Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Dateline Vienna: Last-ditch talks on to avert NSG dead-end

U.S., India in eleventh hour exchange of drafting language on nuclear deal as testing issue remains huge stumbling block.

6 September 2008
The Hindu

Last-ditch talks on to avert NSG dead-end

Siddharth Varadarajan

Vienna: With a number of states continuing to insist on a clear “cause and effect” link between a future Indian atomic test and the termination of nuclear supplies, desperate three-way negotiations were under way here on Friday night between American, Indian and G-6 country officials over the wording and structure of the U.S. proposal to allow nuclear commerce with India.

Indian officials remained non-committal about the prospect of the waiver coming through, saying one would have to “wait and see” what kind of language emerged through the different stages of the ongoing consultations.

According to a diplomatic source, the U.S. was conducting parallel consultations in small groups to hammer out an agreement and “the whole thing now has to be integrated in some way.” Among the countries pressing for tougher language were Ireland, New Zealand and China, they said.

At the time of going to press, a diplomat from the Group of Six ‘likeminded nations’ holding out for tougher conditions told The Hindu that “the meetings are still on and we’re not likely to have final agreement tonight [Friday] given the need for some delegations to get instructions [from their governments] on the revised text.”

With the U.S. and other NSG members meeting on the 27th floor of a building housing the Japanese mission to the U.N. and the Indian delegation camping at the Intercontinental Hotel across the Danube, draft language was being exchanged back and forth in an attempt to avert the breakdown of the process which had seemed inevitable at the start of the day.

The six countries holding out for tougher conditions to be written into the draft proposal granting India an exemption from the NSG’s rules are Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland. At the same time, the number of countries pushing for approval of the exemption has also grown, say diplomats. Under the 45-nation cartel’s rules of consensus decision-making, however, even one country has the right to block a decision.

A lengthy meeting between the U.S. and the G-6 ended inconclusively late on Thursday night with the latter refusing to accept any dilution of their demands. “There are still very different views on both sides. We made some progress on minor issues but on the principal questions, there has been no movement,” a diplomat from one of the six countries told The Hindu on Friday morning. “I can’t see any way to bridge the divide,” he added. “Not unless a major shift in position [by India and the U.S.] occurs.”

The first sign of forward movement became apparent soon after External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee released a formal statement reiterating India’s nonproliferation commitments, including its unilateral, voluntary moratorium. “The statement was really very helpful,” a diplomat from a Nordic country said. But the G-6 remained unimpressed. “We welcome it but it is not enough to resolve the outstanding difficulties with the main text [of the waiver],” said a diplomat from a G-6 country. “Voluntary declarations do not have the same value as agreed NSG text,” he added.

As the day wore on, the plenary frequently adjourned to allow consultations between the U.S. and those countries with outstanding issues, but towards later afternoon a potential formula within the NSG — at least in terms of structure — emerged. “What we are looking at are [the adoption of] auxiliary measures in addition to the waiver so that there can be a qualitative improvement of the international security architecture,” Peter Launsky- Tieffenthal, spokesman of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, told The Hindu on Friday evening. He said the issue at hand was the “quality” of the decision and that devices existed to extend the duration of a meeting if needed. “The decision may not come tonight but a little later.”

Indian officials refused to comment on the proposal of auxiliary measures, saying a final judgment could only be made on the basis of an actual proposal.

With the United States reportedly reaching an agreement with the Nuclear Supplies Group sceptics on issues like the export of sensitive nuclear technology to India, the question of what the cartel should do in case India were ever to detonate a nuclear device again took centre-stage as the principal obstacle in the way of America’s proposed exemption for India from the NSG’s export rules.

Essentially, the critics, led by the Group of Six ‘like-minded countries’ want the waiver to be made strictly conditional on India not violating the non-proliferation commitments it had made in order to get the waiver in the first place. The G-6 was not insisting on an explicit mention of nuclear testing, a diplomat from one the countries involved said. “But we are giving this exemption on the basis of these commitments and if those commitments are no longer being observed, the basis for the exemption will no longer be there.”

Automatic cut-off of supplies in the event of India abandoning its moratorium on nuclear testing “has been our absolute bottom line from the beginning” said the diplomat, “and there is no question of it being dropped.” At the same time, he conceded that more than India, it was the “big supplier nations” like Russia and France that were opposing automaticity of termination. “We know the U.S. is committed to terminating supplies [if India tests] but we don’t want to leave the decision within the NSG to each individual PG [participating government].”

Though at least one diplomat was quoted by Reuters as saying the question of access to enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology had been sorted out by the U.S. providing an assurance that this would be excluded from the final waiver, Indian officials said they were not aware of this proposal. Several countries, including the Group of Six — Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand — want these technologies to be excluded from the purview of the waiver, something India has opposed from the outset.

Noting that the six were receiving support from different countries on different issues, a G-6 diplomat described the position taken by China as “interesting.” “After remaining silent all this time, the Chinese were quite active in the [plenary] room yesterday[Thursday] and not in a way that was helpful to the U.S. position [on the waiver],” he said.

Another diplomat from a smaller country backing the India waiver said the Americans had not been as energetic “in a sustained sort of way” as they might have been during and before the NSG sessions last month and this week .

Asked for his assessment of the American role, the G-6 diplomat concurred, saying the U.S. “seems to have picked off all the easy targets from the list first and left the difficult countries for last.” And although the U.S. sent a more senior diplomat to lead its delegation to the NSG this time — Under Secretary of State William Burns — eyebrows were raised when he left town after a day, leaving his junior colleague, John D. Rood, in charge of the proceedings.

On their part, the Indian delegation here acknowledged the going was tough.

“If there is no agreement [Friday], I don’t see much scope for this going into another round.” “We are not talking about a third meeting. I don’t think anybody is, because if it can’t be done now, it can’t be done then,” official sources told The Hindu.

[In the print edition of The Hindu, this story was split into two. The url of Part II, ‘ Testing issue main stumbling block’, is here]

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2008 by in Nuclear Issues.

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