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The road to nuclear parity

At its annual plenary meeting held on June 13 and 14 in Prague, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) again failed to take a decision on the question of admitting India as a member. The result was not unexpected since the group works by consensus and a meeting last March of its Consultative Group, a body that reports to the plenary, had revealed continuing divisions between member countries over India’s wish to become a member.

While no decision could be taken on India’s admission, there were two other countries – Mexico and Serbia – which were admitted, raising the membership of the group to 48. India’s case is of course quite different, because it is not party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The NSG was in fact set up in 1975 by the US and six other western countries specifically in response to the ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ carried out by India a year earlier using plutonium stolen from a Canadian-supplied nuclear reactor. The purpose of creating the group was to supplement the NPT by taking measures at the international level to ensure that civilian nuclear technology was not diverted to make nuclear weapons, as India had done.

The explanation for the fact that the US is now not only supporting India’s admission into the NSG but has been lobbying for it vigorously at the international level is to be found in Washington’s geopolitical calculations and specifically in the US design to build up India as a counterweight to the rise of China, a policy announced by the Bush administration in 2005. In what is probably the most ambitious strategic engineering project undertaken since the end of the cold war, the US publicly declared that year its intention to “make India a global power”, to quote the words of Condoleezza Rice who was then serving as secretary of state in the Bush administration.

Bush’s policy of elevating India to the rank of a world power had bipartisan support in the US and, after his presidency, has been continued and taken forward by Obama. It was emphatically reiterated by Obama during his visit to India in 2010, in the course of which he pledged US support for a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.

As part of the same design, the Obama administration has also assigned to India the ‘stewardship’ of the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and a leadership role in promoting economic cooperation in Afghanistan and Central Asia under the ‘New Silk Road’ project. India has also been given a key role in the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia and is being encouraged to become a major player in the Asia-Pacific region.

In promoting India’s global role, the US has also sought to ‘end India’s nuclear isolation’. Under a landmark deal struck by the two countries in 2005 India gained access to nuclear technology and fuel on the international market, while retaining the freedom to develop and expand its nuclear weapons programme.

The nuclear deal not only lifted the international embargo on nuclear trade with India, it also gave a degree of legitimacy to India’s nuclear weapons programme. At the same time, Washington announced the de-hyphenation of Pakistan and India and has remained firmly opposed to Pakistan’s demand for a similar waiver by the NSG, using the activities of the AQ Khan network as a plausible reason.

In its push to ‘end India’s nuclear isolation’, the US has also been doing some “heavy lifting”, as an Indian newspaper put it recently, to admit India to the NSG. The US decision to sponsor India’s entry into the group was announced by Obama during his visit to that country in 2010 and was restated in the joint statement issued by the two countries on Kerry’s visit to India last month.

It is not surprising that, while pursuing its own bid for entry into NSG, India has been lobbying hard against the removal of the US-led international embargo against the supply of civil nuclear technology to Pakistan. Shyam Saran, chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, minced no words in a speech last April on India’s nuclear weapons programme. He deserved to be quoted in full for the benefit of those in the Nawaz government who entertain rosy hopes of a détente with India.

The exception provided to India by the NSG, Saran said, “rests on India’s universally acknowledged and exceptional record as a responsible nuclear state as contrasted with Pakistan’s equally exceptional record as a source of serial proliferation and in possession of a nuclear programme born in deceit and deception. There is no moral equivalence in this respect between the two countries and this point must be driven home every time Pakistan claims parity. We should not allow such an insidious campaign to affect our proposed membership of the NSG and the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime)”.

India’s keenness to join the NSG stems not only from a desire for recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapon state and for having a say in shaping the rules of international nuclear commerce, but also because it would put India in a position to permanently bar Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear technology.

While India failed to gain entry at the last plenary meeting, there are good prospects for its admission in the coming years. It has the support of a large number of NSG members including four of the five nuclear powers recognised by the NPT, namely US, Russia, Britain and France. In addition, it has the strong support of Canada, Germany and Argentina. Japan, which has previously been somewhat reticent, declared its support for India during Manmohan Singh’s visit last month.

At the Prague meeting, both Britain and France were very vigorous in pushing for India’s admission. Britain has formally circulated a paper arguing that India qualifies for membership in view of the size of its civilian nuclear industry and its commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. France was also very vocal in support of India. Reservations to India’s admission have come from Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and a few other smaller countries. China has been in favour of establishing uniform criteria for all non-NPT countries wishing to join the NSG.

It is obvious that Pakistan needs to pursue its demand for access to civilian nuclear technology more vigorously than it has done so far. The forthcoming visit of Secretary of State Kerry to Pakistan would provide a good opportunity to take up the matter.

The main reason the US continues to deny civilian nuclear cooperation to Pakistan today is that it does not want to displease India. But Washington has refused to admit it and instead seeks to justify its refusal on grounds of Pakistan’s proliferation record.

One of the WikiLeaks cables, which reports on a meeting between Kerry and Zardari in January 2010, implicitly confirmed that India has been given a veto over the question of giving Pakistan access to peaceful nuclear technology. At this meeting, Kerry who was then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave “Pakistan’s ability to reach a new security arrangement with India” as a “necessary condition for the US to consider civilian nuclear assistance to Pakistan”. The message was clear: Pakistan should first get India to withdraw its veto.

Kerry also gave another “necessary condition”: the increased strength of Pakistan’s democratic institutions. This ‘condition’ has certainly been fulfilled by the recent elections and the resilience of the country’s democratic system has been acknowledged by Washington.

If the government is really keen to obtain parity with India in the field of civilian nuclear technology, it also needs to convey a clear message to Washington that if Pakistan is not given the same access to civilian nuclear technology, or if India is admitted to the NSG while Pakistan is kept out, Pakistan will continue to oppose the commencement of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a fissile material treaty and will not ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty, even if India were to do so.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "The road to nuclear parity," The News. 2013-07-01.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , Political issues , Political relations , Government-Pakistan , Nuclear supply , Nuclear technology , Nuclear weapons , Policy making , Nuclear trade-India , Democracy , President Zardari , President Obama , Shyam Saran , PM Manmohan , United States , Afghanistan , Switzerland , India , Mexico , China , Japan , NSG , NPT , MTCR