Continued disturbing revelations about Iran's nuclear programs escalate the dangers the world faces from nuclear proliferation. The mounting peril threatens to overwhelm President Obama’s quest for a world free of nuclear weapons, a quest he will pursue at a summit on nuclear security in April and at a meeting in May to review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
While NPT membership is nearly universal, the refusal of India, Pakistan, and Israel to join, North Korea’s proliferation and withdrawal from, and Iran’s violations of, the treaty have placed severe stress on the non-proliferation regime. Can the NPT, which is the centrepiece of the global non-proliferation effort, be righted such that the world can take steps towards Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world?
Into this environment comes an unexpected development. On November 29, 2009, Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, stated on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show that India wants to join the NPT as a nuclear-weapons state (NWS) and become the sixth NPT-recognised nuclear power. Although Indian diplomats have raised this idea in private in years past, Singh’s statement represents the first public announcement by a high-ranking official that India wants to be a NWS within the NPT. Indian press reports indicate that Singh is serious about this proposal, despite opposition within India.
Not only does this statement depart from India’s historic NPT opposition, but it also could agitate nuclear diplomacy in 2010. India’s willingness to join the NPT contains the potential to strengthen the NPT, which places a premium on how existing NPT members respond to India’s policy shift. Bringing India within the NPT as a NWS would be controversial, but to exclude a nuclear-armed but non-proliferating India when it is now willing to join would not strengthen efforts against nuclear proliferation.
India has long criticised the treaty and maintained it would not join because the NPT discriminated against states not possessing nuclear weapons on January 1, 1967; it increased the difficulties for states wishing to develop nuclear energy; and it did not contain serious disarmament obligations for existing nuclear powers. India presented its position as one of principle, but it had security interests in having nuclear weapons to deter perceived threats from China.
India again caused consternation in 2008 when it concluded an accord with the US under which India could access nuclear technologies and materials in return for placing its civilian nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Critics complained that the accord rewarded India’s NPT defiance and weakened efforts to strengthen non-proliferation.
By switching course, India forces the non-proliferation community to confront India’s criticisms of the treaty, which overlap with worries about the NPT’s weaknesses. By all accounts, India has been a responsible nuclear power. Its exclusion from the NPT would be a function of an arbitrary date rather than its behaviour. India has not fostered proliferation, unlike China and Pakistan. It has a small nuclear arsenal for deterrence, unlike some recognised NWS that have massive stockpiles despite NPT obligations to engage in disarmament. Through the US-Indian nuclear accord, India has accepted IAEA oversight of its civilian nuclear facilities, and India has performed better in this regard than Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria, which joined the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states but violated, or are suspected of violating, the NPT.
In short, India is not undermining the non-proliferation system, rather, the NPT system has been undermined by its own flaws and the countries that agreed to abide by, but flouted, its rules. India is now willing to join the NPT and bring its legitimacy as a democratic nuclear power and its growing influence to bear on shoring up the NPT’s objectives. All that is required is an amendment to the treaty’s cut-off date for recognition as a NWS. Existing NPT members can accept India’s desire to help strengthen the NPT, or they can reject India’s interest, which does not improve the NPT’s prospects. Which way will NPT members go?
If NPT members follow the UN Security Council, they will reject India’s overture. As part of President Obama’s effort to advance the cause of a nuclear-free world, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1887 on September 24, 2009, which “[c]alls upon all States that are not Parties to the NPT to accede ... as non-nuclear-weapon States ...” NPT members could hide behind this resolution and avoid addressing India’s new position. However, such a response simply avoids a policy question that deserves attention on its merits.
The key states will be the NPT’s existing NWS, especially China, Russia, and the US because all NWS must approve the amendment needed to permit India to join as a NWS. Neither China nor Russia faces additional strategic risks from allowing India to join the NPT because India is already a nuclear-armed power, and supporting Indian accession could be a way to improve relations with the country as its regional and global influence grows.
The US is caught between recognising India as a democratic, responsible nuclear power (e.g., the US-India nuclear accord) and the policy of the Obama administration that non-parties to the NPT should join only as non-nuclear-weapons states (e.g., Resolution 1887). Given India’s NPT shift, the US cannot reconcile these positions, meaning it must make a choice that contains no room for dissembling. The US choice will likely determine how European nations and Japan respond, as happened with the US-India nuclear accord.
Importantly, opposing India’s desire to join the NPT as a NWS on the basis of Resolution 1887 or narrow national interests will do nothing to strengthen the NPT. If a more robust NPT is vital for making progress towards a nuclear-free world, then bringing India into the treaty, especially when it is emerging as a great power, makes more sense than believing that India will disarm unilaterally simply to join the NPT. Indian participation in the NPT will not, by itself, eliminate the problems the NPT now confronts, especially those caused by North Korea, Iran, and the potential of nuclear terrorism. But, with India supporting the regime, the world would finally have all nuclear-armed great powers committed to the same rules - an unprecedented convergence that could reinvigorate non-proliferation politics in a manner more meaningful than the distant vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
India’s NPT move adds complexity to the nuclear diplomacy that will unfold in 2010, and, shrewdly, it elevates Indian interests, influence, and ideas. Whether India succeeds or fails, its manoeuvre highlights problems with the NPT, creates challenges for India’s allies and rivals, and forces non-proliferation advocates to re-think how to strengthen their efforts.