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India and the Nuclear Grey Zone

Agni-II missile

Agni-II missile. Photo: Antônio Milena/Wikimedia Commons.

India’s status as a military power is underlined by its possession of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, India’s nuclear weapons program is not permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and New Delhi has elected to remain outside of the formal non-proliferation regime. This ambiguous position has become increasingly accepted by members of the regime, but it represents a challenge for global non-proliferation, because there is no incentive for the country to engage in disarmament or to stem proliferation while this status quo continues. Moreover, India’s place as an accepted nuclear weapons state outside of nuclear regulatory frameworks could significantly impact global non-proliferation efforts.

A nuclear grey zone

The United States (US) has enabled India to obtain similar rights as the five ‘official’ nuclear powers by virtue of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. This deal allows the country to receive civilian nuclear materials and technology in exchange for permitting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in declared civilian facilities. New Delhi has also pledged to assist US efforts to negotiate the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and to maintain its self-declared moratorium on conducting nuclear weapons tests. Furthermore, the Nuclear Suppliers Group created a special exemption for civilian nuclear trade with India, which enabled NSG members such as Australia and Japan to strike trade deals. This contrasts with previous US and NSG policies which did not allow civilian nuclear trade with the country while it maintained a weapons program outside of the NPT. This reversal of attitudes represents the legitimization of India’s nuclear program and indicates that the country is now accepted as a de facto member of the nuclear weapons club.

Yet this informal acceptance has significant risks as India does not have to conform to the same testing bans or disarmament targets as a recognised nuclear weapons state. In addition to the NPT, India is also not party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and has hesitated to participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This has resulted in limited international regulation of India’s development and use of nuclear weapons. India’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA is also not a Full Scope agreement, which means that New Delhi can dictate where inspections can take place. While this is effectively the same agreement that the nuclear weapons states have, the problem is that, unlike the official nuclear powers, India has not signed any other agreements curbing its use of nuclear weapons or committing to disarmament targets. Indeed, the country’s arsenal is actually increasing, and it recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which could potentially evolve into a second strike capability. This illustrates the need to more clearly define India’s ambiguous position.

To be sure, some inspections of India’s nuclear facilities are better than none at all, and engaging New Delhi in disarmament dialogue could be much more effective if it is involved in non-proliferation activities. Herein lies the benefit of the US-India agreement. However, nuclear trade with India could potentially alter norms surrounding nuclear trade with other non-NPT members and non-compliant states. Indeed, China has reportedly agreed to supply Pakistan with high-powered nuclear reactors outside the scope of their existing civilian collaboration agreement, perhaps inspired by the precedent of the US-India nuclear deal.

The US’ and NSG’s acceptance of India’s nuclear program also undermines present non-proliferation efforts. Allowing India to develop nuclear weapons outside of the NPT and without any arms control obligations negatively impacts attempts to dissuade Iran and North Korea from continuing to develop their capabilities. It is much more difficult for the US and other states to dissuade Iran and North Korea from pursuing illicit nuclear programs if comparable actions by India are accepted and even supported.

Hence, the global non-proliferation regime faces a conundrum: should India ultimately be embraced into the nuclear brotherhood, should it be encouraged to disarm, or should the status quo simply be allowed to continue? For its part, New Delhi has rejected calls for it to accede to the NPT as a non-weapons state, as this would involve total disarmament. Instead, New Delhi has suggested joining the treaty as a recognized weapons state, but this is unlikely to be accepted by the current NPT parties as it completely undermines the non-proliferation regime.  It would also mean that fellow non-signatories Israel and Pakistan could then expect to join as nuclear powers, which could then encourage further illicit proliferation from states such as North Korea in the (misguided) hope of achieving recognized nuclear status. The idea of India joining the NSG has also been floated, but this too would arguably establish a precedent for accepting other nuclear outliers.

The CTBT and FMCT?

Despite its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, India has not yet ratified the CTBT, which would be one possible mechanism for international regulation of its nuclear program.  Convincing India to accede, however, would have little effect as long as other nuclear powers – such as China and the United States – continued to delay ratification and prevent the treaty from entering into force. Accession to the FMCT could also be an opportunity to bring India into the non-proliferation fold. However, negotiations on the FMCT have still not yet officially begun and it remains unlikely that an agreement will be reached any time soon. In any case, India has managed thus far to remain outside of agreements such as these while continuing vertical proliferation.  This is because there is no incentive for the country to commit to disarmament targets, curb its weapons proliferation or restrict its fissile material transfers while the status quo of accepting its nuclear program continues.

Thus, pursuing the CTBT and FMCT are not the most effective measures for integrating India into global arms control in the immediate future. On the other hand, non-treaty mechanisms such as encouraging India to pursue bilateral or trilateral arms control agreements with Pakistan and China are a solid starting point. This gives India the incentive of equivalent disarmament from its immediate rivals, which could then make it more attractive for India to consent to the CTBT and the FMCT in the future. Similarly, strengthening India’s disarmament obligations under the US Civil Nuclear Agreement and consolidating its participation in the PSI are further feasible steps. The Nuclear Security Summits instigated by US President Barack Obama to combat nuclear terrorism are another way in which the country could increase its participation.

There is potential for India to be incorporated into the non-proliferation regime: the problem is that New Delhi has no incentive to do so as long as its nuclear status remains informally accepted and unchallenged. Without progress, India’s nuclear position will continue to undermine global disarmament efforts, indirectly encourage other unofficial proliferation and present a significant risk to the integrity of the global non-proliferation regime. Thus the international community needs to create an incentive for New Delhi to come to the party.  Otherwise, India will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of a legitimate nuclear power without any of the obligations—implicitly encouraging other states to do the same.


For additional reading on this topic please see:

India and NSG: Approaches to Indian Membership

Nuclear Weapons R&D Organizations in Nine Nations

Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme: A Net Assessment


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

4 Responses to “India and the Nuclear Grey Zone”

  1. India will not give up its nuclear weapon and risk its billion population to nuclear blackmail by pakistan and china.NSG has to admit India despite it is not a signatory to NPT due to is remarkable non proliferation records and as a responsible nuclear state while simultaneously conserving the credibility of NSG and this can be done by extending the India specific cut off date from 1968 to 1971 to include India as 6th official nuclear weapon state.This can be the solution which NSG might consider.

  2. India will not give up its nuclear weapon and risk its billion population to nuclear blackmail by pakistan and china.NSG has to admit India despite it is not a signatory to NPT due to is remarkable non proliferation records and as a responsible nuclear state while simultaneously conserving the credibility of NSG and this can be done by extending the India specific cut off date from 1968 to 1974 to include India as 6th official nuclear weapon state.This can be the solution which NSG might consider.

  3. The US has about 250 tons of fissile materials.Russia about 150 tons and china about 35 tons (I could be wrong by a factor of 10, because noone really knows these things. the US russia or china do not subject their nuclear facilities to safeguards or inspections by the UN . India has (probably 1 ton of fissile material. , pakistan about .8 tons.

    and you want INDIA to sign a fissile mateials cut off treaty? surely the poliferators are among those with a hundered times more fissile material than a billion strong power starved nation trying to survive in an oil importing regime!

    Articles like this are the reason India is probably going to develop more powerful weapons , delivery systems and ways of refining and maintaining fissile material stockpiles.

    It’s dangerous to bait a peaceful elephant, even if you think you are a carnivore with nothing to fear.

  4. (Britain and France have about 34 tons each of fissile material….since they have no military needs for this to speak of, and their civilian nuclear program is declining, from all the negative publicity about nuclear power plants in Europe, maybe this is where the fissile materials cut off traty should begin work. : The UK and France should forthwith subject themselves to UN inspections, safeguards on fissile material and consequences for proliferation including arms embargoes from the BRICS nations (no more buying British Aircraft…for instance) . Wonder if, for instance, Britain will survive on G5 trade alone.