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By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States and three other big powers this week argued for allowing nuclear-armed India into an atomic export control group, but China and several European states appeared doubtful about the move, diplomats said on Wednesday.
They said the divisions were in evidence during closed-door talks of the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group on the sensitive issue of whether India could join and become the NSG's only member that is outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The United States, France, Britain and Russia were among those which backed membership for India - Asia's third-largest economy - while smaller European states such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland had reservations, the envoys said.
China stressed the need for equal treatment in South Asia, an apparent reference to its ally Pakistan which is also outside the NPT and has also tested atomic bombs, they said. One diplomat said Japan also appeared lukewarm on the idea.
The tone of Monday's informal debate in Vienna suggested that the controversial issue will not be ready for a decision at the NSG's next annual plenary session, to be held in the Czech capital of Prague in June. NSG decisions are made by consensus.
"There are several countries in each camp. I'm not sure how it can be moved forward," one envoy said.
But another diplomat said that while "a number of countries have continued doubts" they did not categorically rule out that India, which has yet to apply, could eventually become a member.
The NSG - which includes the United States, Russia, China, European Union countries and some others - is a cartel that tries to ensure that civilian nuclear exports are not diverted for military purposes.
In 2010, Washington announced backing for India joining. But Pakistan - which has been trying to move closer to Asian powerhouse China as Islamabad's ties with Washington have suffered - has warned against allowing its rival into the NSG.
India and Pakistan - which have fought three wars - have both refused to sign the 189-nation NPT, which would oblige them to scrap nuclear weapons.
Close relations between China and Pakistan reflect a long-standing shared wariness of their common neighbour, India, and a desire to counter U.S. influence across the region.
Those for India joining say it is better if the country is inside than outside the NSG as it is already an advanced nuclear energy power and will in future become a significant exporter as well, one of the diplomats who attended the discussions said.
Those which are sceptical argue it could undermine the NPT, which is a cornerstone of global nuclear disarmament efforts.
"There are differences of opinion on allowing non-NPT members into the NSG," another diplomat said.
Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank said some "worried that India will use its voice to reverse the NSG's gears and loosen export controls, since India has not demonstrated a firm historical commitment" to its mission.
To receive civilian nuclear exports, nations that are not one of the five officially recognised atomic weapons states must usually place their nuclear activities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, NSG rules say.
When the United States sealed a nuclear supply deal with India in 2008 that China and others found questionable because Delhi is outside the NPT, Washington won an NSG waiver from that rule after contentious negotiations.
The landmark civilian nuclear cooperation agreement ended India's atomic isolation following its 1974 nuclear test and could mean billions of dollars in business for U.S. firms.
India gained access to technology and fuel while it was allowed to continue its nuclear weapons programme.
Pakistan wants a similar civilian nuclear agreement with the United States to help meet its growing energy needs.
But Washington is reluctant, largely because a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, admitted in 2004 to transferring nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
Nuclear expert Daryl Kimball said India wanted to join the NSG because of prestige but that this would undercut the group's ability to ensure that New Delhi respects the non-proliferation commitments it made to win support for the 2008 exemption.
"Those commitments included no further nuclear weapons testing, compliance with site-specific safeguards, and support for a fissile material production moratorium," said Kimball, of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)