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South Asia Nuclear Crisis

Interview with Jaswant Singh, Minister of External Affairs, The Hindu, November 29 1999

Note: the interview was conducted, on November 28, by C. Raja Mohan, Strategic Affairs Editor of The Hindu. A January 14 article featuring an interview between C. Raja Mohan and Strobe Talbott can be viewed at the website of The Hindu, http://www.indiaserver.com/thehindu/stories/01140001.htm

You have been engaged in extended talks with the US since the nuclear tests last year. How would you assess the results so far?

By first, restating the objectives from our side. They are two fold: in the first place, to reconcile the stated US non-proliferation concerns with India's national security objectives; secondly, and, in a broader context, to develop greater mutual understanding so that both countries are enabled to work together in tapping the real potential of a qualitatively new relationship, essential in this post-Cold War environment.

The results of my discussions with Strobe Talbott are encouraging. There is recognition that India shall maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent as determined by us. There is now no longer any talk of `roll-back'. The US also accepts that India's security concerns are not geographically limited. Foreign policy tasks and challenges are a continuing process, therefore, we need to consolidate these understandings across all sections that make up the US foreign policy establishment.

Do you have a time frame for concluding this dialogue?

In the management of foreign policy, deadlines are both impractical and unrealistic. But if we manage through objectives then the first part is the restoration of our relationship to the pre-May, 1998 position. As for the next, I would consider it attained when both India and the USA engage in regular dialogue on a range of issues covering bilateral, regional and global political and economic issues.

Can you define these issues?

Of course, I cannot draw up a total list. But, self evidently, these would range from discussing cooperation in the field of energy, science & technology, environment, trade, taxation, economic development etc., to global concerns like terrorism, narcotics, non-proliferation, disarmament, reform of multilateral institutions, expansion of UN Security Council, regional developments in Asia-Pacific etc. Obviously, a multifaceted dialogue of this nature can simply not imply an agreement on all, it is the density and depth of engagement that is the criteria.

A principal item on the agenda is the CTBT and there seems to be considerable confusion about India's stand on this issue. Where exactly are we?

Our stand on the CTBT has been clear. In 1996, we decided that we could not accept the CTBT because it was not consistent with India's national security interest. Over decades, successive governments took necessary steps to safeguard India's nuclear option. In 1996, it was clear to all that subscription to the CTBT at that time would have limited India's nuclear potential at an unacceptably low level. After conducting the nuclear tests of May, 1998, to validate and update our technology, we have ensured the credibility of our nuclear deterrent into the foreseeable future; our scientists are now confident of conducting sub-critical tests, also other non-explosive R&D activity necessary for the purpose. That is why, we declared a voluntary moratorium. This, in essence, meets the basic obligations of the CTBT. We also announced a willingness to convert this undertaking into a de jure obligation. Clearly, this could not be done in a political vacuum. A positive environment had to be created. In reaction, a number of countries decided to impose restrictive economic measures on India. We have conveyed our disappointment at these actions. That, however, does not mean that we do not value our bilateral relationships with these countries. Our endeavour has been to generate a better appreciation of India's security concerns. Obviously, this is possible only through a sustained, bilateral dialogue process. An understanding in this regard will restore our relationship to the pre-May 1998 position. I am also optimistic that this process of restoration will result in an acceptance of a secure, self-confident India, thus imparting a new momentum to these ties.

At the same time, there is no denying that the manner in which the CTBT was negotiated, particularly, during the last stages, left a great deal to be desired. This led to resentment against the proposed treaty. Many in India see it as part of a discriminatory, nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The Government's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation remains unchanged. The priority of our meeting the country's national security concerns having been addressed, the government believes that we now need to convey reassurance to the international community and, in this regard, desires to develop a national consensus. The need for a consensus in any democratic society is self-evident. I have explained this in the past to the US administration, and they better understand this approach after their own difficulties on this issue in their Senate.

There appears to be lack of clarity about signing and ratification. Can you elaborate?

Three separate decisions are required of the government as part of adherence to any international treaty: signature, ratification, and deposition of the instrument of ratification. These decisions are taken by the Cabinet. Each of them is a separate decision. To recall a recent example: In January, 1993, the Cabinet decided that India will become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention; the decision to ratify was taken in October, 1995, followed by another decision to deposit the instrument of ratification in September, 1996.

In your view, how far should India go in terms of its adherence to the CTBT at this stage, particularly in light of the uncertainty about the Treaty's future created by the US Senate vote?

As I have already clarified, the process of adherence to an international treaty is a step by step process. While India's decisions will be made by the Indian government, there is no denying that this negative vote by the US Senate does have a bearing on the future of this treaty. I would, therefore, consider it natural for India to also dis-aggregate its decision.

Is India ready to join in a moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapon purposes?

We have, after the tests last year, announced our readiness to engage in multilateral negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, for a non-discriminatory and verifiable treaty to ban future production of fissile materials for nuclear weapon purposes. This decision was taken after due consideration, which included an assessment of time frames for negotiations and entry into force of an FMCT. At this stage, India cannot accept a voluntary moratorium on production of fissile materials. Let me add that FMCT negotiations are a complex exercise, it will be important, therefore, as we go along, to constantly monitor the pace, direction and content of these negotiations.

Export controls is another element of dialogue with the US. What are the prospects of an understanding in this area?

India has remained committed to non-proliferation and maintains a highly effective system of export controls on sensitive and dual use technologies and equipment. We have conveyed our willingness to strengthen this further where necessary. In this regard, an inter-ministerial expert group has been established. I must add that we do remain greatly concerned about the fact that certain civilian programmes in high technology areas e.g. space etc. remain targeted. Our participation in ad hoc export control regimes such as Nuclear Suppliers Group, MTCR etc will be on the basis of equality. US does appreciate that India has a system of laws and an effective institutional mechanism to implement non-proliferation related export controls but we need to make further progress.

There is a perception in the international community that the document prepared by the National Security Advisory Board for the National Security Council is India's official nuclear doctrine. What is the status of this document?

Let me correct this misperception. The National Security Advisory Board is a group of non-official strategic experts and analysts. It was tasked by the National Security Council to prepare a number of papers including one on a possible 'Indian Nuclear Doctrine'. This they prepared and submitted to the National Security Advisor, also releasing it publicly for larger debate. That debate is now under way. It is thus not a policy document of the Government of India.

Would you like to elaborate on what then is the essence and thinking on India's doctrine?

The key elements of India's nuclear policy were spelt out by Prime Minister in Parliament last December. To recapitulate briefly:

  1. India shall maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent and shall undertake necessary measures to ensure the credibility of it.
  2. India has declared a moratorium on undertaking any further underground nuclear test explosions but R&D activity including computer simulation and sub-critical tests will be conducted as necessary.
  3. Development work on an extended range Agni missile is underway and a successful flight test was carried out earlier this year. Additional flight testing will be undertaken in a manner that is non-provocative, transparent, and consistent with all established international norms and practices.
  4. India has declared a no-first-use doctrine. This has implicit the principle that India shall not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.
  5. In order that our minimum deterrent be credible, we shall adopt and maintain a deployment posture that ensures survivability of assets. Such a posture, obviously, provides for greater safety and security.
  6. India will not engage in any arms race. We shall not, therefore, pursue an open-ended programme.
  7. A civilian command and control system, with necessary safeguards, shall cater for all possible contingencies.
  8. India's commitment to global nuclear disarmament remains undiluted. We will continue to work with other like minded countries and take initiatives for moving towards a nuclear-weapon-free-world. We will also seek to negotiate CBMs, both in the conventional and nuclear fields, with the aim of reducing lack of trust in the region.

Many commentators find these elements inconsistent and believe that India has embarked on a programme that will produce a nuclear arsenal larger than that of UK or France. Do you have any comments?

I am aware of such apprehensions. These are born of the Cold War experiences, ideology, indeed, even the clichéd phrases of those sterile years. USA, Russia, UK, France and China - all developed their nuclear weapons as weapons for war fighting. Most nuclear weapon powers follow doctrines of first use, and all of them envisage tactical or sub-strategic roles for their nuclear weapons. Indian thinking is different, principally, because we have discarded the Cold War reference frame of nuclear war fighting. In our view, the principle role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by an adversary. For this, India needs only that strategic minimum which is credible. With the policy of 'retaliation only', survivability becomes critical to ensure credibility. This 'minimum,' however, cannot be a fixed physical quantification; it is a dynamic concept but firmly rooted in the strategic environment, technological imperatives and national security needs and the actual size, components, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will be decided taking into account all these factors.

No other nuclear weapon state has conceptualized its capabilities in such terms. India can and has done so because it does not intend to engage in an arms race.Therefore, the question of an arsenal larger than that of country X or Y becomes a non-question. For India the question is only one of adequacy, that is credible and thus defines our 'minimum'.

How would you address concerns about India seeking a "triad"?

Let me address the issue of 'triad', not because it is part of the NSAB paper, but because there may be genuine misperceptions. It is a known fact that today India has nuclear capable aircraft and mobile land based nuclear capable missiles. We have an R&D programme for a naval version of Prithvi that has been a part of the IGMDP launched in 1983. It is also a fact that many analysts, particularly in Western countries, consider nuclear missiles on submarines to be the most survivable nuclear asset in the scenarios that they have thought of - first strike, second strike, war fighting and so on. Our approach is different. It is, therefore, premature to talk of an Indian 'triad'. R&D programmes will certainly continue, aimed at enhancing survivability and thus, credibility, but decisions on production, deployment and employment etc will be taken on the basis of factors that I have outlined earlier. In short, just as parity is not essential for deterrence, neither is a triad, a pre-requisite for credibility.

Let me suggest that you look at the Indian nuclear deterrent as a 'triad' based on a different set of three dimensions - a deterrent that is minimum but credible because it is survivable and backed by effective civilian command and control to ensure retaliation.

You appear to be emphasising survivability but will this not affect retaliation?

No. Retaliation does not have to be instantaneous; it has to be effective and assured. I emphasise this because effective and assured retaliation enhances the credibility of the deterrence. Mobility and dispersal improves survivability. Operating procedures will ensure the transition from peace time deployment modes to a higher state of readiness when required. Our nuclear assets are limited and consistent with no-first-use, we have ensured that these procedures do not tempt an adversary to pre-emption but strengthen deterrence by underlining the political resolve for effective retaliation.

Would it be correct to deduce that India will follow different peace time and war time deployment/postures?

This would be a correct assessment. You know that we would like to convey a sense of assurance in our region, also beyond so that our deployment posture is not perceived as de-stabilising. We have rejected notions of 'launch on warning postures' that lead to maintaining hair trigger alerts, thus increasing the risks of unauthorized launch. In fact, we have taken an initiative in the UN General Assembly last year, calling on all nuclear weapon states to review such postures, and move to de-alert, thus reducing global nuclear danger.

How does this posture relate to tactical nuclear weapons?

Regarding tactical nuclear weapons, let me remind you that we do not see nuclear weapons as weapons of war fighting. In fact, India sees them only as strategic weapons, whose role is to deter their use by an adversary. Civilian command and control over decisions relating to deployment and alert levels is logical. Is there any change in India's position on elimination of nuclear weapons or let me say, in India's approach towards this objective?

I would like to emphasise that there is a no dilution of India's commitment to the objective of achieving a nuclear-weapon-free-world. We continue to call for negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would prohibit the production, development, deployment and use of all nuclear weapons and also provide for elimination of present stockpile under international verification. India is the only nuclear weapon state to do so. At the same time, we also understand that nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved overnight; it will be a step-by-step process. We approach this process in a practical sense from two directions. On one side, we need to strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons by multilaterally negotiated non-use, no-first-use agreements. From a technical stand point, we need to move away from the present hair trigger postures to a progressively de-alerted state that will reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. It will also act as a global CBM. In both these areas, India continues to take initiatives and our resolutions in the UN General Assembly have been adopted with wide-spread support.

Government of India website, http://www.indiagov.org/govt/eamint-nov28.htm

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.