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India and the future of nuclear arms control
India began its nuclear journey on a responsible note, and should continue to do so, even if arms control is a tall order amidst complex nuclear politics and contestations.
As India commemorates 25 years of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, nuclear weapons remain central to international politics. The ongoing Russian offensive against Ukraine witnessed the usage of nuclear threats by Russia, which outraged the world. The terrifying destructive capability of nuclear weapons has raised concerns and apprehensions with prolonged implications for world politics. As might be expected, the magnitude of contemporary geopolitical complexities, deeply marred by nuclear risks and challenges, will severely impact the prospects of nuclear arms control, the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and nuclear disarmament. Of course, India cannot remain immune to the severity of these lingering consequences. What can India do to enhance arms control?
India and Arms Control
When India conducted the nuclear tests in 1998, great power competition had occupied centre stage with military force being used to revise territorial boundaries amidst coercive nuclear threats. And yet, the world was witness to the fact that, immediately after the conduct of the tests on 11 and 13 May 1998, respectively, India promptly announced a voluntary moratorium on future nuclear tests. Thus, New Delhi conveyed an important measure of assurance to the world that it will refrain from further nuclear tests unless, of course, its national interests are imperilled. The rationale behind India’s position was to minimise the risks and inherent costs of an arms competition and to improve strategic stability. This limits the possibility of a nuclear war, which neither side wants. The objectives of arms control were “to improve the inherent stability of the situation” and mitigate the causes of war.
"The rationale behind India’s position was to minimise the risks and inherent costs of an arms competition and to improve strategic stability."
Interestingly, this was not the first time that India proactively supported arms control measures. Since Independence, India has been an ardent advocate for arms control and disarmament. India was the first country to propose a nuclear test ban treaty and a cut-off on the production of materials for nuclear weapons. In 1963, India signed and ratified the Partial Test Ban Treaty that called for a ban on atmospheric, outer space, and underwater nuclear explosions. However, discriminatory nuclear politics over the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the lack of commitment of the nuclear weapon states to Article VI of the NPT proved to be setback for India’s unconditional support to arms control measures.
Nonetheless, following the 1998 nuclear tests, India, in the draft nuclear doctrine of 1999 unconditionally upheld the policy of No-First-Use (NFU). In 2003, India reiterated its official doctrinal position on the NFU policy. India’s NFU policy dates back to 1994, when it extended an agreement on “no-first-use of nuclear capability” to Pakistan. Regrettably, the difficult experiences of the Cold War era did not evoke meaningful lessons and a bilateral NFU treaty could not be implemented between the South Asian neighbours.
Expanding the geographical expanse to Southern Asia, India and China are nuclear neighbours with unstable relations over border revisions since the 1950s. The two nuclear-capable nations share a complex interdependence that can be mutually beneficial in terms of trade. However, unresolved border issues have impeded bilateral relations and largely generated an environment of distrust. China’s ambitions of establishing itself as a hegemonic power in Asia conflicts with similar ambitions by India. This contestation has led to a lack of comprehensive cooperation and whetted hostile ambitions. China has refused to acknowledge India’s nuclear weapons status and, hence, has been largely reluctant to enter into any nuclear arms control measures.
"The difficult experiences of the Cold War era did not evoke meaningful lessons and a bilateral NFU treaty could not be implemented between the South Asian neighbours."
Arms control is urgent
Southern Asia is at the centre of complex nuclear politics. India faces two nuclear neighbours with adversarial relations with whom India has fought conventional wars and is fighting a protracted sub-conventional war under the nuclear umbrella. Given this hostile environment, the region urgently requires effective nuclear arms control as a tool for ensuring nuclear stability, nuclear-risk-reduction, and increased nuclear confidence-building measures. The rationale for this urgency is premised upon several factors. First, there is a difference in perception on the probability of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. In India, the perception is that Pakistan will not resort to nuclear offense for fear of retaliation. Hence, Pakistan can be engaged in conventional and sub-conventional conflicts. Also, since Pakistan does not have a codified nuclear doctrine specifying their nuclear redlines, there remain several assumptions about the circumstances under which a nuclear war may unfold. While this may be apt for purposes of nuclear deterrence, it also significantly increases nuclear risks. In the past, there have been a few instances of nuclear intimidation from Pakistan that have severely corroded strategic security and stability. Pakistani provocations entail the risk of lowering the threshold for nuclear attacks in South Asia and also raises the spectre of unintended accidents. The rapid modernisation of the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear arsenals and their close nuclear nexus raises serious concerns among Indian strategic and security elites.
The road ahead
Nuclear-armed states, being possessors of the most lethal weapons, have a responsibility to act with restraint. India has been consistently restrained in its nuclear posture and upheld the rules and norms of the non-proliferation regime. As a responsible nuclear power, India may consider taking the initiative to extend confidence-building measures that are beneficial to and worth achieving for all the nuclear weapons states in the region. This can involve efforts for a trilateral forum comprising India, Pakistan, and China, wherein, issues pertaining to ballistic missile defence system, development of multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) technology, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) can be discussed. The CTBT is a relevant tool for banning future nuclear testing and hence an effective arms control measure. The FMCT proscribes future production of fissile material, which is of urgent necessity to restrain the rapidly expanding arsenals of nuclear-capable states like Pakistan and China.
"Since Pakistan does not have a codified nuclear doctrine specifying their nuclear redlines, there remain several assumptions about the circumstances under which a nuclear war may unfold."
As an ancillary step, think-tanks, universities and other academic institutions may emphasise and recommend the significance of arms control in Southern Asia. Undoubtedly, for India, any step towards initiating nuclear arms control in Southern Asia is a tall order amidst complex nuclear politics and contestations. However, India’s nuclear journey began on a responsible note and the world would like to believe that India continues to play the role of a responsible nuclear nation, especially when there is so little interest in arms control in Southern Asia.
Reshmi Kazi (Nelson Mandela Centre)
19 May 2023