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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 26, May 1998

Special Feature - Introduction

On 11 May, the Indian government announced it had conducted 3 nuclear test explosions at the Pohkaran site in Rajasthan. On 13 May, 2 more tests were announced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership. According to official statements, the nuclear tests were a 12 kt fission device, a 43 kt thermonuclear device, and low yield tests of 0.2 kt, 0.5 kt and 0.3 kt respectively.

Despite many international calls not to retaliate in kind, Pakistan announced on 28 May that it had conducted five nuclear tests, followed by a further test on 30 May. They were conducted in the Chagai region of South-West Baluchistan, close to Pakistan's borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Islamabad announced that its tests were all of boosted fission devices using high enriched uranium, including a first detonation of 30-35 kt, followed by low yield explosions for tactical nuclear weapons.

Western analysts have cast doubt on whether either country actually detonated the number or size of tests they announced, suggesting that India did not conduct a thermonuclear explosion of 43 kt, and may only have conducted three tests, all below 12 kt. India has released information that Pakistan conducted one detonation of between 7 and 8 kt on 28 May and another detonation between 1 and 3 kt on 30 May, conclusions similar to those of some western verification analysts.

Whether the tests were of the actual number and type publicised by the respective governments of India and Pakistan is clearly of interest in determining technical (and therefore weaponisation) capabilities but it is not central to the political debate. It is not disputed that both India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests in the past month. Although their actions were largely driven by domestic political considerations, the regional and international security and nuclear proliferation environments have seismically shifted as a result.

India, Pakistan and Israel have long been regarded as nuclear-capable or even 'de facto nuclear-weapon States', but the tests have raised political, security and diplomatic questions that can no longer be swept under the carpet of nuclear ambiguity. The crisis contains severe dangers, but also opportunities. How the international community responds will be crucial in determining whether the non-proliferation norm survives with credibility and relevance or whether it will erode further, with the horrifying prospect of disintegrating into a nuclear free-for-all in the not-so-distant future. Countries which have renounced nuclear weapons but still have a technical capability, and particular those with nuclear neighbours, such as the Middle East, will be watching carefully.

The response so far from the major powers indicates that they do not recognise the seismic shift. The meeting of P-5 foreign ministers on 4 June showed them still to be clinging to Cold War perceptions. Their statement (reproduced in full below) was long on parental exhortations to India and Pakistan: not to weaponise or deploy nuclear weapons, to cease testing, not test delivery vehicles, halt provocative statements, refrain from military movements that might be misinterpreted, not export equipment materials or technology to anyone else, and of course sign up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and also stop obstructing negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). They also offered assistance and suggestions for regional confidence building and to defuse conflict in such flashpoint places as Kashmir.

Much of this is sensible and necessary. But the P-5 were short on practical steps and offered nothing in terms of nuclear disarmament, a reciprocal component of non-proliferation that they have been slow to implement, despite the opportunities presented at the end of the Cold War. They told India and Pakistan that nuclear weapons would not enhance their security, but showed little inclination for giving them up themselves.

It would be facile to blame the South Asian crisis on the P-5 for not disarming sooner, as that infantilises India and Pakistan's own decisions and choices. Nor can it be ignored that P-5 complacency and their repeated assertions of the legitimacy and necessity of their own nuclear weapons have contributed to creating the conditions for this mess. If India and Pakistan are to pull back from the nuclear brink, their regional and international concerns will need to be addressed more coherently, on three planes: regional conflict resolution and confidence-building; immediate bilateral measures, including a moratorium on testing, no weaponisation or deployments, halting fissile material production; and international steps to reinforce the non-proliferation regime, including real and accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament. The P-5 statement addresses only part of the equation; they have to look at themselves as well.

The timing of India's tests may have been only coincidentally related to the NPT's second preparatory committee meeting in Geneva, but the message from that meeting's stalemate over the Middle East and nuclear disarmament was certainly underlined by the tests: the NPT regime cannot be taken for granted. Where non-proliferation based on the possession of nuclear weapons by a self-selected elite of 'haves' was never desired or accepted by the large majority of countries, India and Pakistan have exposed the fragility and unsustainability of such an imbalance. The clock won't be turned back. What then are the options?

Banning nuclear testing and the production of fissile materials are vital components of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. The CTBT cannot be reopened to bring India on board, but it would carry more weight if all 149 signatories were to ratify without further delay. The domestic difficulties of the United States with regard to ratifications are well known, but with non-proliferation at risk it is time to demonstrate some real leadership. Expensive stockpile enhancing programmes and sub-critical tests undermine the CTBT and play into the hands of proliferators: if the country with the biggest and most diverse arsenal feels the need to keep improving and testing it, that reinforces the message of desirability and necessity. Hardly consistent with non-proliferation goals! The CTBT is in the interests of India and Pakistan as much as for the rest of us. They should accede unconditionally, while at the same time the P-5 should refrain from programmes that lessen the credibility of the test ban as a genuine disarmament measure.

If governments had demanded a cast iron guarantee that 'peaceful nuclear explosions' would not be allowed in the CTBT, China might never have agreed to start negotiations. So it is with fissile material stocks. Most people agree that in a non-proliferation regime which accepts its nuclear disarmament corollary, a ban on production should encompass stocks in some way. The Shannon report identifies the basic cut-off of production as the core mandate, and that is where the CD can practically start. As the CD gets to grips with the political and technical issues of such a treaty, it will be necessary to consider a wide number of issues, including stocks. The outcome will have to be determined by the negotiations and the political will of participating States, as well as the changing political context internationally. To insist on pre-negotiation guarantees is nothing more than intentional blocking. It is time to get to work on whatever is multilaterally achievable, starting with an FMCT.

If the P-5 want to give weight to their call on India and Pakistan not to weaponise their capabilities, the most important step they could themselves take would be to de-weaponise, i.e. to remove warheads from delivery vehicles and store them separately, preferably under international monitoring so that they cannot be reconstituted without warning. De-alerting is already being discussed among Russian and US scientists, but the risk of nuclear war flaring in the Indian Subcontinent makes clear that we must move more quickly and include all the nuclear-weapon States. Moreover, the key task now is to delegitimise nuclear weapons and marginalise them in military and political consideration and practice. Creating a fire-break between nuclear possession and use will help.

It is right and necessary to call on India and Pakistan not to weaponise or deploy, but the P-5 should demonstrate by example. De-weaponising is a practical way of dealing with existing nuclear capability in the transitional stages towards nuclear disarmament. It reduces the risk of accidental, unauthorised, hair trigger or pre-emptive use.

The foreign ministers meeting in Geneva was portrayed as 'setting in motion a process' to deal with the crisis. It is time to reinstitute the P-5 talks at ambassadorial level in Geneva with the urgent priority of undertaking agreed and reciprocal actions to delegitimise and de-weaponise their nuclear forces. States which have renounced nuclear weapons have a legitimate interest in the pace, progress and broad agenda of such negotiations. Both the CD and the NPT should institute more formal mechanisms to facilitate information exchange and implementation. It is time for a CD committee on nuclear disarmament, along the lines proposed by South Africa as a first step. India's call for a nuclear weapon convention may smack of moral duplicity, but it should not blind us to what such a treaty would offer: a non-discriminatory regime to close down the nuclear club altogether.

The Acronym Institute website http://www.gn.apc.org/acronym has a special feature on the Indian-Pakistan tests, which will be updated regularly.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of The Acronym Instiute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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