There is little indication of any constructive engagement between New Delhi and Wellington on India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), despite the claims made in bilateral exchanges between the two countries.

New Zealand, which withheld its support to India, exerts a strong influence over member states opposed to India’s membership of the group. This influence stems from NZ’s long history of adopting a principled stand against nuclear proliferation. Winning its support is, therefore, critical for India.

Wellington is not opposed in principle to India’s entry into the NSG and wants clear criteria for letting in countries that have not signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such as India, Pakistan and Israel.

“NZ remains ready to continue the discussion on establishing clear and objective criteria against which applications for NSG membership by States not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (including India) can be assessed,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Indian Weekender via email.

“Agreement on these criteria is an important first step in the two-step process mandated by NSG members and we regret that a lack of consensus has hampered progress on this issue over the past few years. In keeping with our advocacy of the two-step process, NZ will support the timely consideration of India’s application once the Group has agreed objective criteria,” the MFAT spokesperson pointed out.

But creating a consensus around criteria among the 48 member states of the NSG goes to the core of the problem.

The membership issue has left a clear divide within the grouping. The 2011 push by the US administration to accord India membership of the NSG, based on India’s non-proliferation credentials, met with stiff resistance from a cross-section of NSG members, including China. The US’s advocacy for India’s membership of the NSG cemented China’s nuclear collaboration with Pakistan. Beijing actively thwarted New Delhi’s entry into the elite nuclear club.

The NSG , which works to promote nuclear non-proliferation globally, has strict export control guidelines for trading in nuclear-related goods and technologies that are binding on its member states. Since its inception in 1975, the NSG has been dogged by the perception that it was formed as a direct fallout of India’s 1974 Pokhran nuclear test. After Pakistan followed suit with its own nuclear tests, the membership debate has veered towards a comparison of the non-proliferation credentials of the two nuclearised neighbours with competing interests in the South Asian region.

Both India and Pakistan formally applied for membership of the NSG in May 2016. Faced with a difficult choice, the NSG Chair from South Korea entrusted Ambassador Rafael Grossi of Argentina to evolve a consensus for considering non-NPT states for membership. But the nine-point Grossi formula failed to deliver consensus after it appeared to many to favour India.

India then fell back on the tactical ploy of signing up to three alternative multilateral export control regimes – the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group – on the calculation that membership of these regimes would be viewed favourably by the bulk of the NSG members, who themselves are members of those regimes.

However, NSG members are signatories to the NPT, which is not a precondition for joining the other multilateral regimes.

The stalemate on membership around the applications of India and Pakistan remained unresolved at the 2021 NSG Plenary meeting held in Brussels, Belgium (the plenary session for the previous year was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic). All eyes are on the next NSG Plenary with Poland as the new NSG Chair for 2022. Meanwhile, there is no let-up in the campaign by both applicants to canvass support among the member states of the NSG.

Clearly, the criteria-based approach appears to defy consensus.

NZ’s two-step solution, based on criteria and consensus, to India’s application for membership of the NSG is, some might argue, open-ended and nowhere in sight.