South Asia and the Future of Nuclear Non-Proliferation

By Graham, Thomas, Jr. | Arms Control Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

South Asia and the Future of Nuclear Non-Proliferation


Graham, Thomas, Jr., Arms Control Today


The recent nuclear tests in South Asia have dealt a serious blow to international efforts to prevent the further spread of weapons of mass destruction. In declaring themselves nuclearweapon states, India and Pakistan have openly challenged the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in which the international community agreed that there should be no more nuclear-weapon states beyond the five that had tested prior to 1967: the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), Britain, France and China. Unless concerted actions are undertaken promptly to begin to reverse this situation, these developments could seriously undercut the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The NPT Bargain

In the 1960s, it was widely predicted that there would be 25-30 declared nuclearweapon states in the world by the end of the 1970s. Who knows how high that number might have reached by today? In an effort to head off this possibility, the world agreed in the NPT to a bargain to put a halt to the proliferation of nuclear-weapon states. In return for the pledge by the 181 non-nuclear-weapon signatories (including Taiwan) that they would never acquire nuclear weapons, the five nuclear-weapon states agreed not to help other states acquire nuclear weapons, to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology with all the parties and to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

In identifying those five countries as nuclear-weapon states, the NPT does not indefinitely legitimize their nuclear arsenals. The NPT simply acknowledges the fact that when it was negotiated, nuclear proliferation had occurred in five countries. The treaty commits all 185 states-parties to prevent proliferation from occurring anywhere else. The fact that there were five nuclear-weapon states before the world took action is a matter of historical circumstance, not special privilege. In balancing obligations between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPT makes all parties equal partners in the quest to escape the threat of nuclear weapons. It establishes a regime in which states like South Africa, Egypt, Indonesia and Mexico play important roles in protecting the security of all states by actively participating in efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Since the NPT was opened for signature on July 1,1968, a number of states have voluntarily turned away from possession of nuclear weapons. Argentina and Brazil agreed to put aside their nuclear weapon objectives; both now have full-scope safeguards on their nuclear activities and Argentina has joined the NPT as a nonnuclear-weapon state. Political change in South Africa led to the dismantlement of that country's former nuclear weapons program. Subsequently, South Africa not only joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, but it also played a leadership role at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference in rallying the developing world behind making the treaty permanent. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, strenuous multilateral efforts and extended parliamentary consideration led Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to give up the former Soviet nuclear weapons on their territories and become non-nuclear-weapon states under the treaty. The NPT provided a means to deal with North Korea's interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. And it is the NPT that provides for international inspections of nuclear activities in that country as in most of the countries of the world.

Despite these successes, three thresh old states-India, Israel and Pakistanhave not signed the NPT, and operate nuclear facilities that are not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections that are required of all the nonnuclear-weapon states. But none of them had previously overtly challenged the NPT regime by claiming to be a nuclear-weapon state. While it had conducted one nuclear explosive test in 1974, India was careful to characterize it as a "peaceful nuclear explosion" and to claim it had not weaponized. …

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