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Old Wine In A Broken Bottle? South Asian Perspectives On A Nuclear-Weapon Ban – Analysis

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By Harsh V. Pant

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South Asia as a region has been critical of the global nuclear order in both ideational and empirical terms. That order – in its current form as represented by the NPT and ancillary arrangements – has had an interactive relationship with the region ranging in intensity from instrumental to integral. Unsurprisingly, the stakes are significant for India and the global nuclear order, and this is anchored in the ineluctable fact that the South Asian country has been and continues to be an outlier in terms of its position on nuclear disarmament within the global nuclear order.

Incidentally, Pakistan also opposed the TPNW’s creation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan 2017) – both the Indian and Pakistani official responses highlighted the TPNW’s inability to advance the creation of customary international law. What emerges from surveying the trends in the region is that normative issues need to be considered in tandem with empirical on-the-ground realities; otherwise, the effective impact of the norms tends to be diluted. Hence, it can be argued that the process for nuclear disarmament should be primarily a political one aimed at consensus-building which engages with and assimilates normative concerns. The context and comparison of the South Asian experience reveals key takeaways which provide a sobering assessment of the TPNW.

In the current context, the broader multilateral and normative order is witnessing severe contestation – arguably to the point of an existential crisis. Accordingly, the advent of this treaty might have been a potentially welcome development due to the ongoing erosion of the multilateral order(s) globally. In contrast, the Treaty has been rendered a non sequitur since it essentially entails banning the (nuclear) bomb for countries which do not even have it in their arsenal. Significantly, the critical stakeholders on the topic – that is, the nuclear-weapon states, which are indispensable to the question of nuclear disarmament and ipso facto should have been part of the conversation – are conspicuously absent from the process. Further, the latter is paradoxical considering the emerging tendencies in the strategic nuclear realm, as the major nuclear powers are re-examining their nuclear doctrines, strategic deterrence policies, and nuclear-force postures. Such exercises by the world’s nuclear-weapon states primarily connote a reconsideration of strategic options through an emphasis on the integration of emerging strategic technologies with existing nuclear (and conventional) platforms; this in turn facilitates the framing of an alternative nuclear response. Essentially, the Treaty appears, then, to be grounded in an alternate reality inasmuch as the adherents to it are remarkably disengaged from the critical constituencies most heavily invested in the topic, while also being divorced from the realities of regional-security issues too.

A key effect of the Treaty has indubitably been to expose the colossal chasm between the nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states. While this cleavage has been an enduring trend within the global nuclear architecture, this treaty represents at once both the cause and the effect of this symptom, illustrative as it is of an insider–outsider dynamic. Counterintuitively, while the very rationale of this treaty has to an extent been premised on this, the nonnuclear-weapon states have in practice replicated an exclusive insider–insider dialog at the cost of the outsider – the nuclear-weapon states in this case. This tempers expectations regarding tangible deliverables from the Treaty and in turn raises the question of its sustainability; the advent of the post–Second World War global order demonstrates that multilateral orders underperform when there is not an optimal balance between idealistic aspiration and pragmatic underpinnings. Even if the Treaty does potentially generate a powerful global norm, the impact thereof on the global nuclear order would remain severely limited in face of the inherent asymmetry between the aspirations of non-nuclear-weapon states and the concerns of the nuclear-weapon ones – thereby belying the pious intention of eventual global nuclear disarmament.

Against this backdrop, some key regional specificities merit attention. And while these are particular to South Asia, they also generate broader theoretical and analytical questions pertaining to nuclear non-proliferation. To reiterate the centrality of South Asia to the global nuclear order, India and Pakistan (as well as Israel) have steadfastly refused to sign the NPT. Indian opposition to the NPT has been embedded in a larger normative logic highlighting that the Treaty’s effect by design and default was to generate a dichotomous double-tiered structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The definition of a nuclear-weapon state being contingent upon conducting a nuclear test prior to 1967 was particularly contested, and the Indian position was to challenge this central premise of the NPT architecture on a normative basis ab initio. Likewise, regional nuclear-free zones have been viewed by India as a piecemeal – if not inadequate – approach to nuclear disarmament, and as contingent upon the specific regional context (Pande 1999). Meanwhile, the design and implementation (or lack thereof) of non-proliferation commitments by the major powers has further reinforced the Indian position.

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Incidentally, the ensuing security concerns stemming from Pakistan and China only contributed to the complexity of India’s nuclear calculus – in a form still notable today – and this empirical reality complemented the latter’s norm contestation here. More poignantly, that even the NPT-led architecture eventually had to reorient itself – as vividly manifested through the “US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement” (2008) – is testament to the inherent instability of a multilateral order which failed to accommodate crucial stakeholders. Challenging the assumptions and tenets of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US–India nuclear agreement was driven by the strategic considerations of great powers and underlines the salience of the same within the global nuclear architecture (Pant 2011) – not to mention the role of South Asia within it. Incidentally, the global nuclear order had in its initial stages evolved as a response to India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974 – illustrated best through the establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and ancillary multilateral export control regimes – and subsequently illicit Pakistani nuclear trafficking. These trends thus foretell some of the potential complications for this treaty, having a bearing beyond the region too.

Quixotically, the Ban Treaty explicitly aims for the complete eradication of nuclear weapons without engaging with the salient causes of the continued existence of them – in this it is similar but not identical to the NPT-led global nuclear order, inasmuch as the underlying concerns of crucial stakeholders are left unaddressed. This contributes to the weakening of the intended normative effect and raises questions about the very sustainability of such an initiative. The fact that such weapons continue to be an important element of the nuclear-force posture for the nuclear-weapon states indicates that there are deeper reasons beyond normative attributes such as prestige, status, or nuclear enhancement in play – being symptomatic of legitimate security issues in large parts of the world.

Pointedly, references to the “Ottawa Treaty” and landmines as a precedent – made in the context of the politico-normative impact of the Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons – are suggestively pious but ultimately puerile. Such reasoning essentially misses the point. The very comparison between landmines and nuclear weapons is fundamentally untenable, owing to the immeasurable differences in terms of strategic and political utility between these two vastly dissimilar classes of weapons.

It is noteworthy that Indian opposition to the TPNW stems from the same ideational construct as its opposition to the NPT. The Indian position on nuclear disarmament has been that it has to be comprehensive, verifiable, and universal – the country’s commitment to disarmament remains unchanged, as testified to by the official response (Ministry of External Affairs, India 2021). Significantly, the Indian nuclear doctrine remains unique in explicitly linking its nuclear-force posture to nuclear disarmament (Ministry of External Affairs, India 2003).

While Indian efforts at nuclear disarmament would continue unabated, the South Asian country’s specific concerns regarding the Ban Treaty were primarily based on verification and procedural concerns. If the Conference on Disarmament would have been the suitable forum for this topic, with appropriate negotiation aiming for a consensus, then the inherent ambiguity on the part of verification and compliance within the Treaty renders it problematic. This is particularly concerning for India given the extraordinarily high stakes on account of its primary security challenges arising from Pakistan and China – both of which have nuclear arms and are in its immediate neighbourhood. Given its history of challenging and resisting the NPT, India is also inclined to contest this treaty on account of its very real limitations – further to the outlined normative and security considerations.

These arguments raise two broader but interrelated questions pertaining to the realities of the emerging global nuclear order. The era now dawning indicates the resurgence of greatpower politics with a certain vigour and intensity unseen in the recent past. This is reflective of an evolving paradigmatic shift, which is in turn driving contestation between the US and China, while certain regions such as the Indo-Pacific are gaining pre-eminence and the value of nuclear weapons and force posture is being re-evaluated. Concurrently, multilateral orders are facing a litmus test in this era of power transition, with established norms and arrangements being severely constrained by a rising China and acute repercussions unfolding – raising questions about the very survival of the existing liberal order in its current form. Against such a backdrop, multilateral endeavours on a crucial issue such as nuclear disarmament warrant more space being given to security concerns than the current version of the TPNW allows. The moot point remains that the logic of nuclear deterrence, which contributes to the continuing relevance of such weapons, has a certain resonance in several critical geographies across the world.

In essence, these security trends and political drivers are particularly pronounced in South Asia but do also manifest to varying degrees in other nuclearised regions such as Eastern Europe and North Asia. They portend significant impediments to the effective impact of the Treaty in real terms. Moreover, while issues of nuclear deterrence need to be factored into the disarmament discourse for an optimal outcome, some of the underlying assumptions of the Ban Treaty are of questionable functional value. The very fact of unanimous opposition to the Treaty by all the existing nuclear-weapon states – both within and beyond the NPT regime – attests to this and corroborates the Indian position as well. In sum, normative pressure notwithstanding, unless the substantial underlying conditions which sustain nuclear weapons are altered, or at the very least managed through a constructive approach, advocates of nuclear disarmament – and the Ban Treaty – are destined to run around in rhetorical circles.


This commentary originally appeared in GIGA Working Paper.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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