Managing the China, India and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma: Ensuring Nuclear Stability in the New Nuclear Age

At one level, the existing nuclear order has been a success – the nuclear taboo has held for over 75 years; nuclear weapon stockpiles have come down from 70000 weapons in the early 1980s to 15000 today; and only four countries are outside the NPT. And yet, there is a chorus of concern that nuclear risks are rising. Why?

A paper published by the Journal for Peace and Disarmament that will appear later in 2023 as a chapter in a forthcoming title

Harmonising the NPT and Ban Treaty in Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Nuclear risk has always cast a shadow over the world since the beginning of the nuclear age. Since the 1960s, the NPT was seen as the only near universal treaty but today, many NPT member states are so disappointed with it that they have helped negotiate the Ban Treaty, as the decisive step to delegitimise nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear risks. Can this be a step in the right direction? Can it help redefine a new global nuclear order?

I have contributed a chapter in the book – The Nuclear Ban Treaty

The NPT is Beginning to Look Shaky

Published in The Hindu on September 3, 2022

The Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded last week in New York. Marking 52 years of a treaty that every speaker described as the ‘cornerstone of the global nuclear order’ – it was originally planned for its 50th year for 2020, but the conference was delayed due to COVID-19 – it should have been a celebratory occasion, yet, the mood was sombre. And after four weeks of debate and discussion, the delegates failed to agree on a final document.

NPT’s success and weakness

To manage the disappointment, some staunch believers claimed that the success should not be defined in terms of a consensus outcome! It is true that since 1970, when the NPT entered into force, only four of the 10 review conferences (in 1975, 1985, 2000 and 2010) have concluded with a consensus document, the review years were 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022. Ironically, even the critical 1995 Review Conference that decided to extend the NPT into perpetuity, broke down weeks later over the review process.

However, there was one key difference in 2022. In the past, the divergences were over Iran, Israel, the Middle East or between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. The three depositary states (the United States, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R./Russia) were always on the same page. The difference in 2022 was that it pitched Russia against the West; it was the inability to find language to address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March, that ultimately led to the failure.

The NPT was negotiated during the 1960s to reconcile three competing objectives – controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons beyond the P-5 countries (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K, France and China) that had already tested; committing to negotiating reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to their elimination; and sharing benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. The first was strongly supported by the nuclear-haves; the latter two were demands made by the nuclear have-nots.

Over the years, the non-proliferation objective has been achieved in large measure. Despite apprehensions that by 1980s, there would be close to 25 nuclear powers, in the last 50 years, only four more countries have gone on to test and develop nuclear arsenals – India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan (South Africa developed nuclear weapons but the apartheid regime destroyed them and joined NPT in 1991 before relinquishing power to majority rule). After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, non-proliferation remained a shared priority for the major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, set up originally to promote international co-operation became better known as the non-proliferation watchdog.

Progress on the other two aspects took a back seat; no meaningful discussions or negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever taken place in the NPT framework. In fact, in the early 1980s, there was a growth in nuclear arsenals. Arms control talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia did take place and the two countries did succeed in bringing down their collective arsenals from a high of nearly 65000 in the early 1980s to less than 12000 warheads. But this process too has ground to a halt.

The first signal was the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on the grounds that it unduly constrained its missile defence activities. Limits imposed by the ABM Treaty had been a critical element in creating mutual vulnerability as a means of underwriting deterrence stability. It was unipolar world with the U.S. as the dominant power. Russia gradually responded by embarking on its nuclear modernisation.

In 2019, the U.S. notified Russia of its decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had obliged both countries to get rid of all ground launched missiles with a range of 500-5500 kms. The U.S. blamed Russia for cheating on its obligations and pointed out that China’s missile developments created new security threats that needed to be addressed. U.S. was now facing two strategic rivals.

The only surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. is the New START Treaty that imposes a ceiling on operational strategic nuclear weapons of 700 launchers and 1550 warheads each. It expires in 2026 and there are no signs of any follow-on discussions.

Attempts by the Donald Trump administration to invite China to join in the arms control process were rejected. Given growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, any prospects for such talks have only receded.

All that the five nuclear-weapon-states party to the NPT could manage at the Conference was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but clearly sounded hollow in the face of growing strategic rivalry between China, Russia and the U.S, rising nuclear rhetoric and modernisation plans for nuclear arsenals being pursued.

Nuclear modernisation

While the Joe Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is awaited, the U.S.’s 30-year nuclear modernisation programme, intended to provide ‘credible deterrence against regional aggression’ is already underway. This has been used to justify developing and deploying more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.

Russia (and China too) is developing hypersonic delivery systems that evade missile defences as well as larger missiles that do not need to travel over the Arctic. Also on the cards are nuclear torpedoes and new cruise missiles. Last year, satellite imagery over China revealed at least three new missile storage sites being developed. Analysts suggest that China may be on track to expand its arsenal from current levels of approx. 350 warheads to over a thousand by 2030. Such a dramatic expansion raises questions about whether this marks a shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine that has relied on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy for the last six decades.

 Developments in space and cyber domains are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons lead to nuclear entanglement and render command and control systems vulnerable. This, in turn, compresses decision making time and creates incentives for early use, raising nuclear risk.

At the Conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to draw a distinction between “irresponsible” nuclear threats of an offensive nature and “responsible” nuclear threats for defensive purposes but Russia (and China) stymied Western efforts. When the nuclear have-nots suggested a universal condemnation of all threats of nuclear use, all five nuclear-haves joined together to resist such moves. This reflects an emerging divide.

Other treaties, their state

Frustrated by the absence of progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear have-nots successfully negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also called Ban Treaty) in 2017 that entered into force in January 2021. All 86 signatories are nuclear have-nots and parties to the NPT. The TPNW creates a new legal instrument and at their meeting in June in Vienna, the TPNW states committed to pushing for ‘stigmatising and de-legitimising’ nuclear weapons, condemning all nuclear threats and ‘building a robust global peremptory norm against them’. Expectedly, the nuclear-haves and their allies ignored the Vienna meeting but will find it increasingly difficult to overlook this political reality as more and more NPT colleagues call their bluff.  

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has yet to formally enter into force because two major powers, U.S. and China, have yet to ratify it. While it is true that they do observe a moratorium on nuclear testing, but the modernisation plans could soon run up against the CTBT.

Nobody wants a breakdown of the NPT but sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities. The rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world create new challenges, different from what the world faced in a bipolar era of the 1960s when the NPT was concluded. Without addressing the new challenges, the NPT will weaken and with it, the taboo against nuclear weapons that has held since 1945.

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NPT RevCon Ends in Failure

Global Memo Contribution for Council of Councils (CFR) published on 30 August, 2022

To mitigate the disappointment of failing to adopt a consensus final document, some die-hard believers were quick to claim that success need not be defined in terms of a Final Document. However, the hard reality is that growing differences among the major powers (the United States, Russia and China) and between the five nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear states, are making the strains within the NPT increasingly visible.

The final straw was inability to find language that could address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March. However, even had this obstacle been overcome, other warning signs were numerous, and fifty-two years after entering into force, the compromises inherent in the fabric of the NPT need to be revisited. The NPT was originally packaged as a balance of non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and energy, and, over the years, only the non-proliferation element has become stronger.

Political leadership was absent at the RevCon. All the nuclear-weapons states could manage was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but sounded hollow in the face of rising nuclear rhetoric and the continued pursuit by major powers of modernisation plans for their nuclear arsenals.

The U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control process is just holding, but the New START Treaty expires in 2026 and prospects for follow-on negotiations are bleak. China has studiously refrained from engaging in any arms control talks with the United States, and that was before tensions between the two reached a new high given the recent Taiwan Straits crisis.

An uncomfortable political reality among the four nuclear-weapons-states outside the NPT – India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – is also palpable. How to work with these countries to achieve the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations remains a thorny issue.

When the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, nuclear science and technology was still in its infancy. Today, neither the science not the associated technology is as remote or esoteric. New developments in space and cyber technologies, missile defences, development of hypersonic delivery systems and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) capabilities are generating new complexities and blurring the dividing line between nuclear and conventional use on a battlefield. None of these issues was adequately addressed at the RevCon.

Unless the NPT states face these realities and generate the political will needed, the frailties of the NPT will take their inevitable toll.

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The Nuclear Taboo is Key to Preventing Collapse of the Nuclear Order

(APLN, July 7, 2022)

The nuclear scenario today appears confusing. On one hand, the nuclear taboo has held, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a near universal treaty, and nuclear weapon stockpiles are a fourth of what they were at the height of the Cold War, and yet, on the other hand, there is a perception that nuclear risks are higher than before.

At such moments, it may be useful to return to the basic principles, the realisations that helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order more than seven decades ago.

The first realisation from the successful Trinity test conducted by the US on 16 July 1945, was the immense destructive capacity of the new weapon. Witnessing the mushroom cloud, Robert Oppenheimer – one of the bomb’s inventors – pondered a line from the Bhagvad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds”. One month later, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings reinforced the gravity of those words.

The second realisation was the worry that other countries too could now go down this path. In 1946, this led to the Baruch Plan (authored by Bernard Baruch) that envisaged transferring control to an international body so that there would not be any national arsenals. However, there were internal differences within the United States and Soviet Union did not trust it.

Once the USSR exploded its nuclear bomb in 1949, the Baruch Plan died a natural death. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on their nuclear arms race, they found convergence in the notion that nuclear materials and knowhow must be restricted. Non-proliferation became a shared objective leading to the NPT in 1968.  

The third realisation was the imperative to manage nuclear risks. It was driven home in 1962 when both US and Soviet leaders realised how close they had come to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It led to establishing fail safe communications, hotlines and nuclear risk reduction measures together with arms control.

Reconciling these three realisations helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order, shaped by the political dynamics of the Cold War. In a bipolar world, there was one nuclear dyad, the US-Soviet dyad, and deterrence was a two-player game. Strategic stability was reduced to nuclear stability and nuclear arms control was the answer. It kept the allies in check and reassured the third-world countries that the two nuclear superpowers were ‘responsible’.

Arms control and the nuclear taboo

Nuclear arms control revolved around the notions of ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ because US and Soviet arsenals were based on similar triads. The ABM Treaty (1972) limited missile defences thereby guaranteeing mutual vulnerability. Meanwhile, strategic planners and negotiators worked on numerical limits for strategic launchers and warheads leading to Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I and II, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I and II and New START in 2010. Together with unilateral initiatives undertaken after the break-up of the Soviet Union, these arms control measures helped draw down the US and Russian arsenals by over eighty percent, from nearly 65,000 in early 1980s to less than 12,000 today. The other seven nuclear-armed countries between them possess another 1,300 warheads.

Non-proliferation grew as a norm as the NPT got extended indefinitely and unconditionally in 1995. It has come to enjoy near universal adherence with only four countries outside it – India, Israel and Pakistan (that never signed) and North Korea (that withdrew). It has therefore reached the limits of its success since all four are nuclear-armed states.

Most important, the nuclear taboo has not been breached, despite some close shaves.

Today, this nuclear order, consisting of the ‘taboo’, arms control and non-proliferation is under strain. The ‘taboo’ is only normative, arms control is fraying and the NPT, a victim of its success.

Fundamentally, the political order has changed. Deterrence is no longer a two-player game; there are multiple nuclear dyads (United States-Russia, United States-China, India-China, India-Pakistan, United States-North Korea) and these are linked together in loose chains. Instead of parity, it is an age of asymmetry, both in terms of doctrines and arsenals.

Without ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’, arms control needs to be redefined. Meanwhile, there is growing mistrust that prevents meaningful dialogue among major powers to define new areas of convergence.

The NPT delegitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons research and development has continued and most nuclear powers are modernising and expanding their arsenals. Today, nuclear science and technology is a mature eighty-year-old technology. Terms like ‘threshold states’, ‘lead times’ and ‘break out’ did not exist when the NPT was negotiated. The political challenges inherent in the NPT surface every five years at the Review Conferences, especially since 1995.

Finally, technology doesn’t stand still. Developments in missile defence, cyber and space, dual use systems like hypersonics and conventional precision global strike capabilities have blurred the firebreak between conventional and nuclear weapons. This has created nuclear entanglement and in the absence of transparency and guard rails, raises the risks of use: advertent, inadvertent, accidental or on account of misjudgement. With the emergence of global terrorism, new threats have emerged highlighting the importance of nuclear security.

The collapsing nuclear order

The conflict in Ukraine has sharpened the growing nuclear risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in repeated nuclear rhetoric, placing the Russian arsenal on ‘special alert’, and later warning of ‘unpredictable consequences’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bemoaned the fact that had Ukraine not signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, voluntarily relinquishing the nuclear weapons on its territory, Russia would not have invaded. Such statements have raised the salience of nuclear weapons. For countries that feel threatened by militarily more powerful adversaries, it is the ultimate security guarantor.

At the same time, it also means that a state possessing a nuclear deterrent can commit aggression against a smaller non-nuclear country. While NATO members have provided billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies, NATO has been deterred from either putting boots on the ground or imposing a ‘no-fly-zone’ that might bring it into direct conflict with a nuclear Russia.

The nuclear order was based on arms control, non-proliferation and a taboo. Today, the old nuclear arms control model is almost dead and a fresh convergence appears remote. Non-proliferation is under strain given the new found attractiveness of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapon states are actively considering nuclear powered submarines that will further strain the NPT debates. The ‘taboo’, only normative to begin with, is being eroded by growing nuclear rhetoric, presently by Russia and in recent years, by US, North Korean, Indian and Pakistani leaders.

Yet, the old realisations still hold. Nuclear weapons remain an existential threat for humanity. In an ideal world, arms control should be revived, non-proliferation buttressed and the ‘taboo’ reinforced, preferably with a legal instrument. But we don’t live in an ideal world and have to make choices. Reviving arms control has to await a modus vivendi among the major powers.

And between ‘non-proliferation’ and the ‘taboo’, I firmly believe that preserving the ‘taboo’ against use of nuclear weapons is critical, more so than ‘non-proliferation’. The world has lived with first two, then five and now nine states possessing nuclear weapons. The NPT and the world can possibly live with another one or two more. But if nuclear weapons are used, for the first time after 1945, and the nuclear taboo is breached, neither the NPT nor the non-proliferation regime will survive. A breach of the ‘taboo’ will bring about a collapse of the entire nuclear order.

Today, the only way forward for reconciling the NPT and the Ban Treaty, for reducing nuclear risks is to reinforce the nuclear taboo. It has lasted since 1945.  We need to ensure that it lasts through the 21st century so that we are able to collectively negotiate a more lasting solution to the challenges of the new nuclear age.

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