Thursday, December 10, 2009

Take A Fresh Look : India


David P Fidler and Sumit Ganguly10

During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the United States, he appeared to reverse India's decades-long refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On Fareed Zakaria's GPS show on November 29, Singh responded to a question by indicating that India would be willing to join the NPT as a nuclear weapons state. No Indian leader has ever publicly expressed willingness to accept the NPT.

The prime minister also suggested that India would welcome a US effort to help it become a nuclear weapons state under the NPT. If India intends to follow through on the prime minister's expression of NPT interest, this transformation will have significant implications for India as an emerging geopolitical actor and for nuclear diplomacy, including President Barack Obama's vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.

The NPT has been one of the most excoriated treaties in Indian foreign policy. Even before it was finalised in 1968, India made its opposition clear. India continued to criticise the NPT after its completion, complaining that it discriminated against countries that did not have nuclear weapons, heightened difficulties for countries trying to develop nuclear energy and failed to force existing nuclear weapons states to engage in serious disarmament.

India's NPT opposition has been presented as consistent with the principles of non-discrimination and the need for nuclear powers with massive arsenals to get serious about disarmament. But, India's hostility also reflected its security interests in developing nuclear weapons to deter threats from Chinese conventional and nuclear capabilities. India's NPT stance was, thus, grounded in principles important to the Indian polity and calculations about power-and the combination of principle and power gave India's opposition deep roots in its foreign and national security policies.

This background helps explain why Singh's interest in joining the NPT represents a radical departure from prior Indian policy. The PM did not elaborate on his desire to become part of the NPT, but such a statement could not have been made without the Indian government having concluded that the balance of principles and interests now favour India being receptive to the NPT.

In terms of India's NPT opposition on principled grounds, Singh may have concluded that continued opposition according to these principles no longer serves the purposes it once did. China once opposed the NPT for similar reasons before it joined as a nuclear weapons state in 1992, which reflects a Chinese realisation that opposition to the NPT had diminished traction in the post-Cold War world. The emphasis on non-discrimination and heightened disarmament obligations dovetailed with India's and China's Cold War support for non-alignment and equality of weak and strong states under international law. The Cold War's end and India's and China's emergence as rising powers have made non-alignment anachronistic and the principle of sovereign equality less appealing.

From the perspective of India's interests, a willingness to join the NPT could pay dividends for India, which will outweigh costs resulting from its NPT "flip-flop". India's interest in the NPT will enhance the treaty's status at a time when it is under attack because of North Korea's behaviour and perceived Iranian nuclear designs. With the NPT Review Conference approaching in May 2010, India's support will allow it to argue that it is strengthening the fight against nuclear proliferation. India's NPT acceptance would also act as a warning to Iran without India risking good relations with Iran through a direct challenge against Iran about its nuclear intentions.

India could, thus, leave behind criticism it has received in nuclear diplomacy, including over the US-Indian civilian nuclear accord concluded in 2008. Indian accession will bolster the NPT as the central agreement in the fight against nuclear proliferation, but the NPT's disarmament obligations do not threaten India's nuclear arsenal.

An Indian change on the NPT would also put Pakistan in a difficult position because this manoeuvre would increase scrutiny of Pakistan's past and present nuclear activities. Any effort by Pakistan to try to join the NPT would generate controversies because of Pakistan's involvement in proliferation through the A Q Khan network and the concerns about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

India's interest in the NPT would also challenge existing NPT members because they must amend the NPT's definition of a 'nuclear weapons state' to permit India to join. NPT members will have to undertake strategic calculations in light of India's growing significance in world affairs. Can the existing nuclear weapons states oppose Indian accession without appearing to sacrifice non-proliferation for selfish interests? In this way, India puts itself at the centre of nuclear diplomacy in ways that its opposition to the NPT never did.

In short, an Indian willingness to accept the NPT would represent a shrewd policy shift because it inserts India's ideas, interests and influence into nuclear diplomacy in a manner that could bring substantial benefits to India and pose policy challenges that will test the mettle of friends and foes alike.

Fidler is the director and Ganguly is the director of research of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Times of India

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