A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
CTBT and India's Options
By Manpreet Sethi *
Attempts continue within India at consensus building on the issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In 1996 when the treaty was finally concluded and opened for signature, a consensus had emerged that India should not subscribe to it since it did not include any linkage with the issue of nuclear disarmament and neither did it meet India's security concerns. The need to reconsider this decision and build a consensus once again on the same treaty is triggered not by an alteration in the basics of the treaty, but because of a change in the frame of reference - at both the domestic and international levels. The article attempts to examine these changed parameters and to what extent they must impinge upon any decision that India makes on the CTBT. It then explores the various options before India on this issue, and the merits and demerits of each one of them. It concludes by advocating a choice that appears to be the most logical under the present set of international and domestic circumstances.
It is well documented that India had remained at the vanguard of the struggle for a comprehensive test ban ever since India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru first called for a halt to all forms of testing in 1954. 1 Ever since then, India envisaged a ban on nuclear tests as an important definitive and irreversible step towards the ultimate realisation of a nuclear weapons free world by putting a halt to the qualitative development, upgradation and improvement of nuclear weapons. 2 All through its presentations before the plenary of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the main negotiating body that was formally given the mandate to draft the test ban treaty in 1993, 3 Indian representatives pressed for the evolving CTBT to be placed in the context of total nuclear disarmament within a well-defined timeframe. India upheld that without such a linkage steps such as the CTBT or the proposed fissile material cut-off convention were "narrow and futile exercises aimed only at controlling non-nuclear weapons states, [and thereby] further strengthening the discrimination inherent in the non-proliferation regimes.... " 4
On the other hand, the US, that had also become keen to conclude a CTBT by the early 1990s after having opposed it over the last four decades, saw it primarily as a non-proliferation tool. Its basic intention was to ensnare India, and also Pakistan, into the non-proliferation regime, through a route other than their acceptance of the NPT, since that appeared virtually impossible. This difference in perceptions ultimately compelled India to disassociate itself from the treaty, despite participating in the drafting process at the CD. In her statement to the plenary of the CD on June 20, 1996, Ms Arundhati Ghose stated, "The CTBT that we see emerging appears to be shaped more by the technological preferences of the nuclear weapon states rather than the imperatives of nuclear disarmament. This was not the CTBT that India envisaged in 1954. This cannot be the CTBT that India can be expected to accept". 5 It was also highlighted that India's national security was adversely affected by the prospect of some countries relying on nuclear weapons for their security while denying the same privilege to others. Consequently, India refused to accept the CTBT since it was not able to "accept any restraints on its capability if other countries remain unwilling to accept the obligation to eliminate their nuclear weapons." 6
As Indian unwillingness to accept the treaty in the form in which it was emerging became apparent, an ingenious entry into force clause was woven into the final draft. It stipulated that to enter into force, the treaty must acquire the ratification of all 44 countries recognised by the IAEA as possessing nuclear power or research reactors. And, this includes India. Clearly, the motivation for this provision was the intention of bringing in India into the CTBT-fold at some point in the future. Expectedly though, it was objected to by India for being in violation of the Vienna Convention Law of Treaties. This strategy of compelling a country to sign and denying it the right of voluntary consent was unprecedented. The Indian representative at the CD condemned the move and stated, "...we cannot have our sovereign right not to sign the Treaty taken away and accept obligations on India that we cannot and will not accept. " 7
Indian non acceptance of the CTBT meant that it could not be presented as a consensus document by the CD to the UN General Assembly. The certainty of a veto by India was circumvented by having an identical draft presented to the UN General Assembly as a national paper by the Australian government and co-sponsored by 126 other countries. Though outraged at the complicity of some countries, even at this stage, India pressed for some sort of a linkage with nuclear disarmament. It proposed the inclusion of a paragraph in the preamble stating that the CTBT be seen as an "integral part of the commitment of the international community to achieve a complete elimination of all nuclear weapons within a time bound framework." Unfortunately however, the NWS were averse to any such commitment and the final treaty fell far short of Indian expectations. Prompted by the intransigence of the nuclear weapons states, a consensus had by then developed within India that it was not in the interest of the nation to subscribe to such a treaty. India, along with Bhutan and Libya voted against the resolution, while five countries abstained. However, with 158 countries voting in favour of it, the resolution on the CTBT was adopted on September 10, 1996.
The UN Secretary General, in his capacity as the depositary of the treaty, opened it for signature on September 24, 1996. It has since then been signed by 155 states and ratified by 56. Out of the 44 specified nations, all except India, Pakistan and North Korea have signed it, but only 26 have ratified it yet. Out of these France, UK, and more recently Russia, are the three NWS to have done so. The US Senate has rejected the CTBT; China is yet to ratify it; India is debating options to arrive at a consensus; and Pakistan too remains undecided and reportedly engaged in a similar exercise.
In 1996 when India rejected the treaty, it was on the basis of a broad-based national consensus. In his suo motu statement to the Parliament, then External Affairs Minister, Mr I K Gujral alluded to this when he said that "the strength of the national consensus is reflected in the policy of this government and the course of action which was adopted during the discussions in New York." 8 However, the fact that this consensus today needs a rethink is prompted by a number of transformations that have since taken place in the country's nuclear policy, as well as in the surrounding international environment. These changes need to be adequately understood before any decision on the CTBT is taken.
Most significantly, India's nuclear status today is different from what it was in 1996. From a country exercising restraint despite having demonstrated a nuclear capability in 1974, India is now a state with an overtly weaponised nuclear competence. In 1996 when it rejected the test ban, it was with the stated objective of not wanting to limit its future choices. With a regional security environment that was less than benign, and rather threatening to deteriorate with an increasing collusion of China and Pakistan on military and nuclear matters, India was averse to accepting a test ban without a definitive commitment on universal nuclear disarmament. The downslide in the regional scenario continued and finally, led the government to decide in favour of conducting five nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.
Consequently, India is now a nuclear weapons state, even though the international community will not accept it as one under the NPT. 9 However, irrespective of whether it is granted the status or not, the fact remains that nuclear weapons do need to be factored into the national security strategy. Their primary objective, as stated in the draft nuclear doctrine put forth by the government for a countrywide debate, remains to provide an "effective, credible nuclear deterrence and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail". 10 Nuclear deterrence, meanwhile, is itself a derivative of the kind of nuclear weapons, command and control structure and delivery capability that a country possesses. Therefore, the Indian decision on the CTBT must now take into account the kind of nuclear force structure it aspires to build and whether that would require any further testing. While scientists have argued both for and against further tests, the DAE Chairman, Dr Chidambaram has assured the country that no further tests are required. 11 He has also expressed confidence in India's abilities to conduct sub critical tests. If that be so then the Indian decision on the CTBT acquires a purely politically strategic dimension.
The second major change in circumstances that should be brought to bear on any decision that India takes on the CTBT stems from an overall change in thinking on nuclear weapons. It may be recalled that the end of the Cold War had been accompanied with optimistic predictions on the likelihood of the willingness of states to renounce their nuclear arsenals in the wake of the end of the bipolar confrontation. US-Russia relationship was beginning to be talked about in terms of partnership 12 and it was becoming fashionable to dismiss any future role for nuclear weapons. The CTBT negotiations were embarked upon in a similar spirit. In fact, in 1995 at the time of the indefinite extension of the NPT, the NWS promised to push forth for an early conclusion of the CTBT, "no later than 1996". 13 The negotiations did manage to conclude a year later, though the manner in which it was done and the inefficacy of the treaty given the ability of the NWS to conduct other forms of non-explosive testing left little scope for it ever contributing to the realisation of a nuclear weapons free world.
Since 1996, when the CTBT was first opened for signature with President Clinton being the first one to sign it, several developments demonstrate a trend away from nuclear disarmament. The US itself, through several actions and overtures, has made apparent its desire to keep nuclear deterrence at the heart of its national security strategy. Less than a year after signing the CTBT, the US reaffirmed that "strategic nuclear deterrence remains a key US military priority." 14 In fact, recent planning documents of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff even contemplate the use of nuclear weapons against the use of chemical and biological weapons. Consequently, huge amounts of money continue to be regularly earmarked for updating and maintaining the formidable arsenal. An elaborate and expensive Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programme (SSMP) has also been put in place to ensure the refinement and reliability of the existing stockpile. It is specifically entrusted with the task of "guarantee[ing] the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons under the CTBT." And yet, despite all this the US Senate did not deem it fit to ratify the treaty. In fact, Richard Lugar, in his statement explaining why he would vote against the treaty, quoted a nuclear scientist to suggest that the challenge of maintaining the viability of a nuclear stockpile without testing is like "walking an obstacle course in the dark when your last glimpse of light was a flash of lightning back in 1992." 15 If a country like the US that has archived data from more than 1000 nuclear tests is so diffident on binding its hands with the CTBT, then what does this imply for a country like India?
US contempt for the CTBT attains more sinister proportions when seen against its insistence on deploying a national missile defence in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) of 1972. This move, even though a decision on its eventual deployment is yet to be taken has already put Russia and some of the other nuclear weapons states such as China and France on the defensive. They have criticised the US endeavour as an unacceptable effort designed to achieve strategic superiority at the cost of disrupting global and regional strategic balances and stability. This would have an implication on India since China would reassess its nuclear capability vis a vis the US with a missile defence. The Chinese representative at the NPT Review Conference, ambassador Sha Zukang made it clear that NMD deployment "is tantamount to a nuclear arms build-up, which will not only bring severe damage to ... the global strategic balance and stability, but also ... impede the international nuclear disarmament process, and thus shatter the prerequisite and basis for international nuclear non-proliferation." 16 An ominous statement, indeed.
In this kind of an international scenario that seems to be fast crystallising, the NWS show no inclination of reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons. NATO's Strategic Concept put forth in 1999 reaffirms its faith in nuclear deterrence and first use of nuclear weapons. 17 Russia too has reoriented its nuclear doctrine to lower its nuclear threshold. 18 China continues with its military and nuclear modernisation. The NPT Review Conference could derive nothing more than an ambiguous and unverifiable commitment from NWS. The CD remains deadlocked. The ABM is likely to be violated and this has the potential to trigger off a new and more lethal nuclear arms race. Evidently, then, there is an overall decline in support for universal nuclear disarmament. In this context, what is the significance of the CTBT?
A third factor that must be considered before any decision on the CTBT is taken relates to the treaty's verification and enforcement mechanism that India will have to contend with if the treaty ever enters into force, a proposition that seems highly unlikely at the present juncture. Yet, it would be worthwhile to be aware of some of its shortcomings or limitations. For instance, advances in mining technologies have enabled nations to smother nuclear tests without their being detected. In any case, it is a known fact that the International Monitoring System can detect only explosive tests above a level of one kiloton, and that too in a non clandestine environment. This might not always be so and it could be possible for some countries to conduct tests of a low yield without their being detected. In fact, some analysts have questioned the efficacy of the monitoring mechanism, given that initial US announcements on Pokhran II dismissed it as an earthquake or a test of much lower yield than the Indian scientists have claimed! Another problem may arise from the rather intrusive inspection regime envisaged under the treaty. On site inspections to be held with 30 votes out of a 50 strong Executive Council could present themselves as tools of harassment by some states against others.
It is against the backdrop of these three factors that this article attempts to explore India's options and the merits and demerits of each.
Option One: Sign and Ratify
One clear option presents itself in both signing and ratifying the CTBT immediately. After Pokhran II India now has a proven and demonstrated capability of producing at least 200 KT thermonuclear warheads-not a state-of-the-art capability, though it is not a small yield either. 19 With an effective delivery capability, it should be enough for purposes of deterrence. Meanwhile, in any case, the government has declared a unilateral moratorium on further testing and does not appear to be in any mood to conduct any more tests immediately. So, several nuclear strategists have argued that India need not hesitate in signing and ratifying the treaty. Especially, since in any case, if at any future date, a need is felt to carry out more tests, India could always withdraw from the treaty on grounds of national security.
The option however needs to be scrutinised a little more carefully, particularly in terms of its advantages and disadvantages. As regards the former, it may be said that by accepting the treaty now, India would definitely win international applause and goodwill. Also it would win the upper moral hand vis a vis the US and other countries holding back on their ratification. As one Indian analyst has put it, "signing the CTBT and giving the US (and the rest of the world community) some of the reassurances on our nuclear weapons programme will put the seal of international acceptance on India's emergence as a mature and stable nation-state, destined for a place in the first tier of nations". 20
Another possible consequence could be that greater pressure could be brought to bear on China and Pakistan to follow suit, thereby stopping the evolution of more advanced weapons in the neighbourhood. However, this remains only a possibility and it may turn out that despite Indian endorsement of the treaty, the other two hold back and continue to improve their nuclear arsenals, having serious implications for Indian security.
Apparently, therefore, the only tangible benefit of exercising this option would be to gain international goodwill and the lifting of economic sanctions. But should this be deemed enough? Having waited it out for 25 years before exercising an option in favour of weaponisation and having borne the brunt of international criticism and sanctions, should regaining international goodwill be the only reason for signing the CTBT? Should this be enough to make India go back on its vow that it would not sign the CTBT in its present form, "not now, not later"? Especially since the CTBT is still the same - not comprehensive since it bans only nuclear explosions while allowing other higher forms of testing; and not a test ban since it allows non explosive sub critical tests. Advanced computer simulation using extensive data relating to previous explosive testing and weapon related applications of laser ignition could lead to a fourth generation of nuclear weapons, even with a ban on explosive testing. And this seems highly probable given the international trend away from nuclear disarmament.
Neither has the regional security scenario changed in any favourable way. Rather, both China and Pakistan continue with their military and nuclear programmes, and if anything there is ever greater evidence of a close nexus between the two on both these issues. Given these conditions, should earning goodwill be sufficient justification for signing and ratifying the treaty? And, would the world community be ready to include India in the "first tier of nations" merely on the basis of its signature on the CTBT? It appears highly unlikely that they would not press for far greater concessions from India in the form of its acceptance of the NPT too.
Option Two: Sign, But Not Ratify
Another option that has been advocated as regard the CTBT is that India could sign now but ratify the treaty at some later date. By doing so, it could get the pressure off its back while still retaining some sort of a leverage for the future. While this may superficially seem like a sensible option, however, it should be understood that international pressure would not stay off for too long. Nor can it be expected to be satisfied with the mere signature. Rather, pressure to ratify could mount even further. Moreover, it need also be said that though as a signatory that has not ratified the treaty, India may not be obligated to abide by each and every term of the agreement, yet, under customary international law, it shall still be obliged to refrain from actions that go against the "object and purpose" of the treaty. Therefore, it shall in any case be obliged to refrain from conducting tests until it makes clear its intention not to ratify the treaty at all.
Moreover, while signing and not ratifying might have been an option for the US given their presidential system of governance, the same does not hold for India. In our parliamentary system, it is the Prime Minister who has to take the decision and it is not mandatory for the treaty to be subjected to any kind of scrutiny by Parliament. In fact, the Indian constitution does not have any provision of ratification of treaties by Parliament. 21 Treaty making, in the Indian system, is entirely an executive act performed by the Prime Minister and then presented to the President for his nod that can hardly be not forthcoming once the PM recommends it to him. Therefore, holding back on ratification would leave nothing more than a token leverage in India's hand without bringing forth any tangible benefits.
Option Three: Fence-Sitting
As a third option India could continue to sit on the fence as it does now and remain engaged in trying to build an increasingly elusive consensus on the issue. Would this bring any benefits? For one, the option of nuclear testing would remain open. While the significance of this may be reduced by the fact that the treaty has a withdrawal clause, yet it may be said that withdrawal in practice may not be easy to exercise, given the international opprobrium that would surely follow and the dangerous precedent that it would set. Therefore, one response could be as to why get into that uncomfortable position at all? One could continue to stay out of the treaty and observe how future developments unfold.
However, the disadvantage of this option would be that as India continues to evade a real decision, in the meanwhile, international pressure and economic sanctions or measures would continue. India would not be testing and still not be gaining anything from not doing so since its intentions would still be suspect. Moreover, India would then also be resigning itself to only responding to the developments instead of proactively pushing for things to move as it desires-at the internal level, in terms of gaining some incentives; and at the international level, in terms of shaping the global agenda to suit its security and other concerns.
Option Four: Seek Incentives for Signing
A fourth option presents itself as being the most viable one in the present circumstances. It may also be seen as mixing a bit of idealism with true blue pragmatism and realpolitik, the buzzwords of modern times. India could make it clear that it could consider subscribing to the treaty, provided a few of its conditions or concerns are adequately met. However, to carry through such an option would require utmost political and diplomatic skill. A clear message would have to be conveyed that in accepting the CTBT in its present form, India is compromising its earlier objections to the same and therefore, they should be addressed in another form or mode. At the same time, India would have to press the point that by accepting the CTBT even after having carried out the tests in 1998, it would be tying its hands on the kind of nuclear deterrent it could develop (on the weight-to-yield ratio of its nuclear warheads) and for this it should be adequately compensated.
This proposition, in turn, gives rise to two questions: one, what could or should India demand in return for its acceptance of the CTBT? And secondly, why and whether the international community would or could accept India's demands? As far as the first point is concerned there are a few proposals that India could submit for consideration to the major powers in return for its signature. The most important of these could perhaps, be a recognition of its nuclear weapons status. Such a de facto recognition would be important for several reasons. For one, it would legitimise India's right to conduct subcritical tests, a right that only the NWS have retained for themselves. In parallel negotiations between the P-5, even as the CD was negotiating the treaty, NWS defined for themselves what weapons related activities they could engage in despite the CTBT. These include high-tech underground tests at sub critical level, simulated nuclear explosions in labs and the sharing of data and technologies among themselves. Therefore, unless India is recognised as a nuclear weapon state, it would not be legally permitted to participate in all these activities.
Secondly, India could seek a lifting of the export controls on high-end technologies, especially on nuclear and space-based applications for peaceful uses. Once India is recognised as a nuclear weapon state, the transfer of such technology, especially that of nuclear power reactors, might become easier and without any insistence on full scope safeguards. And, thirdly, India could seek some sort of a movement towards universal nuclear disarmament, a constant in its foreign policy.
However, while these demands could be formulated, the more important question remains as to why should the international community (read major powers) agree to paying such a price for securing Indian acceptance of the CTBT? In fact, would they agree at all? Perhaps not. But then there is nothing lost by pitching high. And there does exist that slight chance that they might accept some of these demands. Of course, India would need to back up these demands by pressing on and constantly highlighting the advantages that will accrue to the international community and the non proliferation regime through India's signature. For instance, it might be said that the Indian endorsement of the CTBT at this juncture when its state appears so uncertain, could set in motion a positive trend. In fact, in 1998, when India went nuclear, it was accused of heightening the probability of other countries following suit. By the same token, it may be argued that if it were now to sign the treaty, would it not set in motion a trend in favour of CTBT? For other international players like the EU countries, Canada and Japan, the Indian signature could smoothen their entry into a country with a huge market with massive potential. They are likely to come in anyway irrespective of the Indian signature, but India's signature would provide them with a face saving device. At the same time, several disenchanted non-nuclear parties of the NPT could be won over by emphasising that by linking Indian acceptance of the CTBT to some sort of a movement on nuclear disarmament, India was in fact championing their cause. Concerted pressure then may be brought to bear on the NWS and their allies.
Of course, such actions would call for the skilful use of Indian diplomacy at various levels. It would also take some time for any results to show up. But then what is the hurry? Irrespective of whether the Indian government signs the CTBT now or not, it is likely to remain in a state of limbo till the new administration takes charge in the USA. In the meanwhile the issue of NMD deployment would have acquired a momentum of its own, evoking much clearer and concrete responses from China. If China were to conclude that its nuclear deterrent is unable to match up to the US arsenal as being fortified by the SSMP and an eventual NMD, then it might decide in favour of resuming testing. Naturally then, India too would have to reconsider the state of its own nuclear deterrent and this would impact on any decision on further testing. Therefore, while the international and regional scenario remains so uncertain, would it not suit India's interests not to be hasty in signing and instead seeking worthwhile incentives for doing so?
In conclusion, it may be stated that at present the CTBT lies in a state of dormancy. To resuscitate it actually lies in the hands of the US. However, it would have to do so not only by ratifying the treaty, but also by refraining from violating the ABM, since Russia and China are likely to hinge their approach to the treaty and further arms control or non proliferation measures on the US approach to both. Meanwhile, the US seems to be caught in a dilemma on both counts. On the CTBT, a treaty once rejected in the Senate cannot be resubmitted for consideration without amendments. No amendments to the treaty are however possible unless it first comes into force. But, it cannot come into force unless the 44 specified countries ratify it and the US is one of them. On the issue of the NMD, its deployment has the potential to unhinge all arms control regimes, contribute to the initiation of a nuclear arms race and even further nuclear testing. Yet, the issue has acquired a momentum of its own, given the vested interests involved of the bureaucracy, military and the private industry.
Given such a scenario, it would be best for India not to commit itself to the CTBT, unless it can get something really worthwhile in return. In fact, at the moment it would do better to keep a close watch on the evolving international developments on issues discussed above. In the meanwhile, though, it would do no harm to try to sell its signature on the CTBT for a suitable price. The key, however, lies in convincing the world that the Indian signature would be worth the price.
Note 2: In 1963, when the partial test ban treaty (PTBT) was concluded, India subscribed to it in the belief that it would lead to a comprehensive ban and then to disarmament. At the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC), the Indian representative pointed out that the importance of the treaty "does not lie so much in what the treaty actually says, as in what it means and the hopes it arouses", UNDC/PV 156, August 29, 1963, p. 13 as quoted in K K Pathak, Nuclear Policy of India (New Delhi: Gitanjali Prakashan, 1980), p. 86. Back.
Note 3: It may be mentioned that the CD had long been involved with the issue of a test ban. A subsidiary body on the item had been established way back in 1982, but disagreement over the mandate had blocked all progress. Back.
Note 4: Statement made by Ms Arundhati Ghose, Ambassador/ Permanent Representative of India to UN Offices at Geneva, in the Plenary of the CD on September 21, 1995. Cited in Statements by India on CTBT, 1993-1996 (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 1997) Back.
Note 12: Several Russian strategic thinkers and even government officials of the time have been quoted as saying that Russia was keen to forge a partnership with the West. Some even ventured to suggest an eventual Russian integration with the West. Back.
Note 13: The NPT Review and Extension Conference adopted a decision entitled "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament" that contained a programme of action for the full realisation and effective implementation of its Article VI that calls for efforts towards nuclear disarmament. The CTBT was envisaged as one of the steps in this direction. Back.
Note 14: Annual Report of the US Department of Defence as quoted in Office of the Secretary of Defence, Nuclear Weapons Systems Sustainment Programmes (Washington DC: Department of Defence, May 1997). Back.
Note 17: The NATO Strategic Concept clearly states that "nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve peace." For text of the Concept see Strategic Digest, vol XXIX, no. 6, June 1999. Back.
Note 18: Russia's national security concept as put forth in January 2000 reiterates its right to "use all available means and forces, including nuclear wepaons, in case of the need to repel an armed aggression when all other means of settling the crisis situation have been exhausted." For the National Security Concept see Strategic Digest, March 2000. Back.