On 12 August, Pakistan asked India to sign a moratorium on nuclear testing. The United States was quick to follow with a recommendation that both countries sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But the prospects for the treaty, always rejected by New Delhi, to put India on the defensive are once again dim.
Both Pakistan and the US were performing perfunctory rituals. Islamabad knows that there is virtually no possibility that India, which is concerned about the threat posed by China, will sign on this particular dotted line. It has gone through the motions for entirely different reasons: to deflect criticism that it is building the world’s fastest growing stockpile of nuclear bombs; and to try and hang on to the notion that India and Pakistan are strategically inseparable. Washington is keeping a straight face while giving the treaty a dutiful nod but has in fact stopped putting pressure on India on this score.
The CTBT is destined to lie dormant for the foreseeable future because no one is really interested in it. Indian policy makers need not worry that a new momentum for its signature might be round the corner. There are good reasons for this.
First, there is no pressure for the CTBT because there is no momentum for testing. Tensions between India and Pakistan are no more than is usual in their up-and-down relationship. To be sure, Kashmir is turbulent again and New Delhi is not doing a great job of tackling it effectively; but there is neither a serious loss of control that might kindle Pakistani expectations, nor the likelihood of a repeat of Kargil.
Pakistan has burned its fingers on nuclear risk generation before in Kargil and discovered that it does not bring more than ephemeral benefits. Currently, there is some heat being generated in Northeast Asia, particularly after Pyongyang’s launch of an undersea missile last week, but that again is ‘normal’ for a country that is volatile but has always stayed well short of a serious crisis. Noticeably, the four North Korean tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016 have never produced a pro-CTBT wave.
Second, the US and others (notably Japan) periodically declare their faith in containing nuclear weapons without actually doing much about them. President Obama has done so little to follow up on his much-ballyhooed ambition to rid the world of nuclear weapons that his Nobel Peace Prize has long lost its shine. One respected commentator, Barry Blechman, has gone so far as to say that in the interests of ‘decency,’ Obama should return the prize. For their part, Japanese leaders have balked at doing civilian nuclear business with India and advised it to sign the CTBT. Japan's sentiment can hardly be taken seriously by others since it rests on the belief system of a public that is happy to enjoy the security provided by the American nuclear umbrella.
Third, even as the CTBT mantra is periodically intoned in support of disarmament, most nuclear-armed states are in the process of actually doing the opposite. To cite just a few instances: over the next three decades, the United States is expected to modernize its nuclear arsenal and deploy its existing forces at a cost – still being debated – of about $1 trillion. Russia is building a new intercontinental ballistic missile, nuclear-armed drone submarines, and a space-based hypersonic strategic bomber. And China, which recently confirmed that it has tested a new rail-mobile missile capable of striking any target in the United States, has also carried out six tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle that can fly at up to ten times the speed of sound.
India, too, is dabbling with hypersonic technology, multiple warhead missiles and a wide range of weapons systems. The notion of a decline in the value of nuclear arms is illusory. As long as this remains true, states will find it politically difficult to give up testing.
Fourth, there is a growing conservative sentiment among major nuclear powers as is evident from national political trends in Britain, China, France, India, Russia, and the United States. Given the increasing focus on national security and fear of ‘the other,’ howsoever defined, political leaders will find it hard to contemplate constraints on nuclear capacity.
Fifth, the CTBT has been on the table for almost two decades since 24 September 1996. A large number of countries have signed it, including China, Israel, and the United States, but these three, which signed it immediately after it was opened for signature, have yet to ratify it, leaving it close to becoming moribund twenty years later. There is thus a built-in inertia in the movement against testing. In any case, under the terms of the CTBT, it can enter into force only if all countries in a list of 44 with actual or potential capability are on board – and this includes India and other holdouts.
Ironically, the reluctance of India, Pakistan, and others to accede to the treaty is based on weak reasoning. The CTBT has an exit clause that allows a signatory to opt out if required by the ‘supreme national interest.’ Hence the Russians, who have ratified the treaty, have not appeared unduly worried about its putative constraints. In India, another reason for not signing is said to be the need to refine the technical quality of the nation’s arsenal. But history shows that nuclear weapons are effective deterrents not because their possessors are certain of their ability to hit the enemy, but because the enemy is not certain of avoiding the enormous pain they can cause. That is why small nuclear arsenals invariably deter much bigger ones.
Ultimately, it’s fuzzy strategic thinking that holds several countries back from signing or ratifying the CTBT. Be that as it may, occasional efforts to leverage the CTBT need not worry Indian policy makers much.