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NSG Membership: Pakistan’s Past and Nuclear South Asia’s Future

Since 2016, India and Pakistan have both lobbied for comprehensive membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) without success. Key parties like China have called for bilateral entrance for both India and Pakistan or none at all. While China feels it is doing Pakistan a favour by forcing strategic parity, this article will show that non-membership for either country will have greater consequences for Pakistan while exacerbating the already existing imbalance in the region.

Seeing as the NSG Indian waiver of 2008 that allots India legal access to fissile material already ‘threatens’ Pakistani security, China believes that this unfair advantage jeopardises South Asian stability and undermines NSG goals. Other states are cautious of this consideration due to proliferation concerns in the region, both past and present. Pakistan’s history as a global proliferator through the AQ Khan network, alongside China’s proposition, makes any current bid for NSG membership by both these states rather futile.

Regardless of the lack of movement at the NSG’s June plenary, India will still be able to meet its energy needs due to its waiver. Pakistan’s situation is less cushy, and rejection by the NSG has greater consequences for the state. Pakistan claims it is in the middle of an energy crisis and does not have the fissile material to support civilian needs. While this may be true, it has not stopped Pakistan from diverting vast resources to a nuclear arms race with its neighbour. Pakistan, of course, will claim that this is because their security is at stake, and though this assertion is not entirely unfounded, it is a hard sell to the global non-proliferation regime.

Pakistan is a country of 198 million with a modest GDP that has been steadily rising over the past few decades. The state is predominantly dependent on oil for power, but the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) asserts that Pakistan is not utilising its nuclear sector to its full potential. Pakistan has declared its desire to move towards utilising cleaner energy, with aspirations of reaching a 880 MW nuclear capacity by 2030. Since 2009, Pakistan has been working with China to establish two new nuclear reactors, and the countries cite the US-India nuclear deal as legal precedent. Although Pakistan’s arrangement with China will certainly help address some of these energy needs, unless Pakistan’s position in nuclear safeguard organisations shifts dramatically, these goals are likely to fall flat.

Though Pakistan has a professed deficit of indigenous fissile material, it has not stopped them from allocating what they have to weapons production. Internally, Pakistan is estimated to possess 3.1 ± 0.4 tons of highly enriched uranium and approximately 190 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. Since 1962, Pakistan has operated its nuclear sector under IAEA safeguards and ultimately has a good track record with the organisation despite its nuclear weapons programme. Though this is a confusing assessment, all of Pakistan’s nuclear reactors are monitored by the IAEA and appear to meet the regime standards. Regardless of this supervision, Pakistan has apparently managed to procure an estimated nuclear stockpile of around 130 warheads with India trailing at 110. Although India is also proliferating, the state has managed to indigenise its nuclear weapon acquisitions because their 2008 waiver does not interfere with military reactors. Pakistan does not have this luxury, and its civilian sector has suffered to make way for weapons production to counter India.

Here in lies the irony as Pakistan approaches the NSG bench. If Pakistan truly wishes to change the international community’s attitude about its track record as a nuclear state, it has to stop engaging in controversial actions of proliferation while campaigning for entry into a non-proliferation organisation. Though Pakistan has declared a desire to bolster civilian nuclear capabilities, its actions cause reasonable pause for committee members as the country allocates what little fissile material it has to weapons. In addition to this, because Pakistan has a robust history of external proliferation, many members are concerned about extending fissile material to the state. India does not evoke the same sentiment due to their reputation as ‘responsible’; an attitude that has led to the current upset in South Asia. Pakistan is trying to make up for this imbalance through NSG membership and so far China seems to be their largest advocate. China’s criteria for bilateral entry creates what many members deem a false equivalency between Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes. Most NSG members are uncomfortable with this misleading parity, leading to the deadlock of today.

Pakistan cannot change its past involvement in external proliferation, but it can demonstrate that its seriousness about the NSG by being a facilitator of civilian nuclear energy rather than a facilitator of proliferation. By rebalancing its skewed nuclear programme towards the civilian sector and through building up internal law to match that of NSG members, Pakistan can showcase its dedication to the goals of global non-proliferation. Until then, Pakistan, and consequently India, will likely not see entry into the NSG, a result that will further the imbalance between the South Asian powerhouses.

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