Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  14 December, 2022

Why New Zealand Should Back India’s Bid to Join the Nuclear Suppliers Group

Image: New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern -  Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

This article was first published in The Strategist on 12 December 2022.

India has long been interested in joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that was established in 1975, after India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in the previous year, to prevent misuses of transferred nuclear technology and materials. In 2008, the NSG controversially decided to grant India a ‘clean waiver’ from its strict rules linked to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The US position, ultimately accepted by most other supplier countries, was that there were significant non-proliferation benefits to bringing India inside the tent of safeguarded nuclear commerce and export controls, that putting most of India’s nuclear reactors under international safeguards was better than having none under such controls and that India’s nuclear weapons program would continue regardless of international civil cooperation. Yet, the 2008 India-specific exemption raised questions of consistent treaty interpretation and application of NSG guidelines. Many criticised it as a particularly egregious example of moral hazard that rewarded India for its twin bad behaviours of not signing the NPT and building nuclear bombs.

Among states already critical of the NPT’s bias towards the nuclear haves, it also called into question the credibility of the whole nuclear non-proliferation enterprise. India—which still has not signed the NPT—formally applied for NSG membership in 2016. The group’s decisions are made by consensus and China vetoed India’s membership. In 2019, China firmly stated its position that India must first sign the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state before it is allowed to join the NSG. The tiny minority of countries opposing India’s bid include New Zealand, Ireland and Austria, all three of which have been active supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Last month, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network and the Toda Peace Institute convened a workshop in Kathmandu on the triangular nuclear equations among China, India and Pakistan. New Zealand’s policies on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines under the AUKUS pact and on India’s NSG membership came up for discussion vis-à-vis the Asian nuclear triangle. As the only person in the group with close connections to all three of India, Australia and New Zealand, I was in the centre of that conversation, which continued during the next stop in New Delhi.

Rarely does any country have the luxury of a completely consistent or totally principled foreign policy. Instead, every country has to balance a range of competing interests and negotiate tensions between interests and values. China’s policy on India’s NSG quest reflects a mix of principled support for NPT requirements and bilateral relations with the US and Pakistan. Beijing’s unease at the India–US civil nuclear cooperation deal has intensified with India’s growing military ties with the US, Japan and Australia.

Like Australia a decade ago, New Zealand is coming under pressure to lift its opposition to India’s NSG application. There are five sets of cross-cutting considerations that it must evaluate in coming to a correct balance of the competing pulls and pressures.

The first is by now New Zealand’s firmly established national identity as a nuclear-free country that has its origins in the rise of anti-nuclear sentiment in the 1980s which culminated in the rupture of the ANZUS alliance. The Labour government decided to pre-empt any possible future change of policy by passing the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act in 1987. There’s strong resistance to any softening of the anti-nuclear credentials that have given New Zealand an international role, profile and visibility, including a leadership role in the negotiation and conclusion of the TPNW.

Yet, from within the terms of reference of the NSG’s purpose, is it better to have India inside or outside the tent? That is the central question that New Zealand needs to address but has avoided. The overriding goal of the NSG is to regulate the international trade in sensitive nuclear materials to ensure exclusively peaceful uses by recipient countries. India and Israel are two non-NPT nuclear-armed states that have demonstrably behaved responsibly on the proliferation front. This explains the wide support for India’s NSG membership.

Third, New Zealand must also consider if India can help to advance non-proliferation and disarmament goals in the world that exists after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The TPNW is itself evidence of the NPT’s limitations in promoting nuclear disarmament. Russia’s frequent invocations of its nuclear stockpile and serial hints of a willingness to use them have normalised the discourse around nuclear weapons. The world has arguably been closer to the nuclear precipice recently than it was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, if not since 1945.

In this environment of softening nuclear norms, the most critical remaining taboo is non-use of nuclear weapons. Should this final frontier be breached, the world will be well and truly on the path to nuclear Armageddon.

Of the nine countries that possess the bomb, India has demonstrated the greatest reluctance between having the materials and technical capacity to cross the threshold and actual weaponisation. The sentiment for nuclear disarmament, with India to play a leading role, remains attractive to influential segments. New Zealand could exploit its anti-nuclear credentials to work with both China and India, for example, to convert their unilateral no-first-use policies into an international convention.

The fourth relevant factor is bilateral relations with India. For this New Zealand is in a long queue, as many countries court New Delhi. India matters more to New Zealand than the other way round. The Australian precedent is instructive. Until a decade ago Australia restricted uranium exports to NPT states parties. India gave no indication of trying to punish Australia for refusing to sell uranium to it. But leaders and officials made it clear that the export ban was a major obstacle to the bilateral relationship progressing to another level as desired by Canberra. The lifting of the ban in 2011 did indeed set the two countries on a new course that has since gone from strength to strength in economic, diplomatic and security relations.

Finally, an end to New Zealand’s opposition to India’s NSG membership would also have the collateral benefit of harmonising Wellington’s India policy with those of it close allies and partners like Australia, the US and other Western countries. At present, New Zealand’s opposition provides political cover to China for its opposition to India based on geopolitical calculations dressed up as principles.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.