Sour notes at the nuclear high table

The reactions from Pakistan and Brazil make it clear that as India seeks to enter the export control regimes it must reckon with the aspirations of many countries

April 18, 2013 01:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:42 pm IST

India appears to have successfully climbed into the category of a nuclear “have,” overcoming the divisions enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and enforced fervently by its adherents. Although not publicly acknowledged, India’s entry is the de facto reality and irreversible.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the recent Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (April 8-9, 2013, at the Ronald Reagan Building International Trade Center, Washington D.C.) attended by more than 800 experts from around the world. Being the premier event of all things nuclear, the forum has long been the bastion of what Indian policymakers like to call the “nuclear ayatollahs” — those who obsessively pursue the NPT’s non-proliferation goals to the exclusion of almost everything else, especially disarmament.

The global nuclear community now treats India as one of the established nuclear weapons powers — however grudgingly — for matters of policy and debate. What little academic and intellectual opposition remains is largely normative. The debate has moved from the wisdom of granting India an exception via the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement to whether India should be included in the four nuclear export control regimes where it wants membership.

But India’s acceptance in the established nuclear order has also triggered resentment — chiefly in Pakistan but more curiously in Brazil, India’s south-south partner in the new game-changing alignments such as BRICS and IBSA.

The old paradigms used to single out India — the sharp focus on proliferation — are still in vogue but were rarely invoked against New Delhi. They were applied exclusively to North Korea and Iran. Pyongyang’s daily threats, ratcheting up tensions in the peninsula ensured rapt attention at the conference. North Korea managed to obscure even Iran at times, which was generally seen as a rational actor eliciting various levels of sympathy.

This is not to say that India avoided criticism. But it largely had to do with the way India’s exceptional status had been accepted. Many felt that India had pulled a fast one on the U.S. but that things had now gone too far to retreat. Most of the talk was on how to make India accept its new role as a nuclear “have” more decisively and shed its current schizophrenic behaviour of acting like a “have not.”

Western analysts find India’s attitude self-defeating. India votes against Iran and with the West at the International Atomic Energy Agency but grudgingly. Yet it expects to get into the four regimes that control nuclear exports — the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. India’s reluctance on the Iranian case gives the impression that it doesn’t want to keep errant countries out. These impressions can easily be whipped into campaigns by nuclear hardliners.

Pakistan’s case

Unsurprisingly, India’s new status rankles Pakistan no end. Its team of more than 20 official and quasi official spokespersons raised objections against India in almost every panel at the conference. They demanded parity and a nuclear deal similar to the one the U.S. pushed through for India. Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani Ambassador, said if Pakistan doesn’t get “equal treatment,” it would continue building nuclear stockpiles — a move that already has the nuclear community on edge.

Pakistan’s gripe is understandable — to a degree. Like India, it never signed the NPT and technically breached no undertaking by going nuclear. But its record on non-proliferation has been bad. The A.Q. Khan affair and his nuclear supply lines are and will remain a blot. So when Pakistani delegates tried to find analogies between their dilemma and every extant nuclear problem, they got a polite silence.

When M.J. Chung, a prominent member of South Korea’s National Assembly, provocatively advocated his country’s right to leave the NPT and build bombs in response to North Korean threats, a Pakistani delegate promptly equated India’s behaviour with North Korea’s. She demanded to know why South Korea wasn’t sympathetic to Pakistan’s case since her country had also tested the nuclear bomb in reaction to India.

When an Iranian attendee asked a panel why Iran was being targeted when, in fact, a Talibanized Pakistan was the main nuclear threat, a Pakistani countered that Maoists were a “bigger threat” to Indian nuclear reactors than al-Qaeda and Taliban were to Pakistani installations. The effect was often comical, sparking sniggers. If the idea was to drag India through the mud, no matter how disingenuous the argument, it failed. It only helped relegate Pakistan further to the margins.

Brazil’s discontent

Brazil’s rancour against India is and should be more worrying. It is also rooted in the Obama Administration’s purported “unequal treatment” of Brazil and India. Matias Spektor from Brazil’s top think tank, Fundação Getulio Vargas, recalled his country’s bitter disappointment at not getting President Barack Obama’s endorsement for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council as India did.

Many Brazilians wrongly concluded it was because India had nuclear weapons and Brazil did not. They also feel India is being actively encouraged to project its power globally while Brazil draws criticism. The discontent has created a minority opinion in favour of Brazil going nuclear.

As India prepares to argue its case for entering the export control regimes, it will find that the new “status” will bring contentious new issues, which will demand careful consideration.

(Seema Sirohi is a senior journalist based in Washington. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a nuclear expert with the Observer Research Foundation.)

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