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India, the NPT and N-weapon status

February 15, 2010 09:39 IST

The reported affirmative reply of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Fareed Zakaria's question whether India would be willing to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) has evoked some debate amongst the Indian security analyst community about the wisdom of such a move.

It must be mentioned at the very outset that such a discussion is premature, considering that no responsible person in the international nonproliferation community — official or otherwise — has so far ever made such a proposal. It was purely a hypothetical question of a journalist, with no factual basis. Nevertheless, the subject does merit some discussion.

First of all, is it likely that such a proposal would ever be made? The chances of such an offer (unconditional) being made is very remote. The member states of the NPT have nothing to gain by having India as a NWS party to the NPT.

The obligations of a NWS party to the NPT are spelt out in Art I, Art III (2) and Art VI of the NPT, namely:

  • Not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices;
  • Not to provide: (a) source or special fissionable material, or (b) equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material, to any non-nuclear-weapon state for peaceful purposes, unless the source or special fissionable material shall be subject to the safeguards;
  • Undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.

On all these counts India is already fully compliant with requirements, even though it is not a party to the NPT. So the NPT state parties do not gain anything by offering India membership in the NPT as a NWS. On the other hand, such an offer may open a Pandora's box by making it necessary for such an offer to be made not only to the other current nuclear weapon states that are not members of the NPT, but also to any potential future state developing nuclear weapons, states which are currently non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) parties to the NPT.

Hence such an offer to India at the current stage would only encourage one or more current NNWS parties to the NPT to withdraw from the NPT, develop nuclear weapons and then rejoin the NPT as a NWS -- clearly a totally unacceptable proposition to the international community. Hence it is extremely unlikely that such an offer will be made to India.

On the other side, what does India gain by joining the NPT as a NWS? The major handicap faced by India between 1992 and September 2008 was its inability to engage in civil nuclear trade with members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) because of the latter's requirement that NNWS should have a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with IAEA for NSG members to engage in such trade. India did not have such a CSA with IAEA. However in September 2008, subsequent to the India-US nuclear deal, NSG relaxed its guidelines, allowing NSG members to engage in civil nuclear cooperation with India even in the absence of a CSA, and even if India is not a member of NPT.

As a result, India has already concluded nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of NSG members. Joining the NPT even as a NWS will not confer any additional material benefits to India, although it may allow India to withdraw IAEA-safeguarded facilities from IAEA safeguards -- something that is part of the current safeguards agreement between IAEA and the current NWS party to the NPT.

But that is not really a material gain, since India has no need to withdraw safeguarded facilities from safeguards at any time. And currently there are no other international agreements that make any distinction between NWS and NNWS. Hence India does not stand to gain anything material by joining the NPT even as a NWS. This, of course, does detract from the purely symbolic political gain from such an action.

On the other hand, there may be some price to be paid by India for such an offer. There has been, for sometime, a concerted move by the international community to get India to make certain non-proliferation related commitments already made by the NWS party to the NPT.

These are: (i) signature to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); and (ii) a unilateral moratorium on production of fissile material for weapons purposes (even though China is yet to formally announce such a moratorium). So far India has resisted committing itself to either of these actions. It is very unlikely that an offer to India to join the NPT as a NWS will not be accompanied by these requirements. And it is equally unlikely that India will be in a position to accept both these conditions. Hence, the prospects of India joining the NPT as a NWS are very remote, with or without any such offer.

There is another minor matter. Since the NSG exemption, Pakistan has been actively engaged in getting a similar exemption for itself, which has been so far resisted by the international community, even though its principal patron in the NSG, China, has been assiduously championing Pakistan's case. If Pakistan too gets to join the NPT as a NWS, which it will surely do if India is offered such an opportunity, then Pakistan too will be able to engage in civil nuclear cooperation with NSG members, even without any specific exemption

G Balachandran