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As India inches closer to becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it’ll end the isolation that set in after Pokhran-I. And Modi’s recent US visit will have a lot to do with it.

By Ajith Pillai


Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his five-nation tour on June 4, the buzz has been about things nuclear. The headlines have been dominated by India garnering support from Switzerland, Mexico and the US and inching closer to becoming a member of the critical Nuclear Suppliers Group. Or of being finally welcomed into the prestigious Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) club, thereby ending India’s nuclear isolation following the Pokhran-I tests in 1974.

Underpinning all these nuclear and defence “breakthroughs” has been India’s growing closeness to the US. Washington has effusively declared New Delhi as its “major defence partner” in technology transfer as well as a “priority partner in the Asia-Pacific region”. But even as the prime minister’s visit and the gains made are being toasted, there are critics who point out that in the euphoria of the Hindi-Amriki-bhai-bhai celebrations, we must not be blind to the fact that the US always builds friendships with its own interests in mind.

At the official residence of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican president
Modi with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at Nuclear Security Summit 2016

To get a better understanding of the contours of some of the complexities and countervailing factors prevailing in the nuclear and military breakthroughs achieved, here are a few pointers that will place events during the PM’s latest travels abroad in context:

The Nuclear Matrix and the IAEA: When the US dropped uranium-235 and plutonium-239 bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in August 1945, it abruptly put an end to the Second World War. But it also demonstrated the unimaginable, horrific power locked within the atom.

In the aftermath of the nuclear bombings and its destructive fallout in Japan, the international community veered around to an informal consensus that the use of nuclear weapons must be stopped. However, it was also agreed that harnessing nuclear power for peaceful purposes was laden with positives and needed to be explored.

US secretary of state John Kerry pays homage at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
US secretary of state John Kerry pays homage at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

It was President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” doctrine presented to the UN General Assembly in 1953 that set the ball rolling. Four years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by a unanimous UN resolution. The new agency’s role was to “help nations develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”. It would also oversee safeguard arrangements to ensure that the “commitment to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes” was honoured by member nations.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): It became operational in 1970 and came within the ambit of the IAEA. The NPT classified nations into two categories—nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). The former comprised the US, Russia, China, France and the UK. These were nations which already had nuclear weapons and had tested them but committed themselves to work towards complete disarmament. The NNWS agreed not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons.

The NPT was signed by 191 member nations of the UN although North Korea withdrew from it in 2003. India, Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan are the four countries which have not signed the NPT. India, Pakistan and North Korea have declared they possess nuclear weapons. Israel is known to possess nuclear weapons capability.

India has consistently refused to sign the NPT because it is biased in favor of nuclear weapons states. While they are allowed to keep their weapons with no fixed time frame for disarmament, the non-nuclear weapon states had to give a commitment not to develop or acquire weapons. India’s stated position is that it will only sign the NPT when the US, Russia, China, France and UK disarm their nuclear weapons.

Similarly, India has not agreed to go along with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which bans all nuclear explosions for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996 but is still not operational. Eight countries, including India have refused to sign it. India’s objection to the CTBT in a nutshell was that it had its own security concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan and China and that the Treaty was not a disarmament measure. It allowed the nuclear powers to improve the capability of their weapons without conducting actual tests or explosions.

India-made Brahmos is soon set to hit the global market
India-made Brahmos is soon set to hit the global market

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG): It was formed in the wake of India conducting its first nuclear test in May 1974 which proved that non-weapons nuclear technology could be improvised to develop bombs. Signatories of NPT decided that trade of nuclear technology and material must be limited so that it is used for peaceful purposes alone. As of now, there are 48 members in the NSG. It is, at times, referred to as a trade cartel which controls the trade of fissile material for peaceful purposes. By gaining access to the club, India will have ready access to nuclear material to fuel its energy goals. But there is a catch. Since India is not a signatory to the NPT, it does not qualify, although the US has been pushing for its entry into NSG ever since the ratification of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in 2008.

All 48 members of the NSG must necessarily approve of India’s entry. China has so far been vehemently opposed to India’s inclusion. Austria, Norway, Ireland and New Zealand have also been expressing their apprehensions. On his recent visit, Prime Minister Modi won the support of Switzerland and Mexico. But China can still be the stumbling block.

At the official residence of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican president
At the official residence of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican president

US, India and NSG: India’s entry into the NSG is a priority for the US because of business interests. Once India becomes a member, it can access nuclear material and this could help it set up nuclear power plants across the country. This in turn would open the doors for US companies to sell reactors to India. The joint statement released during Modi’s visit to the US speaks of the intention to make the construction of six reactors by the Westinghouse Corporation on stream by 2017.

It has been alleged by the anti-nuclear lobby in India that an agreement between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and Westinghouse has been virtually sealed although not made public “as it would expose the absence of liability provisions and the exorbitant cost of this project”.

Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): India has become the 35th member of this voluntary partnership of nations set up in 1987 to prevent “the proliferation of missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology”. While MTCR guidelines are not binding and only notionally restricts trade between member and non-member countries, it also justifies the sale of equipment to a country which is a member of the group.

Membership of the MTCR means India will have access to international missile technology while it will be free to also enter the international export market as it will be regarded as MTCR-compliant. After MTCR confirmed India’s membership while Modi was on his US tour, Washington and New Delhi are expected to fast-track their discussion on sale of predator series of unmanned aircraft for the Indian military.

Interestingly, Italy had blocked India’s entry into the missile club in protest against the arrest of two Italian marines suspected of shooting an Indian fisherman off the Kerala coast. Last month, the second of the marines who was in India’s custody, was sent home. It is suggested in some quarters that this gesture may have softened Rome’s stand.

Indo-US Defence Partnership: The strengthened ties between the two nations means the following: India has joined the US axis against China in the Asia-Pacific region. It will mean enhanced access to the Indian defence import market for US arms manufacturers. There is already some talk about procuring fighter aircrafts from America. Indian dependency on US arms is expected to grow in the years to come. Will India become an exclusive market for the US to exploit?

On the other hand, it would harden China’s stand against India and perhaps bring it closer to Pakistan. This presents itself with its own set of problems and dynamics as India is also keen to maintain its trade links with China.

The US trip was without doubt an eventful one. Modi received a warm welcome in Washington and his meetings with US President Barack Obama were conducted in a blaze of publicity back home. Now that the PM’s trip abroad is over, the time has come for some deft diplomacy to take over as one examines the US bear hug more objectively and ties it up with what it implies for Sino-Indian and Indo-Pak relations.

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