India, Europe and Non-Proliferation: Pokhran II and After

Jasjit Singh, Director, IDSA


On May 11, 1998, two concurrent events of great importance occurred which opened a new chapter in India's history and evolution. One was the nuclear tests at Pokhran which naturally attracted worldwide attention and even concerns of diverse nature, while at the national level there was unabashed pride at the scientific achievement. The tests were important in many ways. But the issue of more far-reaching significance was the second occurrence of the day when India formally declared itself as a nuclear weapon state. It can be argued that the declaration without the tests would have carried little credibility especially when India had not even tested intermediate range ballistic missiles for more than four years.

India's actions were seen as a challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation order and regime so painstakingly built up over the decades by the five nuclear weapon states and their allies. But the reality is that India did not violate any international treaty, political commitment or assurance in crossing the threshold to become a state with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, for three decades it stood outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on a number of grounds, the public expression of which was that it was discriminatory and imposed a distinction between a few states whose nuclear weapons were legitimised by the treaty, while others were expected to forego the option to acquire them regardless of the realities of their national security concerns.

Bargain of the 1960s

The nuclear non-proliferation order is constructed on the foundations of the NPT which was concluded in 1968 based on the UN General Assembly resolution passed unanimously on November 19, 1965. This resolution rather than the treaty expresses the true will of the international community in laying down the principle of balance of obligations between the states which possessed nuclear weapons and those that did not. The weapon states, therefore, were to give up nuclear weapons, and the non-nuclear weapon states, under this arrangement, would not acquire such capabilities. Unfortunately, the treaty as it emerged from the negotiations of a Cold War period where superpower interests were apparently held supreme, was very weak in the commitment to disarmament. Over the past three decades, even this commitment has not been fulfilled by the weapon states. But the bargain remains enshrined in an international treaty, in fact, the only one that recognises a category of states as "nuclear weapon states" thereby legitimising the existence of this category of weapons of mass destruction.

While great virtue has been discovered in the NPT in recent years, it must be recalled that the treaty was pursued by the two superpowers more because of the concerns that countries like Japan, Germany and Italy rather than those like India may acquire nuclear weapons! It was also not surprising, therefore, that countries like Germany and Italy took seven years and intense internal debate if not an actual movement toward acquisition of nuclear weapons before they signed the NPT. During this period, a strong framework of extended deterrence under the US nuclear weapons umbrella was established to ensure that the security concerns of these countries are adequately addressed. Japan was to sign another two years later, with Portugal signing the NPT in 1977, and Spain another ten years later. It is not clear how much the détente between the superpowers with concomitant reduction in threat perceptions contributed to this process. Countries like France (and China) that had decided to acquire nuclear weapons even before the NPT's arbitrary cut off date of 1967 defined the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, did not join the NPT throughout the Cold War period. They finally signed up in 1992 to protect their own mostly commercial interests after the Cold War ended.

Implicit in the bargain was that the weapon states would not build up their nuclear arsenals. But vertical and spatial proliferation went on with a vengeance for decades. An average of eight nuclear warheads was being manufactured per day during the Cold War. An idea of the build up during the NPT regime may be obtained from Fig. 1.

The essence of the NPT still lies in the bargain of disarmament and non-proliferation that continues to remain unfulfilled. Close to the time of extension of the NPT, arguments were being presented that the bargain was only to institute a test ban treaty and a treaty to stop further production of fissile materials. It was argued by many that Article VI only requires negotiations and not necessarily the conclusion of a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. This misperception and misinterpretation was set at rest by the 1996 ruling of the International Court of Justice (in response to a query from the UN General Assembly) that "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects under strict international control."1

The reality is that while substantive reductions in the size of the nuclear arsenal of the United States and Russia have taken place, these appear to have been undertaken more because of technological and operational reasons rather than as part of a process leading up to the fulfilment of the bargain of the 1960s. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that even these have been effectively stalled for questionable reasons. India's efforts, including the proposal at the Third UN Special Session on Disarmament in June 1988 when the Cold War was clearly seen to be winding down, was to re-establish and implement the bargain. But little attention was paid by the weapon states to their own contractual obligations and the bargain of the 1960s remains unfulfilled even in the late 1990s.

Europe has stood firmly for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons during the past five decades. But it has done precious little to press for nuclear disarmament after the end of Cold War.2 This is even more marked in the case of states that are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance which leaves these states "non-nuclear" only in narrow legalistically technical terms rather than in any practical form. Through the decades, nuclear weapons have been stationed on their soil, their military forces integrated in the doctrine and strategies for the employment of nuclear weapons, and their security depends on the nuclear weapons of the primary nuclear weapon states. And in case of crisis situations, military commanders of these "non-nuclear weapon" states would have received delegated authority to use nuclear weapons which only legally belonged to recognised nuclear weapon states. The states of Europe thus would appear to have a stake in the continuation and perpetuation of nuclear weapons for security, prestige and power, even if through reflected glory and "extended deterrence" of a military alliance in an essentially non-aligned world. The bottom line is that while the nuclear weapon states have not honoured the bargain of the 1960s, the so-called non-nuclear weapon states of Europe allied to the NATO have also done little to see its implementation.

State of Non-Proliferation in the 1990s

The 1990s will always be remembered in history for, firstly, the unambiguous shift from nuclear disarmament to non-proliferation by the international community led by the five nuclear weapon states; and, secondly, for flowering of proliferation. As regards the first, it is generally believed that Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapon programme in spite of its commitment to the NPT as a member has been largely responsible for this shift. Equally important although far less publicised, has been the role of a large number of industrialised countries mostly from Western Europe who violated their own obligations under the NPT to allow nuclear weapons technology and material to be transferred to Iraq for commercial or strategic interests. The North Korean example even conveyed the impression that nuclear proliferation actually pays!

But the most flagrant violation of the NPT came from a recent entrant, China, when it supplied nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan. Some of this was transferred before 1992 and hence did not violate the treaty obligations since China became a member of the NPT only in 1992, although that still does not qualify as responsible conduct. But transfers after that date severely undermined the NPT. More important, the issues involved highlighted the fact that few will say or do anything when a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power violates treaty obligations. Equally important was the violation of solemn assurances by China and France to exercise the "utmost restraint" in nuclear testing. China violated by carrying out a nuclear test within hours of giving this assurance, while France regressed from its earlier moratorium. But interestingly, China is highly critical of India's tests although they do not violate any commitment by India. Privately some influential Chinese have been recently heard to remark that India made a mistake and should have tested when China and France were testing in 1995-1996!

The second development of flowering of proliferation represents a negative trend compared to the accession of South Africa, Argentina and Brazil to non-proliferation norms and regimes. The most significant maturing of the proliferation process was that of Pakistan which acquired nuclear weapons know-how and technology from Europe and North America in the 1980s and received substantive assistance in terms of technology transfers from China in the 1980s and 1990s. Pakistan possessed only a primitive level of indigenous nuclear science and technology. But acquisition of technology from external sources has helped it to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States, as noted elsewhere in this paper, abandoned its non-proliferation objectives in Pakistan after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. North Korea also moved ahead in its clandestine nuclear weapons programme in violation of its NPT obligations. The West continues to doubt Iran about its non-proliferation commitments. There were reports that Saudi Arabia had clandestine plans to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. Nuclear delivery systems, especially ballistic missiles, have been transferred by China and North Korea to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.3

The non-proliferation order has remained fundamentally more flawed and fragile because of its discriminatory nature which legitimised possession by a few states, and expects others, especially those that have security concerns emanating from nuclear dangers, not to acquire similar capabilities. The violations and deviations by the acknowledged weapon states and their allies added to that fragility. Pokhran II only focussed attention to that fragility, but did not add to it for the simple reason that India had never accepted the validity of these measures and objected to them for the very reasons which created their fragility.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation and India

The shift of focus from disarmament to non-proliferation only had profound implications for India. But it is necessary to emphasise at the very outset that India has a strong stake in non-proliferation although there is a fundamental difference in the approach of European countries and that of India which considers total elimination of nuclear weapons as the only durable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive non-proliferation order. India was one of the main sponsors of the resolution at the UN General Assembly seeking an NPT in 1965. As noted earlier, this was to be based on the principle of a balance of obligations. What little balance did exist during the Cold War, completely tilted toward non-proliferation (and even counter-proliferation) at the cost of disarmament in the 1990s. Even the post of Under Secretary General Disarmament at the UN was dis-established and the department for Disarmament Affairs reduced in scope and activities.

The ultimate shift was to be witnessed in the indefinite extension of the NPT on May 12, 1995, when the nuclear weapon states, actively supported by the so-called non-nuclear weapon states of Europe avoided any firm commitment to nuclear disarmament. In fact, the historical record of the 1990s so far has been the tightening and deepening of the non-proliferation order and erosion of support for nuclear disarmament in the policies of European and North American governments. The indefinite extension of the NPT, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Guidelines of 1992, "93+2" safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), submissions by nuclear weapon states to the International Court of Justice, Wassenaar Arrangements, expansion of scope of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines, the waste convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and a host of national laws and political moves have been brought into force to expand the scope and depth of the non-proliferation order.

India's support for non-proliferation measures was conceived in the context of their being measures of restraint and as interim steps toward the goal of global nuclear disarmament. However, the tightening of the non-proliferation order without any unambiguous commitment, leave alone movement, toward global disarmament started to pose serious challenges to India.

India had maintained a policy of keeping its nuclear option open since 1964 when China acquired nuclear weapons. The growth of a sophisticated and extensive nuclear science and technology base had further provided the confidence that the acquisition of nuclear weapons could be achieved at short notice, a "few weeks" as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was quoted to have said in 1985. The strategy also kept the political and economic costs low. Meanwhile India worked hard for global disarmament. Disarmament was not only moral and ethical, but it would enhance international peace and security. Above all, it would be in India's security interests.

India's preferred option, not unsurprisingly, was to keep the nuclear option open as long as feasible, not weaponise, and work for disarmament which would eliminate the roots of the security dilemma. It was mostly ignored or not understood in the Western world that an open option was a strategy of restraint. But it was often seen by many more as a policy of weakness. Actually this represented an optimum position which minimised costs and maximised capabilities. But the weapon states, partly to protect their own weapon status, set out with renewed vigour and zeal on the path of non-proliferation. The basic logic of the renewed focus on non-proliferation may have been global in nature, with selective targetting of the "rogue states," but India was also specifically targetted although the international community was polite enough not to refer to India as a "rogue state"! For example, even President Clinton's non-proliferation mantra of "cap, reduce, eliminate" nuclear capabilities in South Asia actually targetted only India. Eminent Pakistanis claim that a mutual understanding has existed between the United States and Pakistan since 1981 that the former will not raise any hurdles in the latter's nuclear weapons programme in return for Pakistan's willingness to be a "frontline state" against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.4 While approving the military-economic aid in 1981, the US Congress put some conditions which are revealing. The Congress specified that the aid will be suspended "...if it (Pakistan) transfers a nuclear explosive device to any non-nuclear state or receives a nuclear device from any country or detonates such a device." Thus, making its own bomb would not come in the way of US military-economic assistance.

Very clearly, the language ensured that some non-proliferation goals in securing non-transfer of a nuclear device to and from Pakistan would be pursued, but it accepted as legitimate Pakistan's own programme and access to nuclear weapons technology from other countries without any negative step by the US as long Pakistan did not import or export a nuclear weapon or carry out a test! But there was no ban on the weapon being tested in another country. Subsequent legislation, especially the 1985 Pressler Amendment and the 1995 Brown Amendment only facilitated the supply of arms embargoed because Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons. Even in 1997, the focus of obtaining assurances from China regarding non-transfer of nuclear and missile technology in future was in respect of Iran, and Pakistan was conveniently left out of the formulation in spite of credible reports emanating from senior officials of the United States that China had transferred nuclear weapons technology (including 5,000 ring magnets for enrichment of uranium for weapons purposes in 1995). As it is, Pakistan has pursued a policy based on the premise that it will do whatever India does. Thus Clinton's policy actually amounts to "cap, reduce and eliminate" India's nuclear capabilities since Pakistan, by the logic of its own stated positions, would follow suit. The intense pressure brought to bear on India (which had not proliferated unlike some European states) after 1991 was premised on the same logic. The history of the CTBT negotiations and the inclusion of the clause on entry into force started the 1999 CTBT clock ticking where India would obviously face the potential risk of being coerced into signing the treaty.

It is the twin problem of markedly lower commitment to disarmament and intensified pressures for non-proliferation in the 1990s that resulted in crossing the threshold to become a declared weapon state. Given the prevailing trends, it was clear that either India exercises the option to become a nuclear weapon state, or it might lose the very option under the force of tightening pressures for non-proliferation. The earlier challenge of how to possess capabilities to deal with an uncertain future where nuclear weapons continue to play an important role multiplied into a twin challenge in the 1990s: how to establish credible deterrent capabilities on one side, and, at the same time, how to protect this policy from the Western democracies who seemed bent upon taking away this option with evangelic zeal.

On the Crossroads

The events of May 1998 have brought India and the Western world onto a crossroads. One path leads to confrontation and escalation, while the other points to accommodation and adjustment. Even four months after the event, it is not clear which path the US and West Europe will take. Substantive ground work has been done through the UN Security Council resolution, the P-5 resolution, the G-8 statement, the European Union statement and other articulation to expand and raise the level of punitive actions against India if required. On the other hand, a series of dialogue between the US and India has been taking place on a continuing basis since Pokhran II and there are many signs to indicate that the accommodation and adjustment road is opening up. But it is not going to be an easy path to follow, especially now that the Clinton Presidency is under unprecedented domestic pressures and China may be expected to continue its negative approach to any rapprochement between the West and India. At this point, it appears that restricting dialogue and negotiations to a bilateral US-India framework could lead to an early resolution and minimise other complications. But it would be wrong not to carry on with a dialogue (as perhaps different from negotiations) with other countries, especially those of Western Europe. The difficulty is that many countries through their pre-emptive harsh and in some cases strident posture, have reduced their own ability to play a meaningful role in the evolving scenario.

What the Western world needs to understand is that India is still close enough to poverty and agrarian economy to enable it to withstand the negative effects of economic sanctions even if they are escalated. Even a half-century after independence, the people are fiercely conscious of sovereignty and independence. International political isolation or "containment" strategy would simply not work in the current international climate. And military "counter-proliferation" action against India (in the worse case scenario) will only strengthen support for defiance while such action must inevitably weigh the implications of military intervention against a nuclear armed state. Any escalatory confrontation would also strengthen the swadeshi sentiment and is certain to provide a unifying force. But perhaps what the West must inevitably weigh carefully is the extent to which hard-line attitudes and positions will receive a boost in India and shape its long-term policies. Going down the road to escalation, as the initial postures of some industrialised countries suggested, would only lead to polarisation of relations between the largest democracy and the Western liberal democracies. There is little doubt that the path of confrontation and escalation would harm India as well as Europe, though in different ways. It is possible to hypothesise that at some stage an isolated India hounded by the West may see advantage in strengthening its strategic relations with Russia and even China. Such polarisation would significantly alter the future evolution of the balance of power in Asia and the world. On the face of it, such a scenario may appear too drastic and unrealistic. But it was not so long ago that Russia and China both had sought India's cooperation to oppose Western hegemony.

One thing appears certain with the confrontational path: India is unlikely to accept any formal legal restraint measures. It would not join the CTBT and is even less likely to accede to any type of fissile material cut-off treaty. The chances would be high that the non-proliferation order built up so painstakingly by the weapon states and their allies over the years will start to unravel.

The other, and more likely path is that of accommodation and adjustment. Obviously, by definition, it would require both sides to make some changes in their policies and postures. From India's perspec-tive, the critical aspect is that the costs of ensuring its legitimate security interests should be minimised, and if possible, greater impetus to development ensured. Official statements from New Delhi and Washing-ton in recent weeks give reason to be optimistic in this regard. In essence, what is the framework on which cooperation can be built up?

The core issue is an acceptance, formally or otherwise, explicitly or implicitly, of the reality that India is now a state with nuclear weapons (SNW) if not a nuclear weapon state (NWS) in accordance with the NPT. As long as notions are harboured that India can somehow be de-nuclearised, we are bound to see policy mistakes being made. It is clear that India cannot be recognised as a nuclear weapon state within the existing framework of the NPT. But enough thought has not been given to the possibility that instead of amending the NPT, a protocol to the NPT could be attached where countries like India will commit to the obligations of the NPT but as a states with nuclear weapons. India would then be in the same category as the five weapon states and become obligated to the formal non-proliferation regime and other norms. This might sound overly optimistic and the initial response to the idea is likely to be negative in India and abroad. For three decades, Indians have looked at the NPT as a bad word, and worse treaty; and domestic politics would raise many barriers against such a concept. But serious consideration should lead to the conclusion that this would be the optimum solution to the current challenges.

On the other hand, the path of accepting India as a de-facto state with nuclear weapons would start to make accommodation more feasible. This would necessitate the application of technology transfer controls on India at par with those in vogue for nuclear weapon states like China. In particular, access to nuclear power and technology for peaceful purposes without insistence on full-scope safeguards should be possible, especially by states in Europe. Even before the tests at Pokhran, France had indicated a willingness to explore ways and means of opening up cooperation with India in the nuclear power sector. This approach would make it easier for India to persuade domestic opinion that while India would accept formalised restraints in agreeing to arms control measures like the CTBT, there would be some benefit in doing so if economic and industrial growth can be speeded up. Considering that India is not at all likely to renounce its nuclear weapons, mutual adjustment would appear to be a course of action in the best interests of all parties concerned.



1. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, Communique No. 96/23, July 8, 1996, International Court of Justice, The Hague.

2. For China's supplies of ballistic missiles to Pakistan, see Pakistan Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi's statement on August 26, 1993, cited in The Nation, August 27, 1993; and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar's statement to the Senate, August 26, 1993, cited in The Nation, August 27, 1993 where he stated that "these missile were bought keeping in mind Pakistan's security needs" which he went on justify in relation to missile attacks across the borders from Afghanistan. For an earlier confirmation of Chinese supplies of ballistic missiles to Pakistan, see Chinese Ambassador to the USA, Zhu Qizhen's address to the National Press Club, Washington DC, Transcript Report (June 27, 1991) cited in John Wilson and Hua Di, "China's Ballistic Missile Programmes," International Security, vol. 17, no. 2, Fall 1992, p. 37, where he stated, "We have sold some conventional weapons to Pakistan, including a tiny amount of short-range tactical missiles..." More recently Pakistani interlocutors have confirmed that China had supplied M-11s to Pakistan though somewhat degraded in performance.

3. General K.M. Arif, Working with Zia: Pakistan's Power Politics 1977-1988, (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 341.

4. Ibid., p. 434.