FMCT and Deterrence Stability in South Asia

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Ali Sarwar Naqvi*

I must begin with a bit of personal history regarding the Fissile Materials Treaty. I may have been the first Pakistani to know of the proposal relating to the conclusion of  such  a  treaty. This was  the year 1993, and I was the Deputy Chief of Mission in our Embassy in Washington. Sometime in the summer that year, I remember being called to the State Department by the Assistant Secretary for Non- Proliferation and Disarmament, Robert Galucci, who gave me a non- paper containing the main points of the US proposal for a termination of fissile material production. I recall sending a cable to Islamabad forwarding the proposal.   The US State Department continued its bilateral consultations with key countries during the next few months and when the UN General Assembly met in New York in September that year, the then US President, Bill Clinton, in his speech to the world body, called for a multilateral convention banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear explosives. The US delegation subsequently tabled a resolution in the General Assembly session on the subject, along with a number of Western European countries, as well as Japan, Canada, and Australia, which was eventually adopted as Resolution 48/75-L. The resolution called for negotiations to begin for the conclusion of a non- discriminatory, multilateral and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The main provisions of the resolution were:

  1. The treaty shall be a non-discriminatory, multilateral, universal and  internationally effectively verifiable treaty  banning the production of fissile material, which includes metal plutonium

(after re-processing), highly enriched uranium and U-233, for nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices.

  1. The member states undertake not to produce fissile material to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices, and to prohibit and prevent any such production at any place under its jurisdiction or control.
  2. The state parties to the treaty will undertake not to acquire by any other means, fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or in any nuclear devices, and to prohibit and prevent any such acquisition at any place under its jurisdiction and control.
  3. The treaty shall prohibit the diversion of fissile material produced for other purposes to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
  4. After its entry into force, the State Parties shall openly declare all fissile material they have produced.
  5. State Parties will accept IAEA inspections to verify that the Treaty obligations are being met. Nuclear weapon states will be required to submit all of their uranium and plutonium reprocessing facilities to IAEA safeguards. The IAEA will also verify any clandestine enrichment and reprocessing activities through special or challenge inspections.

Referred to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in January 1994 for negotiations leading to the drafting of a Treaty on the above lines, the resolution entered its implementation phase. However, soon enough the negotiations ran into some virtually insurmountable hurdles. Talks were unable to make much headway in the 65-nation forum. There were two sets of problems; one, relating to the substance of the treaty provisions and two, pertaining to the linkage demanded by many states of fissile material discussions to concomitant issues like the prevention of an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances and general disarmament. Very briefly, the problems of the substantive points of the Treaty were as follows:

  1. The Treaty would ban only future production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. No restrictions of any kind would be placed on the use of previously produced material. Thus the ban would stop the nuclear programmes of threshold states without affecting the capability of the nuclear weapon states in any manner.
  2. The facilities for the production of fissile materials shall not be disabled or dismantled, thus leaving the capability of resuming production of fissile grade material at any time.
  3. The issue of the mode and procedure of verification became a cause of division between the members soon after negotiations began, for there were those who supported a verification regime based on mutual inspection, or through national technical means (initially favoured by the US), or administered by the IAEA. Further, the question of challenge inspections, with the right of the requesting party to be an observer in the inspection process led to serious reservations on the part of many members. (It is this vexing problem of verification that caused a decade-long stalemate in the negotiation process, when the US refused to accept international mechanisms for verification and insisted that National Technical Means (NTM) were adequate to ensure compliance. This stance was changed after the coming into office of President Obama).
  4. The IAEA safeguards system and its procedures were considered by some member countries as inadequate for carrying out the verification commitments of the parties to the Treaty.

The second set of problems related to the linkage of the FMCT discussions, demanded by many members, to the other related issues that I earlier mentioned. The most important issue in this context was that of disarmament, whereby nuclear weapon states have to move towards eliminating their existing nuclear capability. This requirement for any such regime to be effective has been cleverly avoided by the nuclear weapon states, despite their commitment to do so in the NPT (Article VII) and in other disarmament measures. It is only recently that President Obama has spoken about a Global Zero (Prague speech, April 2009) and the US has concluded the START II Treaty with Russia last year. However, in the CD, the nuclear weapon states are still avoiding meaningful negotiations on full and complete disarmament.

Negotiating a fissile material treaty through a multilateral process is central to the international non-proliferation efforts, including arms control and disarmament. However, competing expectations with regard to purpose, scope, mechanism, and objectives soon resulted in a deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) that persists to this day. The lack of consensus on the eventual objective of the treaty is the cause of the current deadlock in the 2011 session of the CD. This has resulted in its inability to agree even on a programme of work for the current year.

Be it as it may, for countries like Pakistan, perhaps the most important concern is the negative implications for deterrence stability that the fissile material treaty represents. Nevertheless, during the, more than a decade and a half, negotiating process, Pakistan has played an active role in accordance with the shifts and turns of the regional scenario, as well as the global disarmament outlook. Pakistan, of course, agreed only in the mid-nineties to join the negotiating process in earnest, when the US gave up on its efforts to press Pakistan to agree to a unilateral cap on its nascent nuclear programme. This was the time when I was in Washington and I vividly recall the many demarches made to us in this regard. As the first decade drew to a close, Pakistan developed a serious concern that the proposed treaty could upset the strategic equilibrium in its region, by arresting its deterrent capability at a time when India secured a means of escape from a similar cap on the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal.

Let me elaborate upon this a little. In the first place, the fundamental driving force behind Pakistan’s security perspective is a long-running quest for strategic parity with India. It is this search for parity that led to the very inception of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The harrowing experience of losing around half  the country in 1971, in which India played a very unfriendly role and even went to war against it, led Pakistan to look towards the nuclear option as the ultimate strategic equaliser with India. However, it was bedevilled from the very beginning of its nuclear programme by strong international dissuasion and discouragement, particularly by the US, from pursuing that path. Pakistan had to begin its nuclear programme in a clandestine fashion lest it was found in violation of the Symington Amendment enacted in 1976, and continued the programme under the shadow of the Glenn and later the notorious Pressler Amendments of the US Foreign Assistance Act. As everybody knows, the US finally caught up with our nuclear programme and with- held the necessary certification required under the Pressler Amendment in 1990. This was followed by diplomatic pressure exerted by the US on Pakistan to “cap” or “roll-back” its programme. Despite this back- drop of threats and admonitions, Pakistan forged ahead in its search for strategic parity with India, and eventually established a credible nuclear deterrence in this regard in 1998, with its six nuclear tests in response to India’s five a few weeks earlier.

This deterrence stability is based on India and Pakistan having nuclear weapons. As one article put it, “Nuclear weapons…place a considerable premium  and  caution  when  one  nuclear  power  deals with another in matters either or both consider vital to their respective national interests. Such caution fosters stability.” It is further stated that “it is the basic reason due to which even after the Cold War and the demise of the former USSR and the Warsaw Pact, the United States continues to maintain a nuclear deterrent both nationally and as a part of NATO.” (Jaspal, FMCT: Policy Options for Pakistan). This theory is borne out by Pakistan’s experience. After its nuclear tests in 1998, at least three crises in India-Pakistan relations that occurred in the decade that followed did not lead to outright war. Nuclear weapons obviously figured in the consideration of decision-makers as they chose to avoid escalation.

Given this background, Pakistan has had to re-assess its position in the CD due to three major developments in the intervening years. They are: 2004, which envisages a triad capability, far in advance of India’s present programme.

2. The Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, originally launched in 2005 and formalised as the 123 Agreement in 2008. The NSG waiver that India obtained under it has allowed it to conclude agreements with other states like Russia and France for the supply to India of nuclear fuel. Thus India can now build its enormous nuclear arsenal that it envisaged in its nuclear doctrine, while meeting its civilian nuclear needs. Under the NSG waiver, India is in a position to increase its fissile material stocks both qualitatively and quantitatively. By importing nuclear fuel for its power plants, India can divert its indigenous stocks of uranium to its weapons programme. In fact, under the deal, India can even revoke its international commitments to divert the externally obtained fuel meant for civilian use to nuclear weapons development.

3. India’s pursuit of a ballistic missile capability, by seeking the help of external friends and allies, including Russia, the US and even Israel. The prospect of India acquiring a BMD as well as developing a PAD (Prithvi Air Defence) capability is seen by Pakistan as threatening the strategic balance.

Pakistan’s quest for strategic parity with India resulted in its development of a nuclear weapons capability, which in turn created a deterrence stability that it was seeking for a long time. That stability was manifest in the decade of 1998 to 2008, by preventing the escalation of the crises in bilateral relations to all-out war, as was the case in the pre- nuclear capability period. But India’s aggressive plans coupled with the liberty given to it under the Indo-US deal bodes ill for the strategic stability between the two countries. The restrictions envisaged under a fissile material treaty would tie down Pakistan’s nuclear development, without affecting India’s in the same fashion. Consequently, Pakistan is wary of such a treaty, for the negative implications for the strategic stability of the region that it would entail. In South Asia, the strategic balance in the region is shaped by not only the national and regional military and security developments but also the thrust of the global non-proliferation agenda. The Pakistani threat perception emanates from certain basic issues that have a potential of destabilising the strategic balance between India and Pakistan. These threats include Indian military’s Cold Start doctrine, massive and unrestricted dual-use technology inflow into India, its ambitious space programme, sophisticated conventional arms acquisition, and as mentioned earlier, the wide ranging Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation. All these factors, some part of India’s national programmes and still others, involving the US and representing apparent US cooperation in providing it opportunities to develop its capabilities far in excess of its needs or normal requirements are at the expense of global non-proliferation as well as Pakistan’s security.

Against this background, Pakistan strongly apprehends the potential of a fissile material treaty to sharply accentuate the asymmetries that are already in the making. In specific terms, in view of the erosion of stable deterrence by an increasing asymmetry in stockpiles, Pakistan has always raised the issue of stock-piles calling for negotiations on the subject. Pakistan has argued that unless the FMCT addresses the issue of past production of fissile material, the treaty would freeze inequalities and place Pakistan at a strategic disadvantage. Its position in the past called for a declaration by the parties of their stock-piles, an agreement on “balance” in stocks (reflecting the requirements of different countries) and a reduction in excess of stock-piles. The stock-piles issue is a cause of heated debate in the CD, with the nuclear weapon states, along with India, maintaining that the treaty should only ban future production, without any reference to existing stock-piles.

Pakistan’s considered view on the FMCT was articulated in the National Command and Control Authority statement issued in December 2010. The statement declared the following:

  1. Pakistan would not be a party to any approach that was prejudicial to its legitimate national security interests;
  2. Such policies (representing steps leading to the conclusion of a peace and security, undermine the credibility of the existing non-proliferation regime;
  3. Revisionism  based  on  strategic,  political  or  commercial considerations accentuates asymmetries and would perpetuate instability especially in South Asia;
  4. We  believe  that  the  FMCT  would  be  meaningless  till  an understanding is reached on the existing stocks of fissionable material;
  5. Peace and  security were indivisible and  the  goals of  non- proliferation could only be advanced by ensuring equal and undiminished security for all states; and
  6. Regional  balance  and  strategic  stability  in  South Asia  are indispensable for peace, sustained development and prosperity of the region and beyond; and finally,
  7. Pakistan shares the goals of non-proliferation and was prepared to work with other nuclear powers on an equal footing to advance the goals.

Despite nearly two decades of a tortured life, the FMCT has a long way to go. Technical and other related issues mentioned earlier need to be resolved. But more important, the negotiating process needs to get Pakistan “on board” in a manner that the consensus principle is not jeopardized. And for this to happen, Pakistan’s principal concern would have to be addressed, “that the Treaty should not become an instrument to constrain (its) strategic deterrence and leave it in a position of permanent disadvantage to India”. For, if a fissile material treaty serves to destabilise the deterrence stability of a highly volatile region, i.e. South Asia, it would counter the objectives that were envisaged for it and the purpose that it is designed to achieve, i.e. arms control and disarmament. However, the unfortunate fact is that most CD members are not supportive of Pakistan’s stance, with the result that Pakistan stands isolated in not agreeing to the adoption of a programme of work. There is now talk of taking the FMCT negotiations outside the CD, as was done in the case of the CTBT, way back in 1996. In the first place, it may not be possible for the CD to reach consensus on such a move just as it has been unable to reach consensus on the programme of work. Secondly, even if those who wish to draft a fissile material treaty succeed in taking the negotiations outside the CD, they will not be able to overcome the problems in regard to the negotiations themselves. It is well-known that a number of countries which have serious issues with the negotiating text are hiding behind Pakistan’s “intransigence” at the moment. India’s Permanent Representative in Geneva had categorically stated some time ago that his country “will not accept obligations … prejudicial to its national security interests” or which “hinder” its “strategic programme, R and D as well as the three stage nuclear programme”.

As Pakistan’s real concern in regard to the FMCT negotiations is the asymmetry vis-à-vis India and consequent loss of strategic stability in the region, some have argued that Pakistan could be brought around to at least allowing the talks to go ahead, if it was offered the same kind of nuclear deal by the United States as was given to India. At the same time, there are now some hints out of Washington that something of this kind may be under consideration, though it is made clear that such a deal may still be far away. This may indeed be true, as Pakistan does not cause the kind of excitement in the US nuclear and high tech industry as India did, and unless US industry weighs in, Congress would be reluctant to approve such a deal for Pakistan. So for the time being, Pakistan is unlikely to budge on the FMCT, lest its strategic deterrence vis-à-vis India is imperilled. Consequently, the negotiations for the Treaty are likely to remain in limbo for the foreseeable future. They can neither move forward nor will any meaningful purpose be served in moving them out of the Conference on Disarmament as some may want to. For Pakistan, strategic parity is vital for its security perception and no amount of persuasion or even pressure can alter its position. The FMCT negotiations are thus stalled in a diplomatic deadlock that is unlikely to end soon.