Reforming the NPT to include India

By A. Vinod Kumar | May 1, 2010

For decades now, India has obstinately resisted the idea of joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), claiming that the treaty is both flawed and discriminatory. Thus, India, a country with a nuclear weapons arsenal, has long stood outside of the nonproliferation regime. Yet recent government statements seem to indicate that New Delhi is rethinking its stance on the treaty–a very timely discussion, given the upcoming 2010 NPT Review Conference, at which reforming the treaty to reflect current security considerations is likely to be a topic of deliberation.

The first sign of an Indian change of heart came about six months ago when New Delhi officially responded to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1887, which (among other things) exhorts all non-state parties to join the NPT and thereby “universalize” it. India’s permanent U.N. representative wrote to the Security Council the day after the resolution: “India cannot accept calls for universalization of the NPT. . . . [T]here is no question of India joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.” While this might sound like an outright rejection, the statement actually hinted that India could consider joining the NPT–as something other than a non-nuclear weapon state, of course.

Such a possibility was corroborated last November by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he indicated to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that India would be willing to join the NPT if invited as a nuclear weapon state–the first time an Indian head of government had expressed a desire to join the treaty. Taking a cue from Singh, a debate on the virtues of joining the NPT has now blossomed in New Delhi’s strategic circles.

Yet, in some ways, Singh’s discussion with Zakaria did more to reveal the paradoxes in India’s nuclear diplomacy and philosophy than to actually confront them. For example, it’s telling that just hours after Singh’s statement, his own Congress party disavowed it and rejected any possibility of joining the NPT. Beyond an innate opposition to the NPT, such sentiments demonstrate the predominant thinking in India that few realistic opportunities exist to join the NPT under a true recognition of the nation’s nuclear weapon status–the most likely culprit for New Delhi’s perplexing behavior in international nuclear matters. To wit, India frequently projects itself as a responsible nuclear weapon state in total adherence with NPT principles, while at the same time clamoring for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that could overturn the NPT.

Along these lines, when the 2000 NPT Review Conference was in session, India’s foreign minister declared to the country’s Parliament: “Though not a party to the NPT, India’s policies have been consistent with the key provisions of [the] NPT that apply to nuclear weapon states. . . . The NPT community needs to understand that India cannot join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.”

Ultimately, India seems to want two things: (1) to showcase its nonproliferation record and (2) to gain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons. And for a time–most especially during the negotiations for the U.S.-India nuclear deal, which brought India much closer to the nonproliferation regime than ever before–it appeared as though New Delhi’s odd posturing regarding the NPT was going to pay off.

But in recent months much has changed. In particular, President Barack Obama’s determination to revive nuclear disarmament efforts has put new pressure on India to join the NPT. For instance, in July 2009 the Group of Eight proposed greater controls on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to non-NPT states. Despite assurances from Washington that the proposed restrictions weren’t aimed specifically at India, New Delhi has felt the NPT looming larger than ever before.

To understand how India might be brought into the NPT, we need to look closely at New Delhi’s approach to the treaty. India maintains that the NPT is discriminatory because of an imbalance between the obligations of the five recognized nuclear weapon states under the treaty (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) and the countries the treaty classifies as non-nuclear weapon states–i.e., everybody else. New Delhi also feels that the NPT is discriminatory because of its rigid structure, which denies nuclear weapon state status to countries that tested nuclear weapons after 1968, which, by definition, leaves New Delhi out of the exclusive NPT weapons group. (India tested its first nuclear device in 1974.)

Since its second round of nuclear testing in 1998, New Delhi has consistently rejected demands to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, implying that India endorses the NPT’s raison d’être but will only consider joining the treaty when it’s allowed membership as a nuclear weapon state. Naturally, this raises the question of whether New Delhi would continue to treat the NPT as discriminatory if it were granted nuclear weapon state status. In any case, the possibility of India joining the NPT as a nuclear weapon state seems remote because the nonproliferation regime doesn’t want to expand the official nuclear club for fear of encouraging other nuclear aspirants.

Nor is it feasible to think India would ever join the treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, which would mean adhering to a comprehensive safeguards agreement that would force India to open up all its nuclear-related facilities (military included) to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Thus, New Delhi will only seriously consider becoming an NPT member if the treaty is restructured to integrate non-signatory states such as itself in a manner that recognizes its nuclear weapons.

Various proposals to reform the NPT have been discussed in recent months. One recent proposal calls for a revision of the 1968 cutoff date for nuclear weapon state status in order to include India. However, such arguments don’t take into account the fact that India considers the 1974 test a peaceful nuclear explosion and not part of a weaponization effort. If the cutoff date were pushed to 1998, it would automatically make Pakistan eligible for any concession given to India, creating another layer of complexities.

Other constructive proposals include a special protocol to allow India (and Pakistan and Israel, the other two NPT non-signatories with nuclear weapons) to function as if they were NPT nuclear weapon states. Although not formally NPT members, they would be treated on par with the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China but retain their existing safeguard arrangements. The question is whether such a move would enhance the nonproliferation regime or merely be symbolic.

It’s also possible that a third category (e.g., “state with nuclear weapons” or “advanced states with nuclear technological capability”) could be added to the NPT. These states would qualify for such a designation by meeting certain benchmarks–a la their nonproliferation track record. Precedents for this type of an arrangement exist. Look, for instance, at the makeup of the IAEA Board of Governors or the Annex II countries of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or even the description of India as a ‘state with advanced nuclear technology capability” in the July 2005 joint statement by President George W. Bush and Singh, which facilitated the U.S.-India nuclear deal. The nonproliferation regime could work on similar definitional frameworks, which should be limited to India, Pakistan, and Israel and prevent loopholes for defection.

Will it happen? Legally it certainly can be attained. According to Article VIII of the NPT, an amendment conference can be called with support from one-third of the treaty’s members. Actual approval would require a majority of the state parties, including the nuclear weapon states and those countries that are members of the IAEA Board of Governors. Politically, however, it will be a bit trickier. It’s likely that many state parties would resist because such adjustments could be seen as preferential treatment for a select few.

Nonetheless, it isn’t impossible–especially if India were to campaign for such an amendment. Unfortunately, notwithstanding Singh’s affirmation, the current mood within the Indian establishment is to ignore the NPT for the moment and explore other avenues to engage with the nonproliferation regime. But interesting proposals from the NPT community could change the Indian attitude.

Washington has certainly given hope to such a transformation. In an October 2009 speech at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a future in which India will be “a major player at the table” in nonproliferation efforts. “India we see as a full partner in this effort, and we look forward to working with [New Delhi] as we try to come up with the twenty-first century version of the NPT,” she said, seemingly indicating U.S. interest in fostering ways in which to include non-NPT states such as India in the nonproliferation regime. Similarly, in remarks at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event in March, Susan Burk, President Obama’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said the question of universal adherence to the NPT could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, thus alluding to a dialogue with India on its NPT accession.

Now it’s up to New Delhi to decide whether or not it wants to play along.

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