Singh’s Sin of Omission Won’t Lead to Fission

This post by Rory Medcalf originally appeared on The Interpreter.

I’ve a lot of respect for the work of the Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis, whose blog consistently provides some of the world’s best in-depth news, speculation and background on arms control issues. But I think he has it wrong in his latest post on India and nuclear testing.

Jeffrey intriguingly cites the discrepancies between two major statements by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and makes much of the fact that the more recent of these, delivered at a 9 June disarmament conference in New Delhi, omitted reference to India’s moratorium on nuclear testing. He concludes that this could be evidence that India is considering going further down the track of keeping its nuclear-testing options open.

If this theory is right, it would be bad news for global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, as World Politics Review points out. But it would also be bad news for India, and that is why I am convinced it isn’t so.

For a start, while it might seem odd that Singh did not mention the testing moratorium on that occasion, the M-word still features regularly in Indian Government discourse. Just yesterday, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee used it while discussing the nuclear aspects of his recent talks with the Australian Government. And at least as telling as the content of Singh’s 9 June speech was the way his Government marked the tenth anniversary of India’s May 1998 nuclear tests — it didn’t.

I have a sense that there is a quiet and growing recognition in New Delhi that India has been needlessly backing itself into a diplomatic corner on the question of whether and when it would sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and that there is a wish, given the new global momentum on disarmament and the controversy over the US-India nuclear deal, to slip quietly out of that corner. So while I am surprised Singh did not mention testing in his recent speech, I wouldn’t read so much into it. The bottom line is that if the US finally ratifies the CTBT — a real possibility in the post-Bush era — then China will follow quickly, and India not long after.

There may well be nuclear scientists in India who’d love to test again, but the same could probably be said for several other nuclear-armed states. Politically, the cost to India of being the first nuclear-armed state to test nuclear weapons again would be too great. The argument that the US-India nuclear deal makes it more likely that India would test can be turned around: once India has large-scale civilian nuclear commerce with the rest of the world, it will have much to lose from defying global opinion on nuclear testing, whatever the fuzzy letter of the law on any future nuclear transfer arrangements. If Australia, for instance, were eventually to develop a civilian uranium supply relationship with India, another nuclear firecracker in the Thar Desert would end that in a flash.