ON May 11 and 13, it was the Indians. On May 28, it was the Pakistanis' turn. The 10 tests between the two neighbours within just 17 days shattered the world's arms control agenda, effected through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).Though the latter is yet to come into force, it forms the West's bulwark against nuclear tests.
Two years after the CTBT vanished from the front pages of newspapers, it is back in the limelight. In 1996, India had braved international criticism and refused to sign the treaty. But following its five tests, India at least is talking in terms of signing it, or showing some inclination to do so. Pakistan has yet to declare its post-test stance on the CTBT. Its old line was that it was willing to sign, provided the Indians did so too.
However, much water has flown under the bridge since May 11, when the principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra, announced that India was prepared to adhere to some provisions of the CTBT. "This cannot be done in a vacuum. It would necessarily be an evolutionary process from concept to commitment and would depend on a number of reciprocal activities," he said. But under pressure from the world powers, particularly with the US and the European Union demanding that India sign the CTBT unconditionally, the Indian response since then has been, to put it mildly, confused. On May 27, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, while reiterating that India would observe a voluntary moratorium and refrain from conducting underground nuclear tests, told Parliament that India was willing to move "towards a de jure formalisation of this declaration"—in other words, that India was willing to sign the CTBT.
This was before the Pakistanis exploded their own nuclear devices at Chagai. In the aftermath of these tests and the subsequent imposition of sanctions on Islamabad too, there is bound to be a rethink on the CTBT in both the countries, especially in New Delhi. Offering to sign the treaty was a carrot that New Delhi had extended to the world after the Pokhran tests, when it was seen as the only bad boy. It was unable to work out a clear position, moving within 15 days from talk of partial adherence to the treaty in return for some concessions (which is curious because there can be no partial adherence) to stating that it was agreeable to a de jure formalisation of its moratorium on testing. Now there are two bad boys in the eyes of the world and both are non-signatories to the CTBT and the NPT. And both are nuclear weapon powers.
The situation's changed dramatically. No longer can the five nuclear weapon powers "fudge" the fact of both India and Pakistan being in the same league, says strategic affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan. The important question before the government now is not just whether India should or should not sign the treaty (on which the PM has spoken in Parliament) but what it gets in return for signing the treaty.
India's chief CTBT campaigner two years ago, former ambassador to the UN in Geneva and the Conference on Disarmament, Arundhati Ghose, is absolutely against India signing the CTBT. "The CTBT is not a standalone treaty," she says. It flows from the control mechanisms of the NPT and seeks to control the weapons and not a country. Ghose argues that the CTBT and the proposed Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty are predicated on the present nuclear regime of the NPT, which has now proved to be unstable. "The NPT regime is dead in the water. It is in tatters," she says emphatically.
Adds Savita Pande of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: "The Americans thought the world will take anything they lump on it, like the NPT. It was tolerated for more than 25 years. These tests are ample evidence that the US can't have its own agenda in the name of arms control."
As far as signing the CTBT is concerned, she says now that India has conducted the tests and declared a moratorium, it does not matter "if you sign the treaty or not". But the important thing for her, too, is what India gets in exchange for signing the treaty. India, she argues, should negotiate to get the various export controls against it removed.
Ghose differs, saying India would be hypocritical if it now signs the treaty. "India had castigated the nuclear weapon powers for their hypocrisy" in trying to force through the CTBT, she notes. If it now signs, "how will it make India any different from the nuclear weapon states?"
Which is certainly a problem India faces. India had some basic objections to the CTBT. Firstly, it has no linkage to time-bound nuclear disarmament. Secondly, it does not ban sub-critical testing and computer simulation of tests, which would allow the nuclear weapon powers to further improve their weapons. Thirdly, the verification regime could be too intrusive. Lastly, the entry into force clause seeks to force India into signing and ratifying the treaty, which is unacceptable.
SOME of these objections still remain, though India now has the capability to itself conduct sub-critical tests and computer simulation. The verification regime outlined in the CTBT, for instance, argues Ghose, is unacceptable. The inclusion of national technical means (NTM) for verification in addition to the international monitoring system (IMS) would result in inequality. The IMS in a non-clandestine environment can detect tests only up to one kiloton. But NTMs would be required to detect tests below that. "That does not make it equal. We are weaker," Ghose says.
India does not have advanced monitorng systems, unlike other nuclear powers. She recalls a Chinese delegate at the Conference on Disarmament telling her there were 26 stations on the Chinese borders to detect any nuclear activity apart from several satellites looking only at China. Every country can't have these facilities. The on-site inspections triggered by NTMs would also be extremely intrusive, opening up just about every nuclear facility of a country to international inspections.
Yet another problem for India would be that it took a moral high ground by refusing to sign the CTBT for its lack of a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament. That linkage is still missing. Ghose feels that this argument is still valid: "The nuclear weapon powers have made no attempt convince the world that they would eliminate nuclear weapons within a time-frame."
Recognising that the goal of nuclear disarmament is nowhere in sight, Raja Mohan wonders whether India must link every treaty to this. He says India's primary concern in judging a treaty should be to see how it affects the country's security and that its linkage to nuclear disarmament should be secondary.
The Indian government is still struggling to formulate a clear stance on the issue. Former foreign secretary S.K. Singh disagrees that there is any confusion in the government: "My feeling is they are studying the whole issue but wouldn't like you or me to know about it." But should India sign the CTBT? "You have to first bring the world into a negotiating mode. They (the world) want us to sign the CTBT unconditionally. It's all very complex."
So far there's no indication that India has been able to bring anyone into the negotiating mode. It made an offer to adhere to some provisions of the treaty. That was spurned and it was asked to sign the CTBT unconditionally. Then came a flurry of statements, ending in Vajpayee's offer of a de jure formalisation of the declaration announcing the moratorium on tests. That too got an unequivocal answer: sign the CTBT unconditionally. The US has said India must first sign and then it can remove the sanctions imposed on India.
Linked to this is the question of India wanting to be recognised as a nuclear weapon power. For that, the NPT would have to be modified. While at the moment it does not seem as if the nuclear weapon powers are in any mood to give in to India's demand on reopening the NPT or the CTBT, they too are caught in a bind. There are two nuclear weapon powers in South Asia and the genie can't be put back into the bottle.
But what of the Indian government? It is still struggling with the fallout of the nuclear tests abroad, which it has handled so disastrously. The country can only hope that at least it will be able to decide exactly what it wants when it does finally go into negotiations over the CTBT.