Bob Rigg is a New Zealander, with a wealth of experience on matters related to Disarmament. He was senior editor with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague (1993-2002), and chaired the NZ National Consultative Committee on Disarmament (2003-2005). He has published a wide range of Papers on issues pertaining to chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He chaired one of three panels at the recent Tehran International Disarmament Conference, on the subject of "Disarmament challenges".
Throughout this week Christchurch is hosting a meeting of a little known entity called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). As many as 46 states will be represented at the meeting, which will be chaired by the New Zealand government, in response to a personal invitation from President Obama to Prime Minister John Key.
The NSG was established by the US government in 1974, in response to India’s detonation of a nuclear device, with the stated aim of ensuring “that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.” Unsurprisingly, Pakistan followed India’s example. India’s nuclear programme was supported by Canada and the US, while Pakistan received assistance from China. The NSG was an informal US initiative enlisting support from a small and unrepresentative group of nuclear weapons states and developed nations.
The US prevented China from joining the NSG until 2004 but relented amidst the geopolitical aftershock of 11 September, and admitted China to the fold. It was an open secret that China had helped Pakistan, its regional ally, to go nuclear to avoid upsetting the geopolitical applecart in a volatile region that had experienced wars between India and Pakistan, as well as between India and China.
In 2008 the Bush administration proposed in Vienna that the NSG should contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons by approving the large-scale transfer of enriched uranium and nuclear technology to India. This infuriated Pakistan, which pointed out that it would help India to secure an even greater military advantage. The Bush administration risked this divisive initiative because it saw India as an ally and a counterbalance to the growing regional influence of China, and because Pakistan was unimportant in this context. The US leadership was also rubbing its hands at the prospect of enormously profitable nuclear contracts worth as much as US$100 billion.
Although the NSG is a US creation that has generally danced to the tune of the Stars and Stripes, some of its members were aghast at this move, which threatened to open the floodgates to nuclear proliferation. The NSG was forced to devote two meetings to this issue. To its enduring credit, New Zealand was in the forefront of a rebellious grouping of six states. The other five dissidents were: Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. China broke away from other nuclear weapons states, and also expressed misgivings about the proposal. All hell broke loose within the seemingly nondescript NSG, whose murky dealings were splashed all over the world’s headlines. An independent US observer close to the action wrote that the Bush administration engaged in “nasty” tactics involving threats, misinformation, and intimidation, to wear down resistance from the six dissidents. President Bush personally called all heads of state in question, making it clear that they would regret it if they did not go along with the US. The Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland were the first to buckle. The remaining three culprits, including New Zealand, soon caved in as well. China also fell into line after a call from President Bush to President Hu Jintao. The role of Germany, which presided over this diplomatic debacle, was described as follows: “The Germans apparently sat on their thumbs and let the Americans run the show.”
Since 2008 Pakistan is known to have already stepped up its production of enriched uranium in a bid to keep up with India. Also, the new Obama administration has seen that the Bush policy of focusing on India would cost it the support of Pakistan, now deemed essential for the escalating US war effort in Afghanistan. This has dismayed India which now, like Pakistan, feels jilted. Pakistan approached the Obama administration with a request for a nuclear deal along Indian lines, and was turned down. At the same time Israel has toyed with requesting the NSG to approve a comparable arrangement.
Pakistan then approached China, which has requested the NSG to approve a nuclear deal with Pakistan. China is now a superpower in waiting which even the US can no longer ignore. And the US desperately wants the support of China over Iran, for example.
The NSG will be damned if it approves a Pakistan-China deal and if it does not.
New Zealand will chair the decisive plenary session of the NSG this week. The conservative National Party was in opposition for about a decade before it was elected into office, and lacks senior ministers with recent experience of multilateral decision-making, let alone of the labyrinthine politics of disarmament and non-proliferation. Georgina te Heuheu, the Minister for Disarmament who is likely to chair the NSG plenary on New Zealand’s behalf, is a relatively lowly ranked Cabinet Minister new to the disarmament portfolio. The conservative National government has pledged to continue to uphold New Zealand’s tradition of independence in foreign policy, with Prime Minister John Key even undertaking, in a letter to President Obama, to press “New Zealand’s case to play a leadership role on anti-nuclear issues.”
Within the context of the 2008 meetings on the India-US deal, the Christchurch NSG meeting will test to the full New Zealand’s ability to function effectively in a murky and complex environment that will pit many of its allies and trading partners against each other. Will the New Zealand government align itself with the US, or will it try to accommodate China, now New Zealand’s second largest export market? Will we displease Pakistan or India, or both? Will we uphold the NPT, or will we further erode it? Time will tell.