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Look Beyond NPT’s Framework

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 14, 2005

    As anticipated, the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) Review Conference held at the UN in New York (May 2-27) ended acrimoniously with no final agreed document among the 188 state parties who are signatories to the treaty that came into force in 1970. This dissonance is in marked contrast to the Rev Cons of 1995 and 2000 when there was significant consensus about the commitments that the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear fraternity were willing to undertake in the furtherance of nuclear proliferation.

    The disappointment at this turn of events was summed up appropriately by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who noted with "much regret" that the 2005 Rev Con "missed a vital opportunity to strengthen our collective security against the many nuclear threats to which all States and all peoples are vulnerable." Sombre and accurate for the world is now facing far more complex and immediate nuclear challenges than it ever did since the end of the Cold War and global consensus has broken down at an inopportune moment.

    For India this is a piquant moment since Delhi has steadfastly remained outside the NPT for perceived it to be discriminatory and inimical to its core security interests. But paradoxically India has remained committed to the spirit of nuclear non-proliferation and global disarmament and was in the vanguard of such initiatives – a characteristic that informs its nuclear posture notwithstanding the 1998 nuclear tests that made it a de facto nuclear weapon state (NWS) – albeit outside the NPT framework.

    India has long argued – particularly after the end of the Cold War – that the NPT is invalid and inadequate to address the complexity of contemporary nuclear challenges and anxieties – but in vain – for the global community remained wedded to the centrality of the NPT for reasons of cynical realpolitik. The most lopsided bargain was struck in 1995 Rev Con when the Treaty was extended indefinitely without any binding commitments on the nuclear weapon states apropos their fidelity to disarmament and consequently the non-nuclear weapon states lost whatever little leverage they had in terms of advancing disarmament.

    Thus should India rejoice that the NPT has begun to unravel and that its stand has been vindicated? The answer is an emphatic no, for the problem of nuclear proliferation is far too grave to be reduced to procedural exactitude at the UN. And even if victory is claimed, it would be pyrrhic. The contemporary challenge is less about states engaging in nuclear war and more about deviant and revisionist regimes challenging the global order as also abetting non-state actors in acquiring a rudimentary level of this apocalyptic capability. The prevailing concern about Iran and North Korea and their NPT transgressions is indicative of the former exigency and the AQ Khan episode the latter.

    The NPT when conceived had not catered for such developments and in many ways it has become like King Canute who could not order the sea waves by sheer diktat. But the under currents of emerging nuclear proliferation challenges are real even if they are opaque and tangled and the need for global consensus is critical at this juncture. India may have distanced itself from the legalese of the Treaty but it is cognizant of the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the dialectical reality is that even though it is not a signatory to the NPT (along with Pakistan and Israel) its track record is in greater conformity to the spirit and letter of the NPT than any of the five declared NWS! This empirical reality is grudgingly acknowledged even by the ayatollahs of nuclear non-proliferation!

    Thus what is warranted at this juncture is the need to evolve a consensus outside of the NPT about the kind of scaffolding that could be built to quarantine the new nuclear challenges and some initiatives have already been taken. US President George Bush fired the first salvo against the NPT in early 2001 by rejecting the CTBT that was prioritised by the Clinton administration and gave unambiguous notice that the White House deemed the NPT to be inadequate. This corresponded with the Indian position and in many ways the removal of the CTBT allowed the India-US relationship to expand in a robust manner. More recently in early 2004 Mr. Bush unveiled a seven point plan outside of the NPT to deal with the new nuclear challenges and this included proposals such as the Container and Proliferation Security Initiative (CSI and PSI) to tackle the possibility of preventing transfer of weapons of mass destruction material by sea, as also additional protocols to inspections by the global nuclear watchdog – the IAEA. India incidentally has joined the CSI and is examining the PSI in some detail.

    India's ability to contribute to the management of the new nuclear challenges will be predicated on the US stand in the matter and hence the bilateral relationship with Washington is the key. The perception of the Bush team that India is emerging as a 'potentially very stabilizing' country was clearly spelt out by Ms. Condi Rice on May 28 and the challenge is to convert this into specifics. The nuclear domain is symbolically the most important in recognizing India's credibility and three issues could form the core. The US could be encouraged to resume fuel supplies to Tarapur, facilitate India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and in return India could join the PSI in a mutually acceptable manner.

    If this were to fructify, the much-heralded India-US relationship would acquire tangible directivity and allow for a consensual approach to address the new nuclear challenges. This may well be the silver lining of the failed Rev Con.