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FMCT Negotiations: The Next Gathering Nuclear Storm?

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 07, 2007

    The Presidential Draft Decision at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) decided on March 23, 2007 to appoint a co-ordinator each to preside over the discussions on three core issues on the agenda - nuclear disarmament, prevention of arms race in outer space (PAROS) and negative nuclear security guarantee. At the same time, the Presidential Draft Decision also named Ambassador Carlo Trezza of Italy as the co-ordinator to preside over negotiations on the fourth core issue - a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. It is the latter decision that has however drawn greater attention than the other three issues related to disarmament. Why?

    The greater focus of attention at the CD on FMCT came at a time when the preparatory consultations for the 2010 NPT Review Conference was around the corner beginning April 30, 2007. The last NPT Review Conference (RevCon) took place in May 2005 to salvage the Treaty itself in the wake of disclosures about the hidden nuclear ambitions and acts of NPT-defined non-nuclear weapon states including Libya and North Korea. The loopholes in the Treaty were exposed by the actions of states, like Iran for instance, which deliberately employed or engaged extensive networks of non-state actors to acquire uranium enrichment technologies and components. Above all, the international nuclear non-proliferation regime faced irreparable damage in the hands of the Pakistan-based A. Q. Khan network.

    The mutually competing interests of NPT members did not allow any substantive outcome at the last NPT RevCon, especially with regard to the prevention of deviations by member states from commitments related to its so-called twin pillars - non-proliferation and disarmament. The treaty failed to address challenges related to the transfer of nuclear technology, which is dual-use in nature: it can legitimately be used by non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT for peaceful energy purposes, while at the same time it can also be diverted to develop weapons.

    And just like the continuity in non-proliferation problems, the future of disarmament also remains uncertain. This is mainly because of the inherent weakness in prevailing NPT provisions, which do not talk of a time-bound action plan for nuclear disarmament by Treaty-defined nuclear weapon states. Of course, the United States and Russia have been constantly projecting the view that they have ceased their arms race and are working towards disarmament by signing bilateral strategic arms reduction treaties. But these bilateral treaties have been subject to criticism that they are neither adequately transparent nor do they guarantee irreversibility. One particular criticism is that the dismantling of nuclear warheads by the United States and Russia does not provide enough assurance that the fissile material contained in them would not be re-used or that the warheads themselves would not be redeployed in future.

    The reality is that thousands of nuclear warheads exist in the arsenals of major nuclear weapon states and more than 30 countries remain part of military alliances that extend the nuclear umbrella over them. Many European countries and Japan fall into this category of states that benefit from America's extended deterrence. Trends available on China's force modernisation, continuing replenishment of nuclear armaments by Russia and France, US decisions on the reliable warhead replacement programme and British resolve to ensure the strategic relevance of nuclear weapons for future decades, India's willingness to build a credible minimum deterrent, Pakistan's continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and Israel's nuclear capability brushed under the carpet from public glare - all indicate that nuclear disarmament has a daunting future ahead. However, whatever part measures are taken would go towards shaping a better future. In this context, how does the FMCT fit into the overall scheme of disarmament?

    A Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is all about halting the production of fissile material for weapons. Interestingly, the United States has been showing considerable interest over the last couple of years in negotiations and to bring the issue towards some conclusive end. So much so that in its White Paper on FMCT presented at the CD on May 19, 2006, the US expressed the view that "pending the conclusion of a Cutoff Treaty and the Treaty's entry into force, all states should declare publicly and observe a moratorium on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons." In other words, pending conclusion of an FMCT, the US wants all countries to declare a unilateral moratorium on the production of fissile material.

    There is in fact an already existing self-declared moratorium of fissile material production declared by the US, Russia, Britain and France. Of course, they have produced enough fissile material for their present and possible future requirements. By signing an FMCT, these countries would have nothing to sacrifice, while at the same time they would gain by portraying their action as a movement towards disarmament in accordance with their NPT commitment. It is quite plausible that the United States, by showcasing its renewed interest in the FMCT, wishes to re-establish its credibility by engaging in multilateralism. If the US were to succeed in inducing and mobilising China to work towards a multilateral treaty in this regard, negotiations on the FMCT is likely to conclude before the NPT RevCon in 2010.

    There has, however, been speculation that the intensified American effort on FMCT negotiations could be intended to target China, India and Pakistan. It has been pointed out that China successfully lobbied for omitting any reference to a fissile material production moratorium in the final document of the NPT RevCon in 2000. And in order to reduce American pressure on it to commit to an FMCT, China has been maintaining that PAROS and FMCT negotiations require equal attention at the Conference on Disarmament. Jenni Rissanen, in a December 2006 article published in Disarmament Diplomacy, concluded that "faced with the possibility that missile defences could undermine" its deterrent China "may want to hold open the option of continuing - or more probably, resuming - fissile material production in the future."

    However, China may not continue to insist on equal treatment for PAROS and FMCT given its own pursuit of space weaponry. It has already conducted a successful anti-satellite missile test. Aware of the fact that only the US and Russia possess such a capability and that the US is unlikely to compromise on its military interests in space, Beijing may have realised that there is no point in emphasising the linkage between the two issues beyond a point. On the other hand, given its own fissile stock, presumably lesser than that of the US and of Russia though manifold in size compared with that of India, China may agree to join hands on an FMCT that would ultimately place a cap on India's fissile material production as well.

    Against this backdrop, before articulating its position on the FMCT, India needs to conduct a review of its own credible minimum deterrent requirements. Before the major nuclear weapon states start tightening the noose around India, New Delhi should do the necessary homework in terms of calculating its overall requirements of fissile material for both military and civilian purposes. At the same time, it also has to evolve a calibrated strategy to ensure that its national interests are safeguarded even as it intensifies its pace of engagement and integration with the international economic, political and security system