In his article in The Hindu Defusing the nuclear powder keg (April 4, 2012), Jayantha Dhanapala makes three key observations.

1. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) with its “over 300 state-of-the-art sensors in every corner of the world,” gives assurance that “any nuclear test will be detected.”

Comment: There are actually 337 CTBTO stations in the world, but only 250 or so have been internationally certified. So there is still some way to go before the level of confidence in the verification procedures can be considered adequate. It may also be noted that the CTBT does not bar virtual tests undertaken through computer simulations. With rapid advances in computing power and sophisticated software, the actual testing of a nuclear device may not be necessary to either improve existing weapons or assemble a modest but workable nuclear arsenal. There is also the possibility of a fully tested design of a nuclear weapon or even an actual device being transferred clandestinely from a nuclear weapon state to a non-nuclear weapon one. This is what China did with respect to Pakistan in the late 1980s. The CTBT and the CTBTO provide no answer to such challenges.

2. There is a looming danger of nuclear warfare in South Asia, which would be catastrophic for the entire region.

Comment: The greater danger today is not the threat of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan but the threat emanating from a loss of control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons as a result of increasing dysfunction and even possible disintegration of the country's polity and governance structure. There is a growing risk that these weapons may fall into the hands of jihadi and extremist elements. In that case, not only India and South Asia, but also the entire world would be under a nuclear threat.

Further, regional issues, should not detract from the urgent focus required on achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. CTBT has significance only if it is integrally located within a credible and time-bound programme of nuclear disarmament. The link between nuclear weapons and international terrorism, highlighted by the United Nations, is a new dimension of the nuclear threat which demands a renewed priority to nuclear disarmament.

3. The ratification of the CTBT by non-nuclear weapon states in the Asian region, would serve to put the “eight CTBT holdouts in the spotlight.”

Comment: This is a simplistic argument. These countries have little or no impact on the security perspectives of the eight holdouts. The holdouts themselves are motivated by different factors. India, Pakistan and North Korea have neither signed nor ratified the CTBT. It would be fair to say that Pakistan's calculations are influenced by what India does. In 1999, Pakistan and India committed themselves bilaterally to a moratorium on nuclear testing. India's calculations are similarly conditioned by what China does and China is unlikely to become a party unless the U.S. does.

Egypt and Iran obviously link their decisions to what happens to Israel's undeclared nuclear weapon arsenal. North Korea is a problem country in its own right. What would hasten the coming into force of the treaty is a U.S. decision to ratify the treaty, which would likely trigger a chain of positive decisions among the other holdouts. Not all “holdouts,” therefore, are equal in this respect.

India has declared that it would be unable to sign and ratify the CTBT as it currently formulated, but will continue its voluntary and unilateral moratorium on further testing. At one point, India had also declared that it would not stand in the way of the CTBT coming into force, but that would require an amendment to the treaty's unusual provision that it will come into force only if it has been signed and ratified by all the 44 nuclear-capable states, including India. India is the only nuclear weapon state to declare that it believes its security would be enhanced, not diminished, in a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is willing to engage in multilateral negotiations on an International Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Manufacture, Deployment and Use of Nuclear Weapons, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Success in these negotiations would automatically take care of the issue of nuclear testing.

I agree that the world may be perched on a “nuclear powder keg.” But that requires us to move beyond partial and interim measures such as the CTBT and deliver, with a sense of urgency, on the long-standing international commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether as a category of weapons of mass destruction, as has already been achieved with chemical weapons.

Click here for Jayantha Dhanapala’s response

(Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Chairman, RIS, and Senior Fellow, CPR.)

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