The nuclear tangle

The nuclear tangle

There was a familiar pattern to last month’s meeting in Seattle of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a voluntary cartel of 46 countries that seeks to regulate nuclear trade.

At a time when the forum’s annual plenary meeting was debating the U.S. plan for India’s membership in the NSG, news reports referred to objections from some Western countries over China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. As in the past two years, criticism of Sino-Pakistan cooperation served as a ploy to deflect attention away from the effort to expand the U.S.-driven policy of nuclear exceptionalism for India.

This has been in play since the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement came into force in 2008 along with the NSG waiver the same year, which allowed nuclear exports to India despite the country not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The U.S. drive for India’s membership got a decisive boost when President Barack Obama visited Delhi in November 2010 when he declared support for India joining the quartet of multilateral export control regimes; the NSG, Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

This was followed by U.S.-Indian diplomatic efforts aimed at securing India membership in the NSG. The U.S. circulated a “Food for Thought” paper at last year’s plenary meeting of the forum in the Netherlands. The paper set out the case for India’s membership and ways to bring it into the NSG. These arguments were echoed in a “non-paper” tabled at the Seattle meeting on June 21 and 22 aimed at addressing objections from several NSG members about admitting a non-NPT country that was not bound by its obligations.

America’s case for a country-specific rather than a criteria-based approach rested on the argument that India’s nuclear record and commitment to nonproliferation norms qualified it as a “like-minded country” to join other NSG member nations. This view has not, of course, gone unchallenged, because this would make India the only country to be allowed into the NSG that is not a member of the NPT.

The debate at the Seattle meeting on evolving criteria for new members was in fact inconclusive. Several countries expressed reservations on a move that elaborated no criteria for membership. Others questioned the need to expand membership.

China and Turkey have been among the strongest advocates of the view – that accords with Pakistan’s position – that if membership has to be expanded to nuclear nations outside the NPT then they should all be brought into the regime. China, in particular, has objected to the inequity of a country-specific approach.

As the NSG works by consensus, objections from several members at the Seattle meeting made any agreement to admit India elusive.

In the midst of this, questions raised at the NSG meeting by some countries including America about China’s plans to expand the Chashma nuclear reactors in Pakistan seemed to be an attempt to change the subject from the controversy over India’s membership. U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, incoming chairman of the NSG, said in an interview that the United States and other countries were continuing to seek “information” from China about its intention to sell two more reactors to Pakistan.

Since this issue was first raised in the 2010 NSG meeting in New Zealand, China has rejected calls for “more information” by asserting that construction of additional reactors was covered by a general and generic agreement with Pakistan that was signed before it joined the NSG in 2004 and “grandfathered” under the NSG’s provisions.

The United States has not pressed the issue beyond “seeking clarifications” for an obvious reason.
Pakistan-China cooperation is bilateral and consistent with international legality as the two additional power plants (like the previous ones) will be under the IAEA safeguards and oversight. This makes the proliferation argument against it patently specious.

*Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and United Kingdom. This article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.