All is not lost in India’s bid to join the high table of global nuclear commerce by gaining membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which saw asharp setback at the NSG plenary in Seoul, South Korea, with China and at least seven other nations reiteratingconcerns about non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being admitted. Indian negotiators emphasised that the country’s entry into the elite nuclear club, which frames rules for members’ nuclear trade with other nations, is justified on the basis of its clean non-proliferation record, a factor important in the NSG giving India acountry-specific waiver in 2008. Unfortunately, the 48-member Group could not arrive at a consensus on this issue. But within days of the plenary, a U.S. official has said there is a path forward that could see India becoming a full member of the regime by the end of 2016; meanwhile, an encouraging sign for South Block has come in the form of an ambassador being appointed to facilitate continued discussion on India. History too points to the prospects of an emerging inflection point in India’s campaign for NSG membership: the waiver granted to India in September 2008 came in the wake of an NSG meeting in August of that year at which strident resistance to India’s bid was evident, resistance that was ultimately blunted by proactive diplomacy.
Nonetheless, the failed attempt at Seoul is an opportune moment for New Delhi to introspect about how much political and diplomatic currency it is willing to expend in the face of unrelenting opposition; also about what alternative means there are, if any, to secure its strategic goals. Indeed the 2008 waiver, which emerged in parallel to the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, has helped India move forward with nuclear reactor agreements with others including Russia and France, and fuel supply arrangements with Australia. It is true that under the amendments introduced to NSG rules between 2010 and 2013, paragraph 6 was revised to prohibit trade in enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) with any non-signatory of the NPT, effectively an ENR trade ban between NSG members and India. It is argued that to prevent such amendments deleterious to Indian interests from being passed in the future, it is better to be an influential insider than an outsider supplicant. Yet, is it worth sitting at the NSG table as a “second class citizen” subject to an ENR ban when India has indigenous ENR options? At its heart, the NSG quagmire harkens back to the elemental conundrum of non-alignment. If that concept is today viewed in terms of India acting with a strategic autonomy, there is no need, given our vast energy market, to be insecure about finding economic partners on the global nuclear stage.