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Rupakjyoti Borah
India’s Bid to Join Nuclear Suppliers Group Runs into the Great Wall of China
23 Aug 2016


China's recent scuttling of India's bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has brought to the fore old tensions between the two Asian behemoths. Even though New Delhi had sent Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to Beijing June 16-17 to present its case in the run-up to the Seoul plenary of the NSG June 23-24, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a personal request to the same effect when he met his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Tashkent, also June 23-24, Beijing refused to relent on the issue of India’s NSG membership.


While it is interesting to note that the NSG was first set up in the wake of India’s Pokhran nuclear tests in 1974, India received a “singular exception” to the NSG guidelines in 2008. However, New Delhi stands to benefit immensely from full membership in the group. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and for its continued growth, access to energy is critical. New Delhi has been trying to increase the share of nuclear energy in its total energy basket and has signed nuclear deals with a host of countries across the world.


However, for these deals to be fully functional, to ensure the uninterrupted supply of uranium to India and for India to sell nuclear knowhow within the framework of agreed international norms, NSG membership is key. In addition, it would also smooth the way for India to sign nuclear deals with countries like Japan, which have been holding out on the question of a civilian nuclear deal, because India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition, in order for India to meet its climate change commitments, it is important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and thus increasing production of nuclear energy is sine qua non for the country.


What does this mean for India-China ties?


First, it means that China is unlikely to acquiesce for now to India's desire for full membership in the NSG. Beijing seems to think that this could be a precursor to India’s application to join other international forums such as the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement, not to mention India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.


Second, Beijing has also linked India’s case for NSG membership to Pakistan’s application to become a member of the same forum. However, there is a world of difference between India’s pitch and that of Pakistan. Islamabad is completely at the other end of the spectrum as far as nuclear non-proliferation is concerned, with Pakistani scientists such as A. Q. Khan alleged to have proliferated nuclear knowhow to many countries.


Third, by blocking India’s NSG bid, Beijing may be trying to seek bargaining leverage with India on other issues such as the boundary question.


To be sure, recent months have seen some successes for India on the foreign policy front. New Delhi has become a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, to which China has not yet been admitted. The brouhaha over India’s NSG application, however, clearly shows which way Asian geopolitics is headed in the future. By hiding behind the veneer of the skewed logic that Pakistan’s NSG application should be treated on par with India’s, Beijing has shown that it is prepared to back its so-called “all-weather ally” to the hilt. On the other hand, the intense backing given by the US to India’s NSG bid reflects how the US has gone out of its way to back India’s case. The personal chemistry between PM Modi and US President Barack Obama has undoubtedly been an important factor in this transformation in Indo-US bilateral ties.


India will also have to explain its case for NSG membership to countries such as Brazil, Ireland, Austria, New Zealand, Turkey and Switzerland, which have raised issues with regard to the procedure for bringing a non-NPT country into the NSG, because India has consistently refused to sign the NPT.


While taking a strong stand against China’s refusal to back India’s case for NSG membership, New Delhi must continue to engage with Beijing on other issues. After the recent verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in favor of the Philippines in the legal case over Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is on the defensive. This may be a good time for India to strike a hard bargain with Beijing on the NSG issue. However, there can be no doubt that as India’s profile grows in the global sweepstakes, Beijing is likely to find this very uncomfortable and is likely to try its best to stymie New Delhi’s rise.


Rupakjyoti Borah is currently a Research Fellow at the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He specializes in India’s strategic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region and its maritime interests. He has been a Assistant Professor of International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge. The views expressed here are personal. Twitter@rupakj

    About the Author

    Rupakjyoti Borah is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. He was earlier an Assistant Professor of International Relations at India’s Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge.


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