India's journey toward integration in the global non-proliferation and export control architecture hit a road-block in October when Italy is understood to have blocked India’s membership application to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

MTCR is one of the four global groupings that form a critical part of this export control architecture. It deals with non-proliferation of missile and related items and technologies that can be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Rome gave no explanation for its decision at the MTCR plenary in October, however a bilateral political dispute is reported to be the reason why Italy decided to stall India’s entry.

As India prepares the ground for entry into the other three export control bodies — the Nuclear Suppliers Group (on nuclear and related items), the Australia Group (on chemical and biological items) and the Wassenaar Arrangement (on conventional arms and dual-use goods) — there is a lesson to be learnt from the fate of its MTCR membership application vis-a-vis Italy.

That lesson would be that if an unrelated bilateral dispute can stall India’s entry into the MTCR, then bilateral overtures with other nations could also be used to garner support.

India seeks membership in the four export control bodies for both practical and reputational reasons. It wants to access some of the items whose exports are controlled by these bodies. It also wants its progress recognised, It was once an outlier, targeted by these groups; now it is a responsible global actor, ready to share the burden of prohibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. The global non-proliferation and export control architecture would also gain by bringing India into the fold as India becomes more and more prominent in the global trade of the exports that are controlled by these bodies. Having India inside the tent would allow the global non-proliferation community to ensure India abides by the same rules as other major players. India applied for membership to the MTCR after establishing this view with a majority of members of these export control bodies.

What India did not foresee is that the success or otherwise of membership applications to these consensus-based groups does not depend solely on the likely impact on the efficacy and the objectives of these bodies. Italy’s decision to stall India’s membership showed how bilateral political issues may also influence these decisions.

A British government official present at the MTCR plenary later noted in a closed-door dialogue that Italy did not make any objection to India’s application, and nor did it state it intended to block New Delhi’s entry. Rather, the Italian representative raised his country’s flag and stated Italy needed more time to consider this application. For now, at least, Rome’s decision keeps India out.

India-Italy relations deteriorated after Indian authorities arrested two Italian marines and charged them with killing two Indian fishermen in February 2012. The issue sparked a major diplomatic row that resulted in the resignation of Italy's Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi in March 2013. It is still a long way from being resolved.

There was no mention of this matter by the Italian representative at the MTCR plenary. Italy gave no reason for its action there and, indeed, none was required. There is, however, reason to believe Italy thinks it can gain an advantage vis-a-vis India on legal proceedings concerning the marines. News reports noted that Italy expects India to go easy on the marines issue 'in lieu of support for MTCR membership'.

While this case demonstrates how support for membership can be used as leverage in resolving bilateral disputes, such consideration is neither new nor unique to the MTCR. Political issues have played a role in previous decisions on membership applications. For instance, a WikiLeaks cable published by the The Telegraph when Latvia sought MTCR membership noted that

Russia is lobbying for Kazakhstan's acceptance into the Australia Group, and that there has been talk about a trade – E.U. support for Kazakhstan in return for Russian support for remaining E.U. countries joining the MTCR.

Similarly, although China has not officially objected to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its attempts to group India’s membership case with that of Pakistan can be seen either as a way to block India’s entry or as a bargaining chip to serve its own political interests.

This fusion of politics with the objectives of the global non-proliferation and export control architecture is a matter of concern, as it dilutes the integrity as well as the credibility of the underlying norms and principles.

For India, Italy's actions have been a set back. It is not clear how far Rome will push New Delhi on the marines issue in exchange for support of MTCR membership. 

What is clear is that India has learnt an important lesson. Its pursuit of membership in these bodies has so far, and rightly, been based on its high standards of export control practices, its unwavering commitment to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its strong prospects as a supplier of sensitive items controlled by these bodies. If, however, unrelated bilateral disputes can stall India’s entry into the one of these bodies, then perhaps New Delhi needs to consider how it can work other bilateral relationships to clear its path to integration with the global non-proliferation and export control architecture. 

It's important to note that there are still some countries which have not made up their mind up on India's membership plans. Where feasible, New Delhi must redouble its diplomatic efforts to negotiate quid pro quo deals and secure support for its entry into the four export control bodies from those countries still sitting on the fence.

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MINT/Getty