Nuclear Situation in South Asia; Interaction with the United States

25 Feb, 1999    ·   173

Report of IPCS seminar held on 11February 99

      A meeting of the Friday Group was held in IPCS on  February 11 on the “Nuclear Situation in South Asia; Interaction with the United States”. It was led by Muchkund Dubey, former Foreign Secretary. Making the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks  his point of departure Dubey noted that, although optimism prevailed after the recently concluded 8th round of negotiations, a longer interregnum will obtain before the next round. The talks were important to diminish India’s  isolation after the Pokharan tests; they were also the key to establishing an understanding with US allies.  India had already agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing, observing its present restraints on export of sensitive technologies, establishing a credible minimum deterrent, declaring a no-first-use policy,  refusing to stop the production of fissile materials for military purposes ahead of a FMCT being negotiated, but  also being reticent  in identifying the size and structure  of its minimum deterrent force.

    According to media reports, Dubey noted, there are indications of progress on the CTBT.  The US seems assured that India will sign it at an appropriate time. This could not be made a bargaining issue since India could otherwise be subjected to Chapter VII sanctions by the United Nations; these include  trade  and communications; further,  Articles 40, 41 and 42 of the U.N. Charter envisage economic and military sanctions, and also military action. India should sign the CTBT since  the scientists were confident  that no more nuclear tests were necessary.

    Again, in regard to the FMCT, India seems to have compromised its position. The Prime Minister’s speech to Parliament on December 15 suggests that India  might declare a unilateral moratorium on fissile materials production after negotiations on the FMCT began. These negotiations will be very tough, since contentious issues like the inclusion and verification of fissile materials in stockpiles and in weapons would present insuperable problems. As regards  export controls the speaker favoured  adoption of the Chemical Weapons Convention model; they envisaged the declaration of basic data, periodical returns being obtained, and no identification of ‘rogue’ states for any special treatment.

    He believed that the US Ambassador Celeste’s insistence that India define the contours of its credible minimum deterrent was unrealistic. India has no nuclear arsenal or operational IRBMs at present; nor was it negotiating an arms control agreement; further, India was unsure what it really wanted in this regard. India’s statements on the minimum deterrent, no-first-use, not wanting to start an arms race and so on were, in truth, responses to American pressure. India should inform the U.S. that it would not deploy tactical nuclear weapons or strategic weapons, but leave their future development to the march of technology. India seems to have postponed testing its Agni I missile that was scheduled for December 1998. Agni II was unlikely to be tested this year. India would therefore have no credible minimum deterrent vis-à-vis China in the near-term future. In this situation the nuclear tests could only be considered an act of bravado, apart from establishing India’s capability to make sub-kiloton and thermonuclear weapons.

    Turning to  U.S. policy objectives Dubey was clear that it would not accept India  as a nuclear weapon power to maintain the integrity of the non-proliferation regime. The U.S. might accept India’s nuclear status unofficially, but it would oppose its recognition publicly. It was essential therefore that India creates a fait accompli by quickly deploying its minimum deterrent. Indis’s strategy to secure recognition of its nuclear status seems to be confused, since it  first sought energy security by procuring nuclear reactors, and then sought entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, MTCR and Australia Group to obtain this recognition through the back door.

    In his view India’s emphasis in the current Indo-U.S. negotiations should have been on improving bilateral relations and  broad-basing the bilateral  relationship. After all there had been  other periods in recent history when Indo-U.S. relations had been cordial like the Rajiv Gandhi-George Bush era. A new situation had been created after Pokharan II, where it was not possible to normalise the bilateral relationship until the sanctions were lifted. Differences persisted on vital issues like U.N. reform and nuclear disarmament; and military co-operation has not been revived. The political space for normalising the relationship was further restricted by China. A certain bravado was also evident in India’s response to the sanctions. They were not mentioned in the budget speech last year, nor the P.M’s statement to Parliament in December. He pointed out that the World Bank’s withholding of sactioned loans was not legal. Similarly the IMF’s plan to bailout  Pakistan was not discriminatory. But  it would not be easy to have the U.S. sanctions removed, because they had a legal implication.

    In conclusion,  Dubey felt that there was no cause for euphoria regarding the progress of the Indo-U.S. dialogue; constraints remain, although some understandings might have been reached. He reiterated that it was in India’s interests to establish its minimum deterrent quickly.


The discussions that followed were very lively, and could be clustered around five issues.

  • First,  the view was stressed that CTBT ratification by the U.S. was unlikely due to its domestic politics, in which case other countries might not ratify, and American pressures on India might ease. The contrary view expressed was that signing the CTBT would not  inhibit India from establishing it credible minimum nuclear deterrent. Another view was that there was no domestic consensus in India for entering the CTBT. It was also argued that India’s entry into the CTBT was essential for progressing Indo-U.S. relations in a fruitful direction.

  • Second, there was fair consensus that there was no need for India to define its minimum deterrent; there were definite advantages in opacity on this question.  Still, questions were being asked about its contours, whilst appreciating that different  numbers might be needed at different points in time,  and also to defend against different sources of threat.

  • Third, it was believed that separating  warheads from delivery vehicles might ensure their safety and protection against unauthorised use; but this minimum deterrent posture had important military implications. Further, apart from adequately testing the Agni, there was also a need to test the efficacy of warheads under different aerodynamic conditions. The need for enunciating a nuclear doctrine was stressed. The question was also asked: could one proceed from a de-alerted   to an alerted nuclear status  as the crisis unfolds?

  • Fourth, it was pointed out that the difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons really derived from their reach and utility. Deploying tactical weapons was a prescription for an arms race, upgrading C3I arrangements and a lowering of the nuclear threshold. Their deployment had several other military implications. The need really was to counter Pakistan and China. Dubey clarified that by tactical nuclear weapons he implied battlefield weapons, and by strategic weapons he meant ICBMs. Hardly any thinking had occurred on this question, and the National Security Council was not qualified to cogitate on it; this was an operational matter that had to be thought about by the  operations staff. He also believed that India would not, in fact, be a nuclear weapon state until it deployed  its deterrent.

  • Fifth, doubts were raised whether the U.S. would defy China and seek a modus vivendi with India, as Clinton seemed to be sold out to China.

    In his concluding remarks Dubey made some additional points. He felt that India should proceed on the assumption that the CTBT would come into force,  and be ready to sign it by May/June this year. The next few months were crucial as the P-5 were determined to retain their hold  over the international nuclear regime. He added that a linkage between the CTBT and elimination of nuclear weapons could only be justified on either security or ‘ idealistic’ grounds. No security reasons were now applicable, and the U.S. was unlikely to accept the moral argument. He asked how a deterrent posture premised on the warheads being separated from the delivery systems could be viable against Pakistan and China. The latter was believed to keep its nuclear arsenal in an assembled state. He  felt sure that the U.S. and China would reconcile to India deploying its minimum nuclear deterrent if this was presented as a fait accompli. He feared that the state of confusion in  the BJP and opposition parties may not permit this nuclear posture to emerge. He also warned that bilateral relations do not change with changes in government; at least, not in the developing countries.