A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in South Asia
By Savita Pande *
India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear Rubicon in May 1998. The aftermath saw a spectrum of reaction ranging from expressing concerns, condemnation to imposition of sanctions. The development, nevertheless, blew to pieces the myth of arms control. Although the concept of a nuclear weapon-free zone was already a dead letter by the time the explosions took place, it nevertheless highlighted the fact that India had tried to explain in the context of the proposal for denuclearisation of South Asiathat nuclear weapons is not a regional issue and that China is integral to any solution to South Asian security issues. Further, Pakistans refusal to reciprocate Indias no-first use pledge in the light of the latters what it considers conventional superiority also gives an insight into the sincerity of the formers intentions behind such proposals.
The proposal to denuclearise South Asia, therefore, should be seen as an academic exercise, more for the purpose of comparisons and contrasts and reflections of regional realities rather than a generalised prescriptions of arms control.
In the 16th annual session of the UN Atomic Energy Conference held in Mexico in September 1972, Pakistan put forward the proposal to denuclearise South Asia. 1 Introducing the proposal, the Pakistani representative, Munir Ahmad Khan, called for a treaty between South Asian countries similar to the Tlatelolco Treaty for the denuclearisation of Latin America.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, reiterated the proposal, while inaugurating the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) on November 23, 1972. For Pakistan, atomic energy should become a symptom of hope rather than fear. For this reason, we would welcome it if the entire subcontinent by the agreement between the countries concerned would be declared a nuclear-free zone and the introduction of nuclear weapons banned, he had said. 2
It is significant to note that the idea was mooted a few months after the decision to make a nuclear bomb was taken at a secret meeting of top scientists in Multan, in January 1972. 3 Attempts by Pakistan to get the bomb via the reprocessing route by purchasing a plant from France failed after France virtually backed out from the deal. 4 Pakistan then focussed its energies on acquiring the capability via the enrichment route. Under what came to be known as Project 706, Pakistan assembled its uranium enrichment plant by purchasing its components from all over Europe through its missions abroad and through overt and covert operations. 5
Thus, argues Ashok Kapur, Bhuttos peace offensive emerged in 1972 with the proposal to make South Asia a nuclear-free zone. The peace offensive was a consequence of the Bomb decisionit gave Pakistans image as a peacemaker. Although the aim was to mask the bomb decision with the peace offensivean opportunistic and instrumental action in our opinion, vintage Bhutto, given his belief in the theory of calculated deception. 6
The idea of a nuclear weapon-free zone was mooted much before(two years before) the Indian explosion took place. However, the explosion merely provided Pakistan with the opportunity to vindicate its stand on apprehensions regarding its security. The proposal was brought before the United Nations in 1974, when an active campaign for a nuclear-free zone was launched.
This is one of the main reasons why most authors see Pakistans proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the light of the Indian explosion of 1974. According to Samina Ahmad, Pakistans anxiety vis-s-vis Indias nuclear explosion was on two scores. First, because of the danger of the Indian nuclear threat to the country and secondly, to the threat it posed to the region. 7
Zalmay Khalilzad says, To meet the Indian challenge, Pakistan adopted a three-pronged policy which included expansion of its own programme, building up conventional forces, and to continue efforts to embarrass India in international forums by demanding that South Asia be a made nuclear-free zone. 8
According to Moonis Amar, The Indian explosion of May 1974 added a new dimension to the Indian-Pak relationship. A nuclear India with its immense conventional military capability was a prospect Pakistan in particular and other regional states in general feared. Pakistan raised the question of denuclearisation of South Asia at the United Nations hoping that this will come as a forewarning of Indias nuclear ambitions. 9
Some Indian authors have also made this mistake of timing. According to Jayaramu, Although the Pakistani proposal ostensibly talks of the danger of nuclear proliferation by the nuclear powers, it was actually prompted by Indias nuclear explosion of May 1974. Pakistan wanted to put a blanket ban on Indias further activities. 10 According to Poulose, Pakistans mechanistic insecurity syndrome suddenly became active when she saw in Indias Pokhran (I) explosion the image of a nuclear weapon power in South Asia. 11
Contrary to these claims, the fact that the 1974 proposal was not new is evident from Bhuttos statement at a Press conference a day after the Indian explosion: Testing a nucelar weapon device denotes that a country has acquired nuclear weapon capability....we are determined not to be intimated by this threat...there is no reason why Pakistan should abandon its efforts to explore the possibility of a political option against a nuclear threat. Thus, while the reason for making the efforts became clear only after Pakistans intentions had been revealed, the fact remains that Pakistan had launched much earlier what has been aptly called a peace offensive. 12
The proposal, however, was formally moved in the United Nations in 1974.
The Proposal Before the United Nations
In the 29th session of UN General Assembly on October 28, 1974, Pakistan submitted a resolution which sought to endorse in principle the concept of a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia. 13 The first preambular paragraph recognised the right of the states to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The second pointed to the dangers of diversion for military purposes, inherent in the development of nuclear energy and that it was this which it sought to prevent in the South Asian region. The seventh paragraph dealt with an equitable and non-discriminatory system of verification and inspection. The eighth paragraph talked of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which was to serve as the model to be emulated.
The first operative paragraph took note of the affirmation by the regional countries that they intend to pursue their nuclear programmes for peaceful purposes and would not acquire nuclear weapons. The second operative paragraph endorsed in principle the concept of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the South Asian region and such other neighbouring non-nuclear states as may be interested to initiate consultations with a view to establishing the nuclear weapon-free zone, urging them to refrain from any action contrary to the achievement of these objectives. The fourth operative paragraph requested the Secretary General to convene a meeting for the purpose envisaged.
In the explanatory memorandum, Pakistan stressed the urgency and need for creating such a zone in South Asia. Since all the countries, it added, had already declared their opposition to the acquisition of nuclear weapons or to the introduction of such weapons into the region, this common denominator could form the basis of an agreement to establish the nuclear weapon-free zone. 14
During the debate in the General Assembly on this question, Pakistan stated that the generally recognised conditions for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone existed in South Asia. It repeated its argument that all the states had already declared their positons on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The states possessing nuclear weapons had, according to Pakistan, also indicated their support or acceptance of the concept of establishing nuclear weapon-free zones. The declaration made by South Asian states, coupled with the encouraging attitude of the nuclear powers, had set the stage for consultations on setting up a nuclear-free zone in South Asia. 15
Pakistan stated that existence of alliances and treaties of friendship with nuclear weapon powers had not prevented the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones in other areas of the world. Nor should, it said, the proximity of nuclear weapon powers be a factor inhibiting the creation of such zones. This latter factor should not militate against, but was yet another reason for, the creation of nuclear weapon-free zones. Pakistan argued that it was yet another reason for the creation of nuclear weapon-free zonesit was through such collateral measures that smaller states could be sure of their survival and security. 16
Pakistan added that a meting of the countries of the region could be convened by the Secretary General to begin consultations under appropriate guidelines set down by the General Assembly in order to facilitate the process of negotiations and give it a sense of direction. It also called for the establishment of a regime for independent observation and verification as a safeguard against the diversion of peaceful nuclear programmes to military ends. 17
In a later session, Pakistan tabled a resolution which reportedly favoured a zone established by: (a) a regional treaty; or (b) simultaneous accession to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); or (c) binding declarations by the regional states recognised by the UN Security Council. The zone would cover the seven states of South Asia, which belonged to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Verification could be done by (a) a permanent regional consultative mechanism, including provisions for a challenge verification regime with on-site inspection; or (b) bilateral arrangements among regional states for mutual inspections of nuclear facilities outside international safeguards; or (c) acceptance by the regional states of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all nuclear facilities and fissionable materials. 18
India also tabled a resolution in the 29th session of the General Assembly in which inter alia it stated that the initiative for the creation of the nuclear weapon-free zone in an appropriate region of Asia should come from the states of the region concerned, taking into account its special features and geographical extent. 19
During the debate on the issue, it stressed that no consultations regarding its implications, feasibility and acceptability had taken place on Pakistans proposal for a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia before the item was placed on the agenda of the General Assembly. India was of the view that no such regional arrangements could be imposed from outside, they could only be developed and matured within the region concerned. Besides, India held that South Asia could not be treated in isolation for the purpose of creating a nuclear weapon-free zone, as it was only a sub-region and an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region. It was necessary to take into account the security of the entire region. 20
India argued that a genuine nuclear weapon-free zone in the region required total absence of nuclear weapons. It felt that the existence of nuclear weapons in the Asia-Pacific region, and foreign military bases in the Indian Ocean complicated the security environment in the region and made the situation inappropriate for the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the South Asia sub-region. 21
India emphasised that it had supported the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones in different regions of the world provided suitable conditions existed and the zones were proposed to be established with the initiative of an agreement amongst the countries concerned. It added that conditions for the establishment of such zones differed from region to region; it was not possible to lay down the general principles or devise a single formula which would cover all the cases. 22
Both Indian and Pakistani resolutions were adopted by the General Assembly. 23
The Soviet Union voted for the Indian resolution and against that of Pakistan for it felt that the adoption of a substantive decision by the General Assembly on the question (of a nuclear weapon-free zone) should be preceded by a common understanding among the states which may participate in the establishment of such a zone. Since, in the Soviet view, the Pakistan draft did not contain such an approach and the Indian draft did, the Soviet Union voted for the Indian resolution. 24
The United States abstained from voting on either of the resolutions because it felt that the two resolutions were quite different in scope and perspective. The efforts to bridge the gap having failed, it did not believe the Assemblys adoption of these two draft resolutions were quite different in scope and perspective. The efforts to bridge the gap would advance the objective of a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia. 25
China voted in favour of the Pakistani resolution which it felt was just and reasonable, based on the Chinese governments stand on the question of nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapon-free zones. 26
France abstained from voting on both resolutions because it felt that the first condition for the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone was that of full agreement among the states to be included in that zone. In the case of nuclear weapons, the very fact that two draft resolutions were submitted, is obvious proof of divergences which exist between these states. The condition to which we referred has not been satisfied and this fact will dictate our attitude, it said. 27
The UK also did not vote for any of the resolutions as neither of the drafts referred to the NPT and, secondly, since it felt that there were no difference between peaceful nuclear explosive devices and military ones. 28
In the 1975 session, the UN General Assembly once again adopted two resolutionsone by India and the other by Pakistan. The contents said nothing new and were a repetition of those adopted in 1974. 29 India laid stress on consultations among the countries concerned; Pakistan urged the nation states to continue their efforts towards the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia as recommended in the previous year. 30
The General Assembly reiterated the conviction in the 31st sesssion. 31 Both India and Pakistan repeated their arguments. Countering the Indian argument, the Pakistani representative said South Asia was as much a separate and distinct region geographically and politically as other regions which have been or were in the process of becoming nuclear weapon-free zones. 32 However, he said, Pakistan had no objections to the limits of the proposed zone being extended to include such other regions which have been or were in the process of becoming extended to include such other regions of Asia as might be practicable.
In 1977, the Indian resolution was dropped with its consent. Pakistan, in its resolution, also called upon nuclear states to respond positively to the proposal if they had not done so earlier. 33 Another notable development was that the US, Canada and Japan voted in favour of the resolution, instead of abstaining. Yet another significant development was that India, which had earlier cast a negative vote, abstained, though in subsequent years it again voted against the Pakistani resolution. 34
Since then, there has been no change in the Pakistani stand on the resolutions adopted by the General Assembly. Since 1980, there is an additional reference regretting the delay in the establishment of such a zone.
The proposal was also reiterated by Gen. Zia in his speech at the 40th anniversary of the UN General Assembly.
So far as India is concerned, there was no change in its stand till 1987. It continued to insist on a regional initiative and on approaching the issue on the basis of the peculiarities of the region or, more appropriately, sub-region. 35 At the second UN Special Session on Disarmament, there was a change in its stand, the thrust of its argument being the movement and the deployment of nuclear weapons in various regions of the world. Indias Foreign Minister said that his country could not subscribe to the legitimisation of the possession of nuclear weapons by a few powers by agreeing to live under their professedly benign protection in the guise of the nuclear weapon-free zone. 36 This stand was reaffirmed in the subsequent sessions of the General Assembly when India said that undue stress was being laid on the peripheral and partial disarmament measures like nuclear weapon-free zones, the proposal for which had become an annual and pointless ritual serving to introduce unnecessary discordant notes to the process of regional cooperation. 37
In the 40th session, Eric Gonsalves, the Indian representative, said India had backed proposals in other areas because they enjoyed the support of the states concerned,. We have, at the same time, expressed reservations about the efficacy of such partial nuclear disarmament, particularly in the context of new, well authenticated nuclear winter findings. 38 In the next session also, India maintained that no area of the region can be isolated from the consequences of a nuclear conflict. 39
The proposal thus met with little success. The report of the UN Secretary General for 1981-82 stated that there had been no request from the South Asian states for his assistance regarding the South Asian nuclear weapon-free zone, though he was in contact with those states. 40
In February 1985, a two-year UN attempt to increase the number of nuclear weapon-free zones ended in complete collapse. A 21-nation panel, which included all five nuclear powers, was set up to consider the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones in the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Europe, Africa, South Asia and South Pacific. Bhaichand Patel, Secretary of the group, announced its disbanding because of a failure to reach consensus. He indicated that difficulties arose because countries like India and Argentina believed the whole exercise to be an unrealistic sideshow. 41
India, therefore, remains a firm opponent of the nuclear weapon- free zone in South Asia, on the ground that given the global reach and deployment of those nuclear weapons, such zones could provide at best an illusion of security against weapons whose effects do not respect territorial or regional boundaries. This was stated by the Indian representative, Bharati Ray, to the United Nations General Assembly, adding that the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones was not an answer to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. 42 The UN General Assembly, nevertheless, continues to go through the annual ritual and pass the resolution, brought before it year after year by Pakistan. 43
Efforts Outside the UN
Pakistans peace initiative move extended outside the United Nations also. In a banquet speech at Lahore in March 1976, during the visit of the Shah of Iran, Pakistans Prime Ministers Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto said: The imperative necessity of such zones is evident. Only through these (nuclear weapon-free zones) can trust and understanding characterise inter-state relations. 44
In joint communiques issued in 1976 with Canada and in 1987 in a banquet speech in honour of the visiting British Prime Minister the proposal was repeated. 45 Speaking at the tenth Islamic Summit in 1978, the adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, Agha Shahi, stated that the creation of the nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia is the most practical and efficacious means of averting the danger of nuclear proliferation and of strengthening the security of regional states. 46
In May 1979, the President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, in a letter to the Indian Prime Minister , suggested the creation of a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia and the acceptance full-scope safeguards for the nuclear facilities of India and Pakistan. But India rejected the proposal put forward by the Pakistani President. 47 The then Minister of External Affairs, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said that India could not accept General Zias proposal about denuclerisation of South Asia because the problem of nuclear non-proliferation is a wider question and is not one solely concerning India and Pakistan He said, If the nuclear weapon states deployed weapons, what is the use of having a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia? First let the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty be fair to all the nations. 48
In May 1980, the eleventh Islamic Summit meeting held in Pakistani, adopted a proposal on nuclear weapon-free zones. The resolution called upon all states to respond positively to the proposal of establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones in the regions of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. 49 In September 1985, in an address to the General Conference, the Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Munir Ahmad, expressed Pakistans readiness to enter into high-level consultations to consider a positive approach, ensuring the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia.
As far as Pakistans motives behind the proposal for a nuclear weapon-free zone are concerned, part of the explanation is already clear from the above. It was a diplomatic move intended to mask its own bomb plan for 1972.
Thus, while Pakistan had already launched the peace initiative in 1972, the Indian explosion provided it with an opportunity to build up the image of a peace-seeker in the region. Pakistans arguments of threat to security from a nuclear India could have appeared logical had its own intentions not come to light. After the discovery of Pakistans efforts at acquiring nuclear capability, the United States and Canada had suspended aid, but after the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, Pakistan exploited the threat factor against the Soviets. Thus, while Pakistan has, on the one hand, exploited the factor successfully, on the other, it made use of the proposal for establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia to reinforce its claims.
Coming to Indias rejection of the proposal, the solution was aimed only at South Asia and excluded China (deliberately). Pakistan knew too well that in the given state of Sino-Pak relations, India would never be a party to such a proposal.
While India did not express this reason openly, it nevertheless refused the proposal on other groundsnamely, the argument that the proposal should have come from the countries of the region or that South Asia is not a geographical entity like Latin America, etc. Though the Pakistani proposal was in sharp contrast to the UN study which categorically refers to the need for obtaining a regional consensus before such proposals are brought before the UN, 50 India was not able to take advantage of the situation because of its own explosion of 1974. Pakistan, therefore, to begin with, succeeded in showing India down by scoring diplomatic success in this regard.
Conceptually speaking, India was right in not accepting the proposal for it was an extension of the NPT. C. Subramaniam, the then Defence Minister, had said, Once the nuclear weapon-free zone is accepted, it will legitimise nuclear weapons in the hands of nuclear weapon powers and will bring an end to the struggle to achieve nuclear disarmament. 51
Subsequently, while the proposal for establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone has not made any significant headway, the discovery of Pakistans clandestine mode of operation has certainly damaged its image of peace-seeker in the region. This, however, has not helped India for decline in the prestige of one nation need not necessarily mean enhancement of the prestige of the adversary and, going by the intentions, Pakistan came to the same level, if not worse, of suspicion. And, while India could doubt Pakistans intentions, Pakistans extra-regional identity, i.e. its identification with the Islamic brethern of West Asia more than of South Asia, has further adversely affected the viability of the proposal. 52
While the nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia became a dead letter soon, merely reduced to an annual ritual, Pakistan then turned to bilateral proposals. It began with a No-War Pact, first made in 1981 and continued till the mid-1980s, including when Foreign Secretaries visited each others country in 1984 and 1985. This was followed by another proposal from Pakistanjoint inspection of each others nuclear facilities. It is difficult to ascertain when exactly this proposal was made, although in July 1984, in his address to the Majlis-e-Shoora, Gen Zia-ul-Haq said that Pakistan had unilaterally offered India a mutual pact to allow joint inspection of the two countries nuclear installations. The offer was reiterated by the then Foreign Secretary, Niaz Naik, in 1985. 53 Rejecting the proposal, the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi said, It does not cover enriched uranium Pakistan has already produced. We wonder where the enriched uranium is going. 54 India and Pakistan signed an agreement on December 31, 1988, not to attack each others nuclear facilities. The agreement entered into force on January 27, 1991. The two countries have been enchanging lists of nuclear facilities annually. 55 Pakistan, of course, rejected Indias subsequent proposal to extend the proposal to population and economic centres.
In the 1990s, Pakistan continued to make bilateral proposals. In June 1991, in Pakistan proposed a Five-Nation (India, Pakistan, Russia, China and US) Conference to discuss nuclear non-proliferation in the region. In August 1993, it put forward the concept of zero missile zone in South Asia. India has rejected subsequent Pakistani proposals for multilateral talks. In March 1997, after a gap of three years, talks at the Foreign Secretary level were resumed, leading to a decision to set up a working group to discuss nuclear and missile issues. 56
As stated at the outset, the aftermath of nuclearisation of South Asia did not see any special efforts to reinforce the proposal to establish a nuclear weapon-free zone in the region, although attempts of other sorts are on to enforce some sort of bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan. The veracity or success of any such proposal is anybodys guess, considering the importance of China in Indias security equation; and the relevance of including it as one of the parties is better understood now than before.
Note 3: Project 706: The Islamic Bomb (Panorama recording from the BBC transmission, June 16, 1980), p.2; Steve Weissman and Victor Krosnery, Islamic Bomb (New York, 1981), p.49. It was at this meeting in Multan that Bhutto had told the Pakistani scientists that he wanted the bomb in three years. Back.
Note 23: The resolution were adopted as Resolution 3265 A and B (XXIX).The Indian draft resolution received 104 votes in favour,1 (Dahomey) against, and 27 abstentions. The Pakistani draft resolution received 96 votes in favour, 2 (India and Bhutan) against and 36 abstentions. Back.
Note 35: GAOR, 33rd session, First Committee, Mtg. 55,p56.34th session, First Committee, Mtg 38, pp.38-41; Ibid., 35th session, First Committee Mtg. 21, pp. 24-36; Bid, First committee, Mtg 42, pp. 21-23. Back.
Note 41: The Evening Post, February 1, 1985, cited in Ramesh Thakur, The Treaty of Rarotonga: The South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zones, in David Pitt ed., Nuclear-Free Zones (Croom Helm, 1985), p.42. Back.
Note 43: Disarmament Diplomacy, November 1997. See, for instance, the resolution pssed last year, 52/35. It was passed by a resolution of 153 against 3 (India, Bhutan and Mauritius) with 8 abstentions. Back.