In recent times India has repeatedly affirmed its responsible behavior as a nuclear-armed state and sought membership of key nuclear governance bodies on that basis. Many others too are also keen to help India integrate into the global nuclear order. One possible point of intersection to facilitate the twin objectives is to draw India into the web of stations that can monitor nuclear test explosions, as a prelude to India’s signature and eventual ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated, India condemned it for basing the global nuclear order on nuclear apartheid that divided the world into nuclear haves and have-nots, and refused to sign the treaty. In response to India’s 1974 disingenuously labeled “peaceful nuclear explosion,” the world established the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to regulate the export of nuclear materials and technology and restrict them to NPT signatories only. In 2008 the NSG granted India a unique exemption from its stringent export criteria without requiring NPT accession.

Meanwhile the international community had also negotiated the CTBT in 1996, which India also refused to sign. The CTBT monitoring system is operational with a crisscrossing network of seismic and other stations to monitor nuclear explosions anywhere in the world. But the CTBT itself cannot legally enter into force until all remaining eight of the 44 so-called Annex 2 states accede. Of these, five — China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States — have signed but not yet ratified the treaty. But three — India, North Korea and Pakistan — have not even signed.

During the Cold War, the U.S. Congress sometimes prodded the administration into launching diplomatic initiatives, but today Congress functions largely as a brake on the administration’s nuclear diplomacy, with endgame negotiations with Iran to curb the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program being a prime example.

Accordingly, there is little prospect of the U.S. Senate ratifying the CTBT in the foreseeable future. India and China’s (and therefore also others’) accession would make logical sense even without U.S. ratification, but political imperatives probably make this problematical.

Ironically, India has played a historic role in promoting a global nuclear test ban. Starting in the 1950s under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India had campaigned strongly for an end to nuclear testing. In 1996 however, at a late stage in the negotiations, India withdrew its support for the CTBT.

Worse, India also impaired the CTBT monitoring system by withdrawing consent for the four monitoring stations planned for installation in India. The reason for this dramatic reversal became clear two years later when India conducted a series of nuclear explosive tests and Pakistan responded in kind. India had thus moved from leading opponent to leading practitioner of nuclear testing. The twin set of tests exacerbated regional tensions and intensified the security dilemma for both countries, without any net gain in national security for either.

In 2005, when U.S. President George W. Bush moved to end India’s international nuclear isolation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India “would be ready to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States.” Now, as the 10th anniversary of the Bush-Singh accord approaches, it is clear that one major area where India has not assumed the same responsibilities and practices is the CTBT.

Since the 2008 NSG India-specific waiver, India has sought membership of key nuclear governance regimes, including the NSG itself, as a non-NPT but responsible nuclear weapons possessor state. In 2009 the report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, co-chaired by former Australian and Japanese foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, suggested subjecting India to “NPT-equivalent” disciplines, in return for progressively integrating it into the nuclear order as a nuclear-armed state.

One such equivalent discipline would be the commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament mirroring Article 6 obligations of the five NPT nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.). Another could be integrating India into the CTBT’s operational system, pending formal accession to the treaty. This would put India’s advanced technological expertise and advantageous geographical location to the service of the international community, without requiring any concession regarding its non-signatory status in respect of the CTBT. It would also be consistent with India’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing and give practical content to its repeated assurances of continued responsible behavior as a nuclear weapons possessor state.

Today the CTBT has 183 signatories, 164 of whom have ratified. Although the CTBT is not yet in force, the treaty specifies that its International Monitoring System (IMS) must be capable of meeting the requirements of the treaty when it does enter into force.

Accordingly, the CTBT Preparatory Commission has moved to install the IMS and this is now largely operational. Of the 321 IMS monitoring stations in 89 countries, 284 (almost 90 percent) have been installed, 19 are under construction and several more are planned. In addition there are the four stations proposed for India. The absence of the Indian stations detracts from the ability of the IMS to effectively monitor a key part of the world, affecting coverage of South Asia, China, Central Asia and the Middle East.

India’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing notwithstanding, its continued refusal to engage in the CTBT leads many to wonder whether New Delhi is keeping open the option of resuming testing. India can demonstrate that it really is “like-minded” and ready to assume the responsibilities of a leading nuclear country by permitting the installation of the four outstanding monitoring stations.

Of course, India could go further still, honor the Nehru legacy and resume its leadership role in nuclear disarmament by signing the CTBT and join China and the U.S. as signatory states yet to ratify. This will put pressure on Pakistan to sign, leaving North Korea as the only non-signatory from the 44 countries whose ratifications are required for entry into force. It will also reassure those who are concerned that when the U.S. is finally able to ratify, India will swiftly follow suit.

Does the Modi government have the policy smarts to say yes to advice that, through a unilateral policy realignment, would distance India from Pakistan and North Korea, and give it the same status as China and the U.S.?

Ramesh Thakur is director of, and John Carlson is a consultant to, the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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