India and the Multilateral Export Control Regimes (MECRs): From Apartheid to Active Engagement

India was denied membership to an exclusive grouping of states called the Multilateral Export Control Regimes (MECRs) for nearly three decades following India’s Pokhran-I nuclear tests of 1974. Former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh termed this period of disregard by the West for India’s strategic interests “nuclear apartheid”. India’s lack of access to critical technology and material resources affected both its military and civilian sector. However, this “apartheid” began to unravel post the historic U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement of 2005. India was granted a waiver to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008. Further, following two decades of building strong non-proliferation credentials and military and technological alliances with key states, India became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016, the Wassenaar Agreement (WA) in 2017 and the Australia Group (AG) in 2018. India is now in a period of “active engagement”, where it has an ability to use its position within the MECRs to influence international affairs. What does this mean for India and the world?

Lokendra Sharma
Pratima Yadav
July 11, 2020

The Four MECRs: Background, Objectives and India’s Engagement

The first MECR to come into existence, the NSG, was formed in the backdrop of the Indian nuclear tests also called the “Peaceful Nuclear Explosion” (PNE) of 1974 when seven states — Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — held a series of meetings in London from 1975 to 1977. Initially called the London Club, its main objective was to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by regulating the international nuclear market and trade of relevant technology, materials and equipment. It currently has 48 member states including the P5 and all major nuclear-supplier states. 

The decisions of the NSG are taken by consensus among members and have two sets of guidelines. India is not a member of the NSG but was granted a waiver in 2008 after intense diplomatic efforts by India and the United States in the backdrop of the historic Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement (also called the 123 Agreement of 2005). The NSG waiver has paved the way for India to trade in nuclear materials and enter into civil nuclear agreements with other states despite being a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.

The second MECR to come into existence was the AG in 1985. Established in the aftermath of the chemical weapon usage by Iraq in 1984 during the Iran-Iraq war, its major objective is to ensure “that exports of certain chemicals, biological agents, and dual-use chemical and biological manufacturing facilities and equipment" does not contribute to the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

It is an informal group which runs on consensus and its first meeting took place in Brussels in June 1985 in which 15 states and European Commission participated. India became the 43rd member of the AG in January 2018. The AG has noted in its press release that with admission of India into the Australia Group, “India has demonstrated the will to implement rigorous controls of high standards in international trade, and its capacity to adapt its national regulatory system to meet the necessities of its expanding economy.”

The MTCR is arguably the most important MECR after the NSG as it pertains to the delivery systems of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). It was established in 1987 by the G7 countries in an attempt to control exports of missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering WMDs as well as the relevant technology. 

Similar to the NSG, the impetus for the creation of MTCR according to geostrategist Brahma Chellaney was the Indian space program of the 1980s as well as the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) on which India embarked in 1983. However, the MTCR regime failed to contain or limit India’s missile development program, and counterproductively pushed India towards self-sufficiency as India developed short to medium range missiles like the “Prithvi”, “Trishul”, “Akash” and “Nag”. 

The world's key missile manufacturing states (excluding China) are its members and it urges them to restrict their exports of missiles and related technologies which are capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers. India joined as the 35th member of MTCR in 2016 which gives it unfettered access to crucial missile technologies. India has been adhering to MTCR export control guidelines since 2008.

The most recent control regime is the WA. Considered as a successor to the Cold-War era Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Control (COCOM), it was conceived in 1995 and established in July 1996 in Wassenaar, Netherlands with its headquarters and secretariat at Vienna, Austria. Notably, among the P5, China is not a member of this grouping. Its main objectives are to control the trade of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies      as well as to prevent these from falling into hands of terrorist organizations.

The WA stipulates sharing of data regarding arms trade among members as a measure of transparency and also expects members’ national policies and legislations to be in line with its guidelines. Decisions are taken by consensus among members. At its 23rd plenary meeting in Vienna on 6-7 December 2017, India was admitted as its 42nd member. India has adopted the control list for Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technologies (SCOMET) items, in line with Wassenaar Arrangement requirements. 

Engagement with the MECRs has benefitted India in two major ways. Firstly, it has enabled India’s access to the international trade in sophisticated technologies, high-end equipment and hardware in the military/strategic and civilian sectors. India’s private sector and Defense Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) also stand to benefit as they will now be able to export and trade in hitherto restricted technologies. Secondly, India’s membership in these groups ensures that its genuine concerns and interests are taken into account, enabling its transition from being a rule accepter to being a rule maker. These benefits now enable India to directly play a role in shaping the agenda and functioning of the MECRs.


India’s Role in the Evolving International Context

Since the inception of the global arms control and non-proliferation architecture in the heydays of the Cold War, it has been the United States that has played the key role in its formation, sustenance and strengthening. However in recent years — especially under President Trump — the United States has gradually receded from this role and in fact withdrawn from various arms control initiatives. The U.S. has also embarked on a nuclear weapons modernization plan, increased its defense spending in recent years, invoked the WTO security clause, and retreated from global affairs and several of its multilateral commitments. 

It is in such context that India’s membership in the MECRs and its recent election as non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2021-22 assumes greater significance. The Security Council reform calls for better regulation of the arms trade and the proliferation of weapons to advance international peace and security. India can leverage its presence in the UNSC, the MECRs and other platforms like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to push for much needed reform and even to bring about a fundamental normative change in international politics.

However, India would find it difficult to reconcile the push for international peace through non-proliferation of destabilizing arms and technologies, owing to its own long-standing position that the MECRs are discriminatory and behave like ‘cartels’. What waits to be seen is if India pushes for more democratic MECRs, in line with its push for an expansion of UNSC membership, to reflect current international realities.     


Prospects, Challenges and Conclusion 

While India has secured full membership in the MTCR, WA and AG in recent years without being a signatory to the NPT of 1968, it still has to contend with the waiver from NSG in 2008. Despite its strong case for full membership, India faces stiff resistance from China, which has so far been blocking consensus on the question of India’s membership. 

China has pointed out that India has not signed the NPT even as the case of France indicates that there is the historical precedent of a non-NPT signatory joining the NSG. Further, China would like India’s membership to be viewed in the same vein as Pakistan, which has not built nearly as much of a non-proliferation track record. India’s membership of the Quad (a grouping of India, United States, Japan and Australia ostensibly to contain China in the Indo-Pacific), the overall deteriorating relations and the ongoing tense border standoff in Ladakh region with an increasingly assertive China are going to dent India’s chances of getting the consensus run NSG body to approve India’s membership in the near future. 

Even though India has broken through the “apartheid”, other states in the international system, especially in the Global South, continue to face technology denial by these exclusive ‘cartels’. India has for long taken a principled stand to push for more democratization of international platforms and expressed solidarity with the Global South. However, with India becoming part of the MECRs and the upcoming membership of UNSC, India has to also work towards the cause of global non-proliferation, and thereby international peace and security. It has to be seen now how India will reconcile these contradictions after securing a seat at the high table.

Lokendra Sharma is a master’s student in International Relations at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. His research interests include Indian foreign policy, nuclear energy, arms control, defense and strategic issues.

Pratima Yadav is a PhD scholar at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, Chennai. She’s interested in international politics, gender studies and is currently researching in the field of Global Health and International Relations.