An international conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty concluded at the United Nations in New York without a consensus document. Given the growing great power conflict today, that was not unexpected. Surprisingly, though, the NPT review elicited little interest in Delhi.
India, one of the world’s nuclear weapon powers, ought to be paying a lot more attention to the international nuclear discourse that is acquiring new dimensions and taking a fresh look at its own civilian and military nuclear programmes.
Why is it significant?
There was a time when Delhi used to be hypersensitive to what was said at NPT conferences. The parties to the NPT, which came into force in 1970, undertake a review of the treaty’s implementation every five years. The Tenth Review Conference, scheduled for 2020, was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the US attempt to roll back India’s nuclear and missile programmes generated serious concerns in Delhi. India responded with a diplomatic strategy that sought to deflect external pressures.
- After the nuclear tests in May 1998, India’s focus shifted to managing the consequences of that decision — including global economic sanctions.
- The historic India-US civil nuclear initiative of July 2005 finally produced a framework that brought to an end Delhi’s extended conflict with the NPT system. At the heart of the deal was the separation of India’s civil and military nuclear programmes.
Failure of the Tenth Review Conference –
The failure of the Tenth Review Conference, however, does reveal many of the new challenges facing the global nuclear order today and their implications for India.
- First, is the deepening divide between the main sponsors of the NPT back in 1970 – America and Russia. Even at the height of the Cold War, there was always one major area of cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union — strong support for the NPT. This time, Russia objected to critical references in the statement to Moscow’s military control over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the southeast of Ukraine.
- Second, the non-nuclear state parties usually complained about the lack of progress in implementing the disarmament provisions of the NPT. The situation today is worsened by the absence of any dialogue between the nuclear powers on arms control. Rather than reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, the major powers now put greater emphasis on their strategic utility.
- Third, the invasion of a non-nuclear weapon state, Ukraine, by a nuclear weapon power, Russia, has generated a whole series of new questions. For those in Asia, who worry about China’s growing assertiveness, “Ukraine could well be the future of Asia”. There are real fears that China might decide to flex its nuclear muscle while seizing the territory of its neighbours. America’s Asian allies worry about the US’s ability to reinforce the “nuclear umbrella”. East Asian policymakers are debating various options. These include building one’s own atomic weapons, sharing the use of US nuclear assets, developing nuclear-powered submarines, building powerful long-range conventional counterstrike capabilities, and strengthening missile defences.
- Fourth, China’s political campaign against the AUKUS arrangement has found some resonance in South East Asia. When the US and UK announced their plans to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines in September 2021, China argued that the agreement violates the provisions of the NPT. Although the NPT permits non-nuclear states to develop nuclear naval propulsion, Beijing persisted with the campaign. In New York, Indonesia and Malaysia raised concerns about the implications of the AUKUS deal for the NPT.
- Fifth, nuclear power is coming back into reckoning around the world amidst the growing challenge of climate change. The draft final statement noted that “nuclear technologies can contribute to addressing climate change, mitigating and adapting to its consequences, and monitoring its impact”.
Implications for India –
- One, India must find ways to end the current stasis in its civilian nuclear power generation, especially at a time when Delhi has outlined an ambitious programme to reduce the share of fossil fuels in its energy consumption. India, which commissioned Asia’s first nuclear power station more than 50 years ago, is stuck today with a total generating capacity of barely 7,000 MW.
- India’s historic civil nuclear initiative was squandered by the disastrous 2010 Civil Nuclear Liability Act which has made it impossible for private players — internal and external — to contribute to the programme. Revisiting that law is now an urgent imperative for any Indian strategy to rapidly raise the contribution of nuclear power to India’s energy mix.
- India must also recognise and adapt to the return of nuclear weapons as major instruments of great power military strategy. After 1998, India premised its strategy on building “credible minimum deterrence”. The time has come to reflect on the “credible” side of that strategy and redefine what the ‘minimum’ might be.
Source – The Indian Express
QUESTION – The international discourse on nuclear technology in both civilian and military use is changing now. Discuss the impact of the recent Tenth Review Conference of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty upon India’s nuclear ambitions. What should be the way forward for India?