The norm-based multilateral arms control and nuclear disarmament are in a state of crisis today. 2018 was marked by two discouraging events: the withdrawal of USA from one of the most significant and multilaterally negotiated agreements, that is, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal); and US announcing its intention to withdraw from the only Cold War Treaty that is still in force —the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the USSR and the US.
South Asia, a region that houses three nuclear powers, will feel the impact of these developments. Perceived by many as a regional power and having an influential history in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation advocacy, many would turn to India to take the lead in restoring the nuclear order starting by building trust amongst the regional powers by carrying out greater dialogue on nuclear issues with its neighbours as well as re-considering its traditional positions on multilateral instruments like the CTBT as well as its own nuclear doctrine.
India’s history of nuclear disarmament
India has always been an ardent supporter of multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. This history can be traced back to 1950s when the then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru became the first head of state to call for a standstill agreement proposing a ban on nuclear testing in 1954. In 1965, India advocated a strong non-discriminatory treaty banning nuclear proliferation.
In 1965, India was amongst the Non-Aligned Eight in the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) that advocated for de-linking disarmament and non-proliferation for the purposes of treating the goal of disarmament as an “autonomous field of political action”, especially by the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and to not hold it hostage to non-proliferation and global security requirements of the rest of the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). India considered these two goals to be separate but to be pursued simultaneously.
India’s decision to not sign the 1968 “discriminatory” nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and, a few years later, to conduct a “peaceful nuclear test”, shook its credibility as a serious proponent of nuclear disarmament. However, India redeemed its status by proposing a comprehensive proposal for “complete and universal nuclear disarmament” to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Disarmament in 1988, which came to be known as the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan. Additionally, in 1996, India, one amongst the “Group of 21”, submitted a Programme of Action calling for “phased elimination of nuclear weapons” to the Conference of Disarmament.
Even after the 1998 nuclear tests, India believed that its status as a nuclear power did not come in conflict with its long-standing pro-nuclear disarmament stand. India established its status as a “responsible nuclear power” by imposing an immediate moratorium on further nuclear testing. In 2006, India reiterated its commitment to a Nuclear Weapons Convention calling for a verifiable and non-discriminatory elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Therefore, it is clear that on numerous occasions, India has taken the opportunity to be a driving force for attaining universal, complete and non-discriminatory disarmament.
Current need for multilateral diplomacy
The norms of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation that India has always supported and helped establish stand on the verge of erosion and two major developments are responsible for the heightened tensions.
In July 2015, when Iran and the P5+1 (UK, US, France, Russia, China and Germany) reached a multilaterally negotiated agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities in the form of the JCPOA, it was not just an agreement but also a strong reiteration of norms on non-proliferation paved by the NPT regime in the ’60s. The JCPOA set a positive precedent in securing global nuclear order. However, with the US’s withdrawal from the agreement on May 8, 2018, the future of the international nuclear security has been thrown into jeopardy.
Iran recently declared its intentions to withdraw from the NPT which can carry significant repercussions for global nuclear security and safeguards that can further weaken the already fragile NPT regime. Cases of nuclear terrorism are often quoted with respect to India’s neighbour countries such as Pakistan. However, despite the gaps, the NPT regime has proven to be a cornerstone agreement in managing those nuclear threats. However, given the present circumstances, the future of global nuclear security remains uncertain.
The second setback to the arms control and disarmament initiatives is US’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which banned all US and Soviet Union land-based ballistic and cruise missiles falling in the range of 500-5500 kilometres.
As a result, one can envision a scenario of re-armament which could include either bringing back the missiles that were decommissioned at the height of Cold War (such as the Pershing missiles), or bringing in new missiles to fill in the gaps that remain. This potential re-armament would be a blatant violation of Article VI of the NPT, a commitment that was made by all the states parties, and most importantly by the NWS to work towards achieving nuclear and general and complete disarmament.
In case INF ceases to exist, this could trigger an arms race since neither the US nor Russia would be legally bound by restrictions on increasing their arsenal of short and intermediate range missiles. As China measures its nuclear capability against Russia and the US, India measures its nuclear capability against China, and Pakistan sees its nuclear capability relative to India, this carries the seeds of a spiralling arms race in South Asia.
What can India do?
Any expectation of proactive efforts by India at multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation advocacy has to be in cognisance of the present security environment and the challenges that remain with Pakistan’s alleged role in nuclear terrorism, and China’s increasing superiority and sophistication of its nuclear capability. However, there are certain efforts that India can make to further its long-standing goal of nuclear disarmament while also maintaining a credible position of deterrence in South Asia.
The first of these efforts should include a serious reconsideration of India’s doctrinal positions which include adopting a “global NFU” norm instead of a “conditional NFU” (which is India’s current principle). Doing so can alter the threat perception, especially between India and Pakistan and raise the deterrence threshold.
Additionally, another traditional position that India could reconsideris regarding its status at the multilateral Comprehensive Test ban Treaty (CTBT). Reasons for India’s refusal to sign the CTBT are numerous. However, India could get involved in enhancing the operational status of the CTBTO by agreeing to install the four stations proposed for India under the International Monitoring System (IMS) subject to its own terms. This would “put India’s advanced technological expertise and advantageous geographical location to the service of the international community, without requiring any concession regarding its non-signatory status in respect of the CTBT”. Additionally, since the CTBT is seen as a necessary instrument in strengthening the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, India can use its signature to the treaty as a card for boosting its status as a potential Nuclear Supplier Group member and further cement its position of a “responsible global nuclear power”. Lastly, signing the CTBT can prove to be an effective trust-building measure by India which will only strengthen the multilateral nuclear order and possibly encourage the rest of the 9 states in Annex 2 of the treaty to get on board. Since India already declared an indefinite moratorium on nuclear testing in 1998, there seems to be no tangible harm in signing the CTBT.
Apart from reconsidering the conventional positions as mentioned above, India could also revive its commitment to nuclear disarmament by filling the gaps that remain in conducting open and transparent dialogues on nuclear related issues in the region and globally. Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of conversations on countries’ nuclear doctrines and positions bilaterally and multilaterally. India could use its clout as a “responsible nuclear power” to initiate such discussions as a confidence building measure.
Lastly, it is important that India engages actively in multilateral discussions at the UN and other parallel platforms to voice the security and non-proliferation issues concerning states like itself and NWS. The NWS see the issue of non-proliferation as intrinsically linked to disarmament. Therefore, in order to persuade the NWS to board the disarmament bandwagon, it is important that this concern is raised at international multilateral platforms so that an inclusive and step-by-step approach can be devised. For instance, despite disagreements, India could have participated in the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) sessions that led to the final adoption of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Ban Treaty). This would have given India an opportunity to show its commitment to the cause in principle while being a non-signatory to the final treaty.
The developments mentioned above are taking place when the global nuclear order stands at the peril of a heated nuclear arms race. One can see a growing disenchantment amongst the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) and the outlier states like India that any consensus will ever emerge on the nuclear disarmament front. Therefore, it is time that India steps up to reinvigorate its nuclear diplomacy by assuming a leadership role in materialising the goal of nuclear disarmament.
Shivani Singh is an MPhil candidate at the Center for international Politics, Organisation and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She also works as a policy consultant in the Nuclear Security Programme at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.