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Tipping the balance

India’s pursuit of ballistic missile defence and the Indo-US N-deal have upset the Pakistani security calculus, says Maleeha Lodhi.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2010 23:23 IST

The meeting, last month, of Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA) was significant for more than one reason. Among the issues it addressed was the strategic asymmetry in South Asia. This has a crucial bearing on Pakistan’s stance in negotiations that have resumed in the UN’s 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). The proposed treaty aims at banning the future production of nuclear bomb-making fissile material.

The NCA meeting referred to a series of adverse external developments and ramifications of India’s fuel supply agreements with several countries while reaffirming Pakistan’s commitment to maintain a credible minimum deterrence. It also helped to firm up Pakistan’s negotiating position at Geneva at a significant juncture. The next important stage in the CD will be the adoption of the work programme, which will determine whether substantive negotiations can begin on an FMCT. Armed with the NCA mandate, Pakistan’s envoy in Geneva Zamir Akram apprised members in December 2009 about Pakistan’s reservations over a treaty that only prohibits future production, as this would freeze the imbalance between Pakistan and India.

The multilateral quest for an FMCT has been a long and fruitless one. In 1993 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “non-discriminatory, multilateral and international and effectively verifiable treaty”. Subsequent talks in Geneva remained stalled for over a decade by wrangles in the CD over linkages made between the treaty and issues including the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, Negative Security Assurances and Disarmament measures. In the late 1990s the US contributed to this stalemate by the refusal to accept international mechanisms for verification and its insistence that National Technical Means were adequate to ensure compliance. The impasse was broken only last year by the Obama administration’s pledge to support international verification.

Pakistan’s present position on the negotiations stems from the concern that the proposed FMCT, as it stands, could upset the strategic equilibrium in the region by limiting its deterrent capability at a time when India’s been offered other means to escape a similar cap on its nuclear arsenal.

Two developments, in particular, have changed Pakistan’s threat perceptions which have a bearing on its position on the FMCT. The first is the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and the consequent NSG waiver that has allowed India to conclude agreements with countries, including Russia and France, to supply it with nuclear fuel. Given its ambition to acquire hundreds of nuclear warheads (400 is one estimated figure) India faced the dilemma of how to build this arsenal while meeting its civilian nuclear needs. This problem was resolved by its deal with the US. Together with the NSG exemption this places India in a position to increase its fissile material stocks qualitatively and quantitatively. It will be able to divert, if it wants to, most of its indigenous stocks to its weapons programme. It can even abrogate its international understandings in the future to redirect the externally supplied fuel meant for civilian purposes to nuclear weapons development.

The second change that has influenced Pakistan’s security calculations is India’s pursuit of ballistic missile defence capabilities by seeking help from Russia, Israel and the US. The prospect of India acquiring this threatens to alter the strategic balance. Pakistan will be obliged to respond by accelerating its missile development programme and develop more warheads, for which it will need more fissile material.

Faced with the prospect of erosion in stable deterrence by an increasing asymmetry in stockpiles, Pakistan has consistently raised the stockpiles issue in the CD, calling for the negotiations to address this. A report, the 1995 Shannon mandate, had allowed this issue to be raised. But this has little negotiating import unless it is made an explicit part of the negotiating mandate. The issue has been a hotly contested one at the CD with the nuclear weapons states (NWS) as well as India insisting that the treaty only deal with future production. Many non-nuclear developing countries have argued that the treaty should prevent civilian stocks and other fissile material declared in excess for military use from being diverted for use in weapons.

Pakistan’s desire to address the stocks issue is unlikely to surmount the majority view at the CD that wants the treaty to only ban new production. The operational effect of such a treaty would principally be on Pakistan. Some experts argue that this is now a virtually Pakistan-specific instrument for several reasons, especially because all the five NWS have already ceased fissile production. The US, Britain, France and Russia have formally declared this, while China has unofficially ceased production. Israel has no nuclear competitor in the region and has adequate stocks. India’s been given the facility to acquire fuel from external sources giving it the opportunity to vastly expand its stockpiles.

The FMCT negotiations still have many issues to iron out including the scope of the treaty, definition of fissile material and verification procedures. But for substantive progress the process will require getting Pakistan on board in a forum that works on the principle of consensus. This will depend on how Pakistan’s principal concern can be addressed: that the Treaty should not become a vehicle to constrain its strategic deterrence capability.

Maleeha Lodhi is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US and Britain. She was the editor of The News, Islamabad. The views expressed by the author are personal.