External Affairs

India Hopeful of Imminent Membership in Missile Technology Control Regime

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The Dutch chair of the MTCR has written to all member states asking them to approve Indian membership ‘by circulation’.

File photo of the BrahMos missile, a joint India-Russia venture. Credit: PTI

File photo of the BrahMos missile, a joint India-Russia venture. The range of the missile, at 290 km, has been kept under 300 km so that future exports from India would not fall foul of the MTCR guidelines. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Instead of waiting a few more months for the plenary of the group in South Korea later this year, the United States is trying to get all 34 members of the Missile Technology Control Regime to sign off on India’s entry in advance.


India committed to abide by the export guidelines of the MTCR in 2008 as part of the civilian nuclear deal with the US and formally applied for membership to the export control regime for missiles last June. Its case was “thoroughly discussed” at the group’s plenary meeting at Rotterdam on October 9, 2015. But, in the absence of consensus, India had to wait a little longer. The main hold-out was Italy, which implicitly linked India’s membership to the case of the two Italian marines which was under international arbitration based on Rome’s demand that India return the men accused of killing two fishermen off the coast of Kerala in 2012.

In normal course, India’s membership would have come up again during the MTCR’s next plenary to be held in South Korea. But clearly both India and the US are in a hurry to wrap up the MTCR – so that a successful application would provide momentum to India’s campaign to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The NSG will be meeting later this month, also in South Korea.

To speed up the process, the Netherlands – which holds the MTCR chair till the next plenary – has, with the active encouragement of the United States, written to all member countries to approve India’s membership “by circulation”, Indian officials told The Wire. The officials, who have their fingers crossed, are hoping the process will be completed very soon.

According a PTI report from Washington, which quoted sources “tracking the development”, Indian membership of the MTCR could come within this week  – with a possible announcement during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US on June 6-7.

The move comes less than a week after India adhered voluntarily to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, which ‘complements’ the binding MTCR regime. India had earlier held out against joining the HCoC for years – it abstained on a resolution on the HCoC at the UN as recently as December 2014 – but appears to have calculated that putting the right foot forward was crucial to get into the MTCR.

Italy appears to have removed its virtual veto after the second Italian marine returned home on May 30 following the Indian government’s decision to not object when the matter came up before the Supreme Court. The international arbitral tribunal in its order on May 3 had said that India and Italy “should cooperate” to allow for the Indian Supreme Court to relax bail conditions and allow Girone to go back to his country while the tribunal completes its trial.

What the MTCR does

The MTCR guidelines, drafted in 1987, enjoin member states to restrict the export of items that could assist the production of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. For the most sensitive items, also known as ‘Category I’ – complete missile systems capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kgs over a distance of more than 300 km, and drones or components designed exclusively for use in such systems – the MTCR encourages member states to deny export licenses altogether, subject to national law. The US, for example, permits certain exports but with tight restrictions on end-use. Category 2 items are largely dual use and include components that are needed for civilian space flight. Here, most MTCR states have a less restrictive policy.

Though the MTCR does not bar the sale of Category 1 or 2 items to non-members, India’s calculation is that membership of the club would make it easier to acquire critical components and even systems, especially for its space programme. The Indian military is also interested in purchasing US drones – a Category 1 item.

If India does get entry into MTCR, it will be first of the four export regimes that India aims to join in order to remove restrictions on high-technology trade. The United States had agreed in 2010 to actively support India’s membership for the four regimes as part of the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Although the US has traditionally sought to impose tough conditions on new entrants into the MTCR, Indian officials say the country’s membership will come with no additional demands. “here are no conditions. We come in with our indigenous missile and space programmes as they are,” an Indian official told The Wire.

From MTCR to NSG?

The Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary will be held June 20-24, where the US and other supporters are expected to make a strong case for India, despite opposition from other countries like China. A pre-plenary special meeting is also going to be held in Vienna June 9-10 to have a preliminary airing on the issue of membership.

“Discussion within the NSG is still going on about the accession of non-NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) countries, and NSG members remain divided on this issue,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a written statement to PTI.

China, which has been lobbying for Pakistan to be a member too, insisted that the NSG was “part and parcel of the international non-proliferation regime” and therefore new members should sign the NPT

Dismissing this line of argument, foreign secretary S Jaishankar said on Friday that the NSG was a “flexible arrangement” between states, unlike a treaty like the NPT. “If you look at the central word in that acronym NSG, it is ‘supplier’. If you look [at the NPT], it is proliferation. So, I think the objectives are different and I would not really confuse apples for oranges,” he said.

Following the line taken by President Pranab Mukherjee in his discussions with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing last month, Jaishankar also linked India’s ability to implement the commitments submitted as INDC to its joining the NSG.

“We can say today that the INDC envisages that 40% of our power generation capacity by 2030 would be non-fossil fuel. If 40% is non-fossil fuel, obviously a substantial part of it would be nuclear,” he noted, adding that if there was uncertainty about technology access, then investments by big international players were not likely to happen.

“The merits of our joining the NSG derive from the fact that we have a substantial expansion of our nuclear energy segment ahead of us… I mean if there are norms and practices in the world, proliferation is not an irrelevant concern to it. It is not the same. People look at us. I think we have a very solid record with which much of the world is comfortable,” added the foreign secretary.

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