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Obama’s India Nuclear Blind Spot

By Daryl G. Kimball

Global efforts to prevent the spread of the world’s most deadly weapons depend on universal compliance with rules that constrain the transfer of nuclear technology and concrete action by nuclear-armed states to reduce, not expand, their weapons capabilities.

As President Barack Obama said in his landmark April 2009 speech in Prague “[I]n our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons, rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

Photo credit: Ben Solomon/U.S. Department of State

But just a year later, Obama announced that the United States would support Indian membership in the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—the nuclear technology control organization established in 1975 in response to India’s first nuclear weapons test blast, which used plutonium produced by a Canadian-supplied reactor using U.S.-origin heavy water.

According to the official NSG website, India’s 1974 test explosion “demonstrated that peaceful nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused.”

After low-level consultations on the issue within the NSG since 2011, U.S. and Indian officials have recently launched a quiet but high-level campaign for their proposal ahead of key NSG meetings this month in Vienna and Seoul.

Indian membership in the NSG on the basis of an exceptional political preference rather than a common set of nonproliferation and disarmament benchmarks would produce serious, long-term damage to strategic stability in South Asia, the NSG, and the broader nonproliferation regime.

Such a move would compound the damage caused by the 2008 NSG decision to make an India-specific exemption to its full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards requirement for nuclear trade that was pushed through by the George W. Bush administration.

NSG membership currently requires that the state is a member in good standing with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). India remains one of only three countries, with Israel and Pakistan, never to have signed the NPT.

Based on its record, India does not meet the same standards of behavior as current NSG members, nor is it clear it shares the NSG’s core nonproliferation goals, including preventing the spread of sensitive uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies.

India refuses to accept critical disarmament responsibilities and practices expected of responsible nuclear states, including a legally binding commitment not to conduct nuclear tests, such as signing the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), halting fissile material production for weapons, and reducing, not building up, its nuclear and missile arsenals.

India has actively sought to weaken the nonproliferation commitments it was required to take to receive an NSG exemption in 2008. For example, its civil-military nuclear separation plan is substandard, and its IAEA additional protocol arrangement is weaker than those of the NPT nuclear-weapon states. Although India maintains a nuclear test moratorium, leaders in New Delhi have not taken any steps toward signing the CTBT, and they have not agreed to build international nuclear test-explosion monitoring stations on Indian territory.

The NSG’s 2008 India-specific exemption has given India access to international nuclear fuel markets, which has freed domestic supplies for bomb production. Pakistan has reacted by accelerating its own fissile material production capacity and deploying highly destabilizing tactical nuclear weapons.

In April, Obama said he would “like to see progress with respect to Pakistan and India to make sure…they are not continually moving in the wrong direction.”

Another India-specific NSG exemption would undoubtedly move Pakistan in the wrong direction, hardening its resolve to keep pace with India’s ongoing nuclear weapons buildup. It would likely worsen China’s own NSG-noncompliant nuclear trade with Pakistan and make it more difficult to gain other states’ adherence to NSG trade control guidelines. Indian membership in the NSG would also reinforce the perception among NPT member states that the rules just do not apply to nuclear-armed states.

China, which insists on further dialogue on the matter and notes that NPT membership should remain the standard for NSG membership, may block India’s admittance to the group. Nonproliferation stalwarts, including Austria, Ireland, and New Zealand, may stand firm too. But that could change if the Obama team employs the strong-arm tactics used by the Bush administration against some NSG members to push through the 2008 exemption from key NSG trade guidelines.

Ironically, Indian membership in the NSG would empower New Delhi to block future efforts by participating governments to ensure that India respects the nonproliferation commitments that it made in order to win the NSG’s support for that 2008 decision.

If states in the NSG are to be asked to support the objective of Indian membership, it should only be as part of a broader strategy to strengthen the global nuclear order. Anything less represents an irresponsible disregard for long-standing nonproliferation principles.

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