Small countries, big NSG price

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Small countries, big NSG price

Dismissing the “process and procedural” objections of “small countries” to India's NSG bid as somehow less problematic than China's (largely geo-political) opposition is an unwise course of action. Make no mistake: The former will carry a heavy transactional price

The failed Indian application for membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) has many lessons. But apparently none seem to have been learnt by the disarmament section at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), preparing as it is for the second round based on wishful thinking. The mindset was described by a senior foreign diplomat in Vienna as: “Your diplomats don’t listen, don’t want to work with us, talk down to us, and refuse to discuss any issues of substance or make concrete commitments”.

Consider this — all the countries that the MEA put down as “not having serious objections” but merely procedural and process disagreement with India’s NSG bid had earlier indicated not their ‘opposition’ but only ‘qualified support’. What did this ‘qualified support’ imply? Those who say they support India’s membership, do in fact believe India should be a member of the NSG. The problem is that they see India as having a consistent pattern of making commitments that are not enforced at home. Had they been the suspicious type, they may well have interpreted this as promise welshing. But their desire to maintain friendly ties with India means they prefer the enforcement deficit interpretation.

It is precisely for this reason that these same “small countries” will extract the highest price of membership from India. Dismissing their “process and procedural” objections as somehow less important or problematic than China’s (largely geo-political) opposition is an extremely unwise course of action. Yes, China will block us, but their blocking will not carry the heavy transactional price that the “process and procedure” objections will.

In  effect, it these procedural objections that will make or break India’s membership. As one diplomat described it, “The price of India’s admission has to be so high, that Pakistan or any other country should think twice”. Effectively India’s NSG bid will not bring any tangible benefits except formalise thestatus quo. It will, however, result in severe restrictions, unless the small countries are listened to carefully and handled with caution.

The focus of the small country’s attack is most likely to be India’s unsafeguarded reactors that now come under the ‘civilian’ classification. These civilian reactors are not subjected to safeguards laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency, due to their co-location with military reactors, such as the one at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. Specifically, this includes some Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) but, more importantly, this classification also covers the purported crown jewel of India’s three-stage nuclear energy plan: The Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs).

The FBRs have been assiduously excluded from the civilian list ostensibly to prevent any hiccups in their design phase. The reality, however, is that these reactors produce significant quantities of weaponisable plutonium and the four new FBRs announced are significantly more capable on paper than the initial FBRs they will be replacing, with a significant leap in plutonium production.

The increased plutonium production makes little sense given the extraordinary complications of reprocessing it on an industrial scale. This has (perhaps erroneously) led most smaller countries to conclude that the bid to increase plutonium stocks is entirely military in nature, given how far away the Thorium Stage of the three-stage plan is from becoming reality.

There is, however, significant circumwstantial evidence to prove that the FBR design is simply not up to the mark. The clearest indicator of this is the fact that India still seeks reactor technology from abroad. This, combined with civilian unsafeguarded reactors, is what worries the small countries the most.

One diplomat in Vienna summed it up succinctly: “As of now, you get many of the same benefits that nuclear weapons states get. Yes, you don’t get to change classification from military to civilian and back, but right now, all material supplied to your civilian stream can be easily diverted to military within the unsafeguarded civilian reactor complexes. What worries us is that a transfer of technology will almost automatically find its way into the military programme and that is something we simply will not allow.

“I know your Government does not take the nuclear zero (commitment of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty) seriously, but we do. And we will not allow any deal that allows you to produce weaponisable material, especially plutonium. We looked away in 2008, we will not look away this time. You must understand we are your friends and want you to have full membership, we support you fully in this, but we have conditions that must be met, just as you promised us in 2008, and we are yet to see you live up to your commitments”.

Perhaps, one factor that has pushed these countries into such a hard line is the attitude of India’s nuclear negotiators, described by one normally circumspect diplomat rather charitably as “suffering from a severe credibility deficit”.

In short, if India wants its NSG membership, it will have to make some very hard choices — including completely separating its military and civilian programme with the prohibitive costs involved, and/or putting all its civilian unsafeguarded reactors under full scope of IAEA safeguards, as well as ensuring that personnel and technology will not cross over.

This will be a particularly galling concession given how acutely limited our nuclear domain knowledge is. Glib comments by the Foreign Secretary that, “we want NSG membership to give us clarity on our nuclear plans” only seem to have incensed some in Vienna with the retort: “You clarify what you want first, then we’ll give you the criteria. You have had eight years to clarify your plans. If you couldn’t clarify post the 2008 waiver, there is no way membership will help you clarify. I’m sorry but none of us buy this”.

In short, India is walking into a trap. The moment India clarifies its plans a very heavy price will be extracted from it. If we thought the NSG membership was merely going to be a formal stamp of the 2008 agreement, think again. The price will be steep and comes as a wolf in the proverbial “process and procedure” sheep’s clothing.

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