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The Rediff Special/Commodore C Uday Bhaskar

No signing on the dotted line

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The unambiguous assertion by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his address to the UN General Assembly, that India was willing to co-operate with the global community on the contentious nuclear issue, is in keeping with the Indian government's earlier stand on the subject in the wake of the nuclear tests of May 1998.

The relevant part of his speech translates from the Hindi as follows: "India, having harmonised its national imperatives and security obligations and desirous of continuing to co-operate with the international community is now engaged in discussions with key interlocutors on a range of issues, including the CTBT. We are prepared to bring these discussions to a successful conclusion, so that the entry into force of the CTBT is not delayed beyond September 1999."

The significance of the Indian PM's statement of intent may be examined at two levels. On one hand, this is the first time that an Indian PM has articulated to the global community at the UN that India which has long been projected as an intransigent state on nuclear matters, would now be willing to enter into a co-operative dialogue with key interlocutors. There is little doubt that this change of attitude has come about because of the confidence that the May 11-13 tests have induced, and a certitude that India is now a nuclear weapon state -- irrespective of the NPT classification -- which is able to address its deeper WMD (weapons of mass destruction) insecurity base. It is this aspect which is reflected in the Vajpayee speech as the harmonisation of "national imperatives and security obligations."

The more specific reference to the CTBT, that India is prepared to bring the treaty negotiations to a "successful conclusion" has attracted considerable attention and elicited favourable comment both in India and abroad, given New Delhi's virulent opposition to the CTBT in 1996. It has been suggested by The New York Times among others that this turnaround is to be welcomed and that the global community should continue to exert pressure on India to sign the treaty unconditionally. This interpretation and the inferences that follow may have to be clarified to better understand the implications for India of signing the CTBT.

In the first instance, the Indian PM did not suggest any immediate 'signing' of the CTBT but drew attention to the desire on New Delhi's part to continue its co-operation with the global community and the fact that it is now engaged in discussions with key interlocutors on a wide range of nuclear issues including the CTBT. This refers among other deliberations to the on-going meetings between the India special emissary, Jaswant Singh and his US counterpart, Strobe Talbott who are expected to have a crucial meeting later in November. India has been consistent in highlighting its commitment to a self-imposed moratorium on further nuclear explosive testing after the May 1998 series, and has simultaneously indicated that it would convert this de facto commitment to a de jure status -- provided there was an acknowledgement of its security compulsions and some empathetic reciprocity from the global community to its altered nuclear status.

This is where the issue has got into a log-jam, with the US and its allies insisting that India sign the CTBT 'now and here and unconditionally' -- a demand that can at best be described as preposterous given the nature of what the CTBT means to India and the historical sentiment attached to it. In 1996 India ably represented by Ambassador Arundhati Ghose at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva rejected the CTBT in the first instance and later blocked its passage on three counts: one, that adherence to it would degrade India's core security interests; two -- that it was not linked to a binding, time-bound disarmament framework; and three -- that it was not truly comprehensive as a test ban treaty since it allowed certain types of nuclear weapon related tests to be conducted by the technologically more adept nuclear weapon states -- the PN 5. Thus, for India getting on board the CTBT, in 1998, would have to be contextualised within this framework of national security interests as dictated by techno-strategic considerations and abiding national values.

It has been categorically stated by Indian officials that India after May 1998 is a nuclear weapon state and that its core security interests have been addressed. One may infer that one aspect of India's 1996 reservations have been assuaged but the techno-strategic implications of signing the CTBT merit scrutiny. India has no doubt tested certain nuclear weapon warhead prototypes but the exact nature of this "weaponisation" and the contour of the "minimum deterrent" is predictably shrouded in grey. If there is reasonable confidence that these tests will be adequate for an appropriate Indian WMD capability with adequate provision to cater for the range of breakthroughs in nuclear technology and delivery systems in the decades ahead, then one may assume that the techno-strategic parameters have been thought through to their logical conclusion.

The technical and strategic trends may be discerned in the fact that currently all the major nuclear weapon powers and those with an advanced techno-industrial base are moving determinedly towards the equivalent of fourth generation "nukes" that deem the Hiroshima type of fission devices or the humongous megaton thermonuclear weapons to be either ancient or passe -- for fusion will be the preferred alternative.

In terms of delivery vehicles, the global trend among all the nuclear weapon powers including China is to shift the strategic deterrent as symbolised by the ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead onto the submarine launched variant -- the SLBM -- or the submarine-launched-ballistic missile. India would have to review its "minimum deterrent" and the fetters the CTBT would impose in this context -- more so when the USA has long made it clear that the core aim of the CTBT was not disarmament -- but a means of 'locking all nuclear weapon states and aspirants on the learning curve, wherever they were now poised'.

In purely technical terms, the CTBT has a section that is not part of the main treaty and is classified under 'permissible activities' -- relevant only to the five nuclear weapon states. This secret arrangement confers certain privileges on the select five that may allow them to refine their respective arsenals and this would go against the spirit of the CTBT, even while excluding India from such peer interaction. Currently, the CTBT prohibits all nuclear explosive tests and what are described as HNEs or hydro nuclear experiments, even while allowing SCTs or sub-critical testing. The other weapon states have carried out over 2,000 tests collectively and have thus amassed a huge data-base that may benefit them in their computer simulation at a later date in the absence of explosive testing.

The complex question for India therefore is whether this fetter on not being able to conduct HNEs would be an acceptable condition and whether India has adequate expertise and data to carry out the SCTs in the decades ahead when the geo-political and strategic context may have undergone a radical transformation.

The more sensitive issue for India is regarding the national value strand outlined earlier -- the abiding commitment to nuclear disarmament. The preamble to the CTBT contains as many as seven references to 'disarmament' but this formulation was obviously derived from the prevailing Big Five exclusivity on the nuclear weapon which sought to prioritise nuclear non-proliferation and arms control as opposed to time-bound disarmament -- the Indian plea. In agreeing to sign the CTBT -- in as much as India agreed to sign the PTBT (Partial Test Ban Treaty) three decades ago devoid of this temporal linkage -- there would have to be considerable clarity about how the core national interest is being nurtured. Here it may be pertinent to recall the nature of the debate on the NPT in the Lok Sabha on April 5, 1968, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi assured the House that "we shall be guided entirely by our self-enlightenment and considerations of national security." One presumes that it is the same spirit that animates the Indian intent to co-operate with the global community even now.

In this sense, the ball is now in the court of the interlocutors -- particularly the US -- and the response of the Clinton administration would be instructive. The choice is to ignore reality and demonise India as the primary problem to nuclear non-proliferation, or recognise India's restraint and its legitimate security compulsions and encourage it to be part of the solution to managing the nuclear turbulence in the troubled post Cold War years.

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar is deputy director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India's premier defence think-tank.

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