A recent move by diplomats to induct India into a club of nuclear trading nations could end up escalating tensions with rival, neighboring Pakistan, instead of increasing stability in South Asia.
Membership in the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) would come 41 years after India tested its first nuclear bomb, giving the country of 1.25 billion a vested interest in curbing the world’s most dangerous regional arms race.
The chairman of the NSG, Rafael Grossi, visited New Delhi to meet with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj as part of diplomatic "outreach" seeking to build a consensus to admit India at its annual meeting next June.
"It's a very delicate process, but I think there is less and less justification for the impasse," said Grossi, who is the Argentinian ambassador to Vienna.
However, doubts remain. India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. And Pakistan, an ally of China, also hopes to someday join the NSG. With Pakistan’s history as a proliferator, its accession would be a tough sell.
Because the NSG operates by consensus, admitting India alone would mean it could then bar its western neighbor from the club, potentially pushing Pakistan further to the fringes.
In the meantime, Pakistan has tested missiles that can reach all of India, and short-range missiles it insists could be used only if Indian troops cross onto Pakistani soil.
Membership in the NSG would improve India's geopolitical clout and help it capitalize on nuclear trade and technology transfer opportunities -- all of which Pakistan could take issue with.
"India has a nuclear deal with the U.S., with France, and it will soon have deals with Australia and Japan. So all this will of course complement its effort to get into the NSG," said a senior Pakistani security official with knowledge of nuclear issues. "But people don't understand that India will use all this additional fuel (through civil nuclear deals) to make energy and have a lot more left over to use to make weapons.
"So at the end of it, the need for even more deterrence from our side will grow, not decrease."
A nuclear lead would be vital insurance for Pakistan, in its view, against potential aggression by its larger neighbor, and the country is poised to gain the upper hand over India in the nuclear contest.
Analysts Toby Dalton and Michael Krepon estimate Pakistan is producing 20 nuclear warheads a year compared with India's five. But maintaining such a lead is a "losing proposition" that is costly for Pakistan's economy and strains its social fabric, they said.
In a report for the Carnegie and Stimson think tanks, Dalton and Krepon argued Pakistan should abandon its goal of "full-spectrum" deterrence against India and satisfy itself with "strategic" deterrence, or the ability to launch an effective counter-strike if attacked.
The two countries have fought three wars since independence and partition in 1947, two of which have been over the disputed Kashmir territory -- one of the world's most heavily militarized zones. Border clashes and incursions pose a constant risk of escalation.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on specific discussions over Pakistan, but an official said Washington had not entered into talks on a civil nuclear pact with Pakistan. Nor was it seeking a waiver for Pakistan to trade with the NSG.
The United States was continuing to integrate India into the "global nonproliferation mainstream," said the official, adding that Washington supported India's membership in the four multilateral export control regimes. One of those is the NSG.
The long road to India’s nuclear legitimacy started in 2005 with a bilateral deal with the United States, which three years later yielded an exemption allowing it to trade in sensitive nuclear technology with NSG nations.
In 2010, New Delhi expressed its interest in formally joining the NSG.
But India's lobbying has met with skepticism from European countries like Austria and Switzerland, which have questioned its refusal to sign the NPT and give up nuclear weapons.
Indian negotiators say that there has now been a change of tone, and are focusing on winning over European sceptics. This, in turn, could bring round China, they calculate.
"We are optimistic; there is a desire within the NSG to bring this process to a conclusion sooner rather than later," said one Indian diplomat. "People are comfortable with India."
Despite two summit meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing may not agree, analysts caution.
Nevertheless, India is upbeat. "France joined the NSG before ratifying the NPT," the Indian diplomat said. "It's not about arms controls. It's about export controls."
With reporting by Douglas Busvine for Reuters