India and the CTBT: The debate in New Delhi

By A. Vinod Kumar | November 4, 2009

President Barack Obama’s decision to revive the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has triggered a flurry of discussions in New Delhi, where individuals in the strategic and scientific communities are now vigorously debating India’s options. One notable outcome of the debate so far is the realization that India’s approach to the CTBT today will be radically different from its approach in 1996, when New Delhi was unanimously opposed to the treaty (and was not yet a de facto nuclear weapon state). This time around, India is divided over the feasibility of joining a test ban when the credibility of its minimum deterrent is still in question and when acceding to the CTBT might mean appearing to abandon its stance on a deadline-linked disarmament process.

From the very start of the nuclear age, India was a vociferous proponent of a nuclear test ban. To wit, in 1954, India initiated a global call at the U.N. Disarmament Commission for an end to nuclear testing and a freeze on fissile material production. Likewise, in 1978 and 1982 at the Special Sessions on Disarmament, India proposed measures for banning nuclear testing, and in 1988, it introduced the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. These proposals were shaped by the belief that banning nuclear testing would be an irreversible step toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a specific time frame. However, after co-sponsoring a resolution for a test ban treaty in November 1993, India reversed course and tried to block the treaty text that was negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament. This stance was actually ideologically consistent, since India felt that the treaty was flawed because it wasn’t linked to a time-bound disarmament plan.

Another crux of India’s argument against the CTBT was the perilous security environment in South Asia, in which India had limited options as a non-nuclear weapon state to deal with the lurking challenges from China’s nuclear arsenal and Pakistan’s nascent weapons program. By signing the CTBT, India would have foregone the right to test nuclear devices, yet its primary nuclear-armed adversary, China, would be able to retain its nuclear weapons under the treaty and could even upgrade them through subcritical experiments. Pointing to this disparity, an Indian representative told the U.N. General Assembly in September 1995: “[We note that] nuclear weapon states have agreed to a CTBT only after acquiring the know-how to develop and refine their arsenals without the need for tests. . . . Developing new warheads or refining existing ones after [the] CTBT is in place, using innovative technologies, would be . . . contrary to the spirit of [the] CTBT.” Later, New Delhi demanded a “complete cessation of nuclear tests in all environments and for all time” and “a binding commitment . . . within an agreed time frame, toward the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world.”

Specifically, New Delhi felt that the CTBT was inadequate in terms of securing disarmament commitments from the nuclear weapon states under declared deadlines. It saw this as a discriminatory replication of the imbalance inherent in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, in which nuclear weapon states are weakly obligated to disarm and non-nuclear weapon states are strongly obligated to remain non-nuclear. The lack of commitments by the nuclear weapon states to eliminate their nuclear weapons under a declared time frame also compelled India to oppose Article XIV of the NPT, which stipulates the CTBT’s entry into force after 44 “Annex 2” countries sign and ratify it.

Clearly, much has changed since then. India’s 1998 nuclear tests, growing nuclear arsenal, and partial integration into the nonproliferation regime via the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver that was part of the 2008 U.S.-India nuclear deal–along with the Obama administration’s moves to revive the treaty–have caused New Delhi to reconsider its approach to the CTBT. Although opposition to the treaty remains, several domestic justifications for a nuclear test ban have emerged. For example: In addition to the pressure likely to be placed on India to join the ban if the United States and China ratify the treaty, there is also apprehension in New Delhi that prospective supplier states will stipulate India’s commitment to a test ban as a precondition for nuclear trade. Such concerns are underscored by the fact that many NSG members, while granting the India-specific waiver, wanted India to convert its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing into a legal pledge by signing the CTBT.

Many in India do continue to cite the lack of sufficient disarmament commitments as central to their opposition to the CTBT, but today this argument is weaker–especially because India is now a de facto nuclear weapon state. The shift from being a nuclear “have-not” to a nuclear “have” dramatically altered the Indian perspective on the CTBT. Consequently, it will no longer be tenable for India to hold on to the old argument of discrimination against have-nots. Instead, like other nuclear weapon states, India will have to ensure that the CTBT (and any other nonproliferation mechanism) will not impinge on its strategic weapons program. In other words, India’s status as a de facto nuclear weapon state now places it in the same mode of thinking that the NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states held during CTBT negotiations in the mid-1990s.

Test ban opponents in India defend this position by arguing that its strategic program needs to be safeguarded until a credible disarmament process begins. On a sublime note, some in India will contend that the CTBT remains improvident until the nuclear weapon states commit to a time-bound disarmament framework. Yet to get the ball rolling on eliminating nuclear weapons, India passes the responsibility to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council (the five nuclear weapon states recognized under the NPT). India has few justifications for its disinclination to propose any initiatives for a phased, definitive disarmament process–although a reasonable rebuttal would be its June 1996 statement to the Conference on Disarmament: “Countries around us continue their weapon programs. . . . India cannot accept any restraints on its capability if other countries remain unwilling to accept the obligation to eliminate their nuclear weapons.”

Such arguments notwithstanding, the strongest hindrance to Indian support for the CTBT today revolves around two questions that have perplexed Indians over the past decade. First, does India really have a credible minimum deterrent that would allow it to continue to abstain from further tests? And second, is India’s nuclear establishment capable of improving its existing arsenal without the aid of nuclear testing? Though the public is assured that a credible minimum deterrent does exist, some analysts passionately contend that India’s purported deterrent has not yet matured to that point in terms of number or yield. India’s arsenal, they argue, must be improved–especially its thermonuclear devices–via further testing, and hence, a global test ban cannot be joined. Similarly, an influential third party in the scientific and strategic communities assumes that full-scale nuclear testing will be needed for future weapon designs and argues for keeping the testing option open. That Chinese military modernization is in full swing empowers this faction to obstruct progress toward an Indian test-ban commitment.

During the debate in New Delhi over the U.S.-India nuclear deal, worries about India’s freedom to conduct future nuclear tests and potential complications in nuclear commerce were prominent. To soothe these fears, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government assured the Indian Parliament that the nuclear deal wouldn’t preclude India’s ability to undertake nuclear tests. Singh reportedly also assured a group of disgruntled nuclear scientists that the strategic nuclear program was safe and promised to secure the wherewithal for its future augmentations.

Such promises have hampered the scope for positive political action in India on the CTBT; the government now will have a tough job convincing parliament of the prudence of signing the treaty. Even a mere political call to abdicate the right to future testing will happen only after the nuclear scientific establishment, as well as the national security establishment, certifies the credibility of the existing arsenal, and the former verifies that the nuclear complex is capable of subcritical testing and simulation-based improvisations. Getting the nuclear establishment’s support for the CTBT, however, may not be difficult, considering that by endorsing the CTBT it is basically confirming its capability to refine the arsenal without full-scale nuclear testing and its confidence in the Indian minimum deterrent. Further, a forceful political push could neutralize the naysayers even within the establishment.

A greater political challenge could be how to justify stepping away from New Delhi’s past history of disarmament advocacy, because India’s accession to the CTBT in its present form could imply an abandonment of its disarmament ideals or even contradict its own disarmament activism at previous CTBT negotiations. As a result, it will be difficult for New Delhi to support the CTBT unless the treaty adopts structural changes with new, clear linkages to a time-bound disarmament process.

Any Indian decision ultimately will be influenced by the ratification process in the U.S. Congress. Many in India profoundly believe that some in the U.S. military and Republican Party might resist and stall the ratification process. The reported proposal to reinstate the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program is seen as an illustration of the U.S. military’s mindset on nuclear weapons. There is a dominant feeling among New Delhi’s strategic analysts that the U.S. military will use the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review to push for the modernization of its nuclear forces, an effort that could have implications for the CTBT ratification process.

However, if Congress manages to resist such pressures and ratifies the CTBT, it could trigger a domino effect among other non-signatories. India would then be left with few options but to truly reconsider its official stance regarding the CTBT.

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