasons. Beijing sees no strategic gains in supporting New Delhi in its quest for NSG membership. Supporting Pakistan’s entry is central to Beijing’s policy to counter New Delhi due to other points of geopolitical friction.  India and China are already entangled in a border dispute and, India’s active involvement in the South China Sea, for instance, Indian Navy ships taking part in maritime exercise in the region or contemplating to sell the BrahMos cruise missiles to countries like Vietnam and Philippines who are entangled in territorial disputes with China has added to China’s displeasure.

There is also a lackadaisical interest for China in India’s nuclear industry. China at present is vying to capture the nuclear energy market in the Middle East, a crucial step in a possible evolution of China’s Middle Eastern strategy. China is also eyeing Central Asia’s nuclear energy market and has made inroads in Africa. But China probably it sees no fortune for itself in the Indian nuclear energy market in contrast to the opportunity that Pakistan’s civilian nuclear energy market potentially represents. China and Pakistan’s nuclear energy cooperation has only grown from strength to strength. For example, Beijing has built two 300 megawatt (MW) reactors and two 320 MW reactors at Chasma in Punjab and two 1100 MW reactors in Karachi. Defense cooperation between China and Pakistan remains very strong. Recently, China was reported to have provided transporter erector launchers (TELs) to Pakistan that would provide greater mobility to Pakistan’s solid propelled missiles like the Shaheens.  In April 2015, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif approved a $5billion deal with China to buy eight submarines.

Given the strong ties, China could, therefore, take Pakistan’s nuclear energy market as a source to earn hard currency which its leaders could divert towards development and growth. As put forward by Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a Pakistani physicist, “The Pakistan-China nuclear trade can be explained by a simple fact that no other country in the world is ready to sell a nuclear power reactor to Pakistan, and no other country has shown any interest in buying nuclear power reactors made in China so far.” Some of the nuclear materials supplied by China to Pakistan have been provided by Pakistan to North Korea thereby, raising proliferation concerns and negating China’s justification to include Pakistan in the NSG regime.

Moreover, China is also observing the close ties between the United States and India. The relationship represents one avenue for the United States to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus any attempt to strengthen U.S.-India relations by providing India upper leverage in the forum of international politics would only undermine China’s political and strategic interests. For instance, the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that allows India and the United States to use each other’s base for logistical support may make China apprehensive — despite India and the United States clarifying that the agreement does not allow any military bases in India. But the logistics agreement does strengthen the U.S. position in South Asia .

The United States has pressed for the admission of India into the NSG on grounds of India’s good non-proliferation records despite not being a member to the NSG. For Pakistan, the case would not be that simple. Admission into NSG would require consent from all NSG signatories, most of whom would not be confident to accept Pakistan into the group due to Pakistan’s history of proliferation of nuclear technology to countries like Iran and  North Korea.

Bearing all these geopolitical factors in mind and given the group’s rules, India should be prepared to remain sidelined from the NSG for the foreseeable future.

Ms. Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Human Security Studies in Hyderabad, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. 


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