Future of Nuclear Proliferation

27 Dec

Future of Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear Proliferation

The topic can be addressed in the following three points

1. What is the nature of the crisis facing the nuclear non-proliferation regime?
2. What does this mean to the NPT and its related elements?
3. What are India’s options?

In terms of the nature of the crisis, there are two major crises. One is a kind of a quasi crisis. This is the crisis of what we know of as the A.Q Khan affair, the whole issue of nuclear commerce or nuclear smuggling and the supply of nuclear material from Pakistan and I would suggest that this is not a very serious crisis; this is unlikely to happen again. It had primarily happened because of the fact that there was a misperception about the direction of the nuclear proliferation that Pakistan was involved in. The assumption was that much of the weapons were going into Pakistan. The United States did not realize that a lot of it was also going out of Pakistan.

So there was a kind of misperception. For example, the North Korean link: there were analysts in Delhi who were writing about the possibility that just as Pakistan was getting missiles from North Korea, Pakistan was possibly also supplying something to the North Koreans. It is not that people didn’t realize it but that the reverse direction was not taken seriously enough. This could happen again if it suited the United States and the other major powers to look the other way, as has happened several times. So this is not a fundamental threat to the regime as such, this is a matter of policy and that of political convenience.

The two major types of challenges to the NPT regime are, one the breakout possibility, that the countries that do not have nuclear weapons and are members of the Non Proliferation Treaty, would become nuclear weapons states. This is concerned primarily with Iran and North Korea and also with India, Pakistan and Israel. If we look at the number of cases here, there are only four to five cases. In the 1960’s it was thought that by 1995 there would be 25 countries that would become nuclear powers. Clearly this has not happened. So the seriousness of this as a threat is over rated. Iran clearly violated its commitments, but Iran was caught in that twilight zone where if not caught it would have turned nuclear. Iran’s activities were detected before it could actually become a nuclear weapons state. So much of attention is focused on Iran right now that the possibility that Iran will be able to acquire sufficient amount of fissile material and actually manufacture nuclear weapons is rather remote. Iran’s possible option now would be to do what India and to some extent Pakistan did, which is to build up the civilian nuclear infrastructure slowly, over decades. But the non-proliferation regime has been getting tighter in terms of verification and inspection and so Iran’s capacity to go nuclear has been eliminated or is rather likely to be eliminated.

North Korea has successfully managed that twilight period and has actually managed to cross that point of becoming a nuclear power and if North Korean claim is to be believed they have already manufactured a couple of nuclear weapons. So North Korea represents the case of a successful proliferation while Iran represents a case of failed proliferation. North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel have managed to build up nuclear capabilities sufficiently before being detected by the United States. The situation in North Korea is very difficult because it is no longer non-proliferation; the situation is now of rolling back the nuclear weapons capability and that is always much more difficult than preventing countries from going nuclear.

But what the Iranian case and the North Korean case demonstrate is that the bar has constantly moved upwards, as Prof. Zuberi already pointed out. The bar in terms of crossing the nuclear threshold, the difficulty level of a non-nuclear country wanting to go nuclear has consistently moved upwards from the time the non-proliferation treaty was signed. So for any new proliferant, the bar is so high that it will very likely be impossible to cross. So the crisis in terms of more countries becoming nuclear is unlikely. North Korea is likely to be the last successful proliferant.

But there is one group of countries, which could break out and become nuclear. These are the countries that are within the NPT and which have built up sufficient industrial capabilities, countries like Japan, Germany, Canada, Sweden, and Australia. For these countries, it is a political decision. For example, if Japan wants to go nuclear, it does not have to build up a nuclear industrial capability; they just have to take a political decision to go nuclear. They already have the delivery capability and the nuclear technological capability. The political decision until now has been not to go nuclear even though there has been a continuous underground debate within Japan about the possibility of going nuclear. So this is the first type of crisis, of countries within the NPT who have built up their civilian nuclear capability deciding to go nuclear.

The second type of crisis is that of United States changing its views about non-proliferation. Many international regimes and laws are primarily dependent on how the great powers behave and what their interests are. International regimes do not come up because the weak powers want them to come up; for example in 1970’s the NIEO, the New International Information Order etc., were all proposed by the third world countries but nothing happened. Whereas when you compare the fortunes of disarmament towards that of non-proliferation again nuclear disarmament primarily coming from the third world and from the non-nuclear states and the proliferation demand primarily from the developed and the powerful states, we can see that non-proliferation has had more success than disarmament. So the most important countries are the countries that are the most powerful and for the non-proliferation regime to be under serious threat would mean that the United States loses faith in the non-proliferation regime. This would mean serious trouble just as in the case of biological weapons convention, CTBT and nuclear disarmament.

But the US has too much at stake in the NPT and in any case all the arguments in Washington about how NPT has failed is only strengthening the regime because what it leads to is other countries fearing that United States will walk out and therefore conceding that the regime should be tightened. When we look at the history of the regime, it is a case of violations of the regime, which in turn made the regime stronger. The 1974 nuclear test conducted by India led to domestic non-proliferation legislation and Nuclear Suppliers Group. In 1980’s Pakistani proliferation led to several international non-proliferation norms; the 1991 Gulf War detected Iraqi violations and led to the Additional Protocol to the NPT, and some of the post 1998 events including detection of A.Q Khan’s role in proliferation led to a whole host of activities to strengthen the regime. PSI is one aspect of this. There was also a talk of preventing non-nuclear weapon states from getting the complete nuclear fuel cycles, the arguments being that a country that is not nuclear does not need a fuel cycle. So the implicit bargain in NPT about countries giving up military nuclear technology in exchange for civilian nuclear technology also faces a threat, in addition to the fact that the bargain over nuclear disarmament was already completely out of the treaty. The threat that the United States might walk out is itself leading to the strengthening of the regime.

What is the implication for the NPT regime? There are four main implications. One is that the NPT regime over all will become even stricter; PSI is one aspect of that strengthening of that regime. Over a period of time we can expect nuclear research, power generation and nuclear civilian transfers coming under threat. The second would be that the inspection regime would become much more stricter. The prospects for the third world countries going nuclear are around zero. Japan and other industrialized countries have the potential from this point onwards for going nuclear. Finally the NPT lobby will become stronger. It has already become stronger in Washington. This is bad news for India as well as for the regime because there will be more legislations and attempts outside the NPT structure to create quasi groups which would lead to further tightening of the regime.

The implications for India can be described again in four points. When the regime gets tighter, Indian and Pakistani position will become that much more harder and from the prospective of New Delhi in particular, we will continue to be clubbed with the Pakistanis, irrespective of the record of Pakistani proliferation. We will not get much out of proving that Indians are the good guys and Pakistanis the bad ones in terms of proliferation because as this regime gets tighter and tighter we are going to be clubbed more and more with the Pakistanis. Second, assuming that the Bush administration continues for another four years and taking in account its unilateral approach, there could be opportunities for a political deal in the United States, even though its possibilities are remote for various reasons. As it becomes more skeptical of the NPT’s usefulness and as the non-proliferation fundamentalists in Washington become stronger, the possibility of a political deal becomes that much less likely. In the last couple of years India-US dialogue has stagnated because of the fact that the non-proliferation fundamentalists in Washington have become stronger. There has been a debate in Washington between the State department and the Defense department a variety of issues like the sale of Israeli Arabs missiles to India, conclusion of agreements on other nuclear technologies, trinity issues etc. The State department has always been much less willing to agree on concessions to India.

The third point is the possibility for India to have a kind of strategic proliferation policy, which is also remote. Several countries have practiced strategic proliferation. The United States and France helped or looked the other way when Israel was becoming a nuclear power and China actively helped Pakistan become a nuclear power. There have been post-cold war debates in Washington about the possibility of other strategic proliferation of countries such as Japan, Germany and Ukraine becoming nuclear powers. The debates have been on the issue of whether it is good for the United States or bad for the United States. India has never had such debates; we have always been more anti proliferationist than even the non-proliferation fundamentalists.

Finally some of the stricter measures and restrictions will have an effect on India directly. None of the discussions with United States about the Trinity issues and the NSSP (Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership) are taking a firm shape. There is opposition from the US State department on any concessions to India even on the issue of third countries like France or Russia supplying nuclear power plants to India. Nuclear power plants are something India is eagerly looking forward to. So the problem is that we have never had a debate about whether proliferation is good for India or not. This rules out the possibility of a compromise that could lead to a negotiation with the United States.