Towards a new non-proliferation regime

Barack Obama visited India and signed a joint statement with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The joint statement mirrored the emerging multi-dimensional strategic partnership between the two countries. One of the dimensions of it is the gradual convergence on non-proliferation and nuclear matters.

The question is: Does the growing India-US relationship have capability to shape the existing non-proliferation regime? In other words, could it reshape or construct a new non-proliferation regime that satisfies both India and the rest of the world? Well, yes. Indeed, for the last half a decade, joint efforts by India and the United States have attempted to cast the non-proliferation regime in a new design.

India’s responsible behaviour and non-proliferation record have supported the endeavour in reorienting the regime. Though a predominant section of the international community does not seem prepared to amend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at present, the world is reconciled to the reality of a nuclear India. This reconciliation is resulting in the incremental integration of the India with the non-proliferation regime. Arguably, it started with the lifting of sanctions on India in September 2001. However, the real breakthrough came in 2005.

The 2005 India-US joint statement led to the remodelling of the non-proliferation regime. New Delhi harmonised its export controls systems with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology control Regime (MTCR), supported the idea of an Additional Protocol, strengthened safeguards arrangements for its nuclear facilities, committed to enrichment and reprocessing technology control and so forth. For India, the most defining moment was the 2008 India-specific exemptions in the guidelines of the NSG.

The developments during the Mr Obama visit to India are once again promising to shape the non-proliferation regime notwithstanding the tension in the language for depicting the new non-proliferation partnership. The first and the most important is the development of a meaningful understanding on export controls. The joint statement affirmed the removal of the Indian organisations from the Entity List maintained in the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) of the US government and the support for the Indian membership of four multilateral export controls regimes. The joint statement also talked about ‘realignment of India in US export control regulations.’

The United States provides the benchmark against which other countries sculpt their non-proliferation policies in general and national export controls in particular. After the announcement for India-specific liberalisation of US national export controls, more leading suppliers have started discussing rearranging their national export controls. India may be realigned in other countries export controls systems as well, and in turn, New Delhi may adopt some of the export control practices which are part of the global non-proliferation regime.

India and the United States have taken noteworthy steps on multilateral export controls regimes. Washington endorsed India’s candidature for the membership of the four high-technology relevant regimes. These are the NSG, the MTCR, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. The NSG controls nuclear goods, the MTCR governs missile-related goods, the Australia Group covers chemical and biological agents and Wassenaar Arrangement controls dual-use goods not covered under the regimes, along with conventional weapons. Thus, together these regimes envelop vital high technology global commerce.

India’s membership, which has to come in phases and with the consent of other members, would certainly strengthen the non-proliferation regime, as it will enable India to both import and export high-technology products. The joint statement underlined India’s commitment to ‘abide by multilateral export control standards’. The statement also recorded that India would fully meet and adopt all the requirements needed for the membership of multilateral export controls regimes.

India is also to harmonise its export control system with the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. The membership of India to these regimes and the harmonisation of guidelines and technology annexes of the two regimes with the Indian system have to proceed together.

The biggest hurdle in the way of India’s membership of these regimes is the requirement that it be a signatory to the NPT. The best option for India, of course, would be to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a Nuclear Weapon State. That would end the repeated row over the nature of India’s relationship with the regime. This, however, is unlikely to materialise in the near term.

However, some experts involved in multilateral export controls negotiations maintain that the adherence to the NPT does not mean the membership of the NPT. It is basically good standing with the treaty. India has already unilaterally announced that it will abide by Articles I, III and VI. These are the obligations of the nuclear weapon states of the NPT. There are other criteria for the membership of the regimes which India already fulfils. This presents the international community with an opportunity and a challenge. The move has been made by the India-US partnership; its culmination is to be undertaken by the key players in the multilateral export controls regimes. France, for instance, has already endorsed during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent trip to India— almost mirroring the US position.

Sustained co-operation between Indian and US policymakers is necessary to move forward from here.