‘Non-proliferation will only work if all states are willing to cooperate, and that will only happen if all feel they are being treated fairly.’ John Bruton, Former EU Ambassador to the US.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is once again featuring in headlines following the detonation of its most powerful nuclear device yet, exacerbating the security concerns of its neighbours and raising the stakes for the international community and the non-proliferation regime (NPR) at large. The country’s actions have elicited a strong, almost unanimous response globally. But the fact remains that such highly irresponsible and continued provocative behaviour by Pyongyang has once again brought to light another, perhaps greater flaw: the limitation and weakness of the international non-proliferation regime, which despite claiming strong, cohesive networks and control, is failing to yield substantive results. This increasingly seems to confirm that the power of international regulatory bodies has eroded to a critical point. It also raises a question-mark over these bodies’ ability to prevent other countries from following suit, which further posits, can the international non-proliferation regime still be trusted as the legitimate guardian of nuclear material security.

This is far from the first time the legitimacy of the regime has come into the limelight; its leniency and continued practice of inconsistent policies, particularly in the context of India, has long been a large chink in its armour. In fact, ‘exceptionalism’ has become the defining characteristic of behaviour of the international community towards Indian nuclear ambitions, especially in recent years. It is a path that has been and is being created specifically, in line with the continued policy shifts of the United States in the region, and short-term economic interests of western powers, seeking to capitalize on the burgeoning Indian nuclear industrial complex. And it is a path being forged at the cost of regional stability and peace. This has also not only seriously undermined the international non-proliferation regime and the NPT framework, but also called into question the IAEA’s role as an independent, international body capable of promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, while continuing to limit the misuse of this technology for military purposes.

In order to comprehend the bigger picture, sometimes it is necessary to take a step back. The first nuclear test by India in 1974 was considered a failure of the watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and necessitated the creation of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Thirty years on, with India remaining outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nothing appeared to have changed on the surface when the then-American President George Bush offered the country a ‘conditional’ NSG-waiver in 2008, allowing it to pursue nuclear trade and cooperation under the ‘123 Agreement’, and the Hyde Act of 2006, which was signed into law specifically to materialize a nuclear deal with India. The conditions included a requirement to separate civil-military nuclear programs completely, as well as bring all their reactors under IAEA safeguards.

However, empirical evidence indicates that India has not in fact been compliant with the ‘conditions’ of the NSG waiver – on the contrary, its nuclear force structure is proactively being enhanced. It is a known fact that at least eight of India’s nuclear reactors, as well as their Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) program remains outside any safeguards; essentially implying that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has legitimized vertical proliferation in a state outside the NPT. Furthermore, India’s scientific complexes (nuclear, missile, and space) remain poorly separated. Its nuclear programme is partially under international safeguards, but this remains limited and allows India to exercise de facto nuclear weapons state privileges in the context of the production of special fissile material.

Two recent reports from the Belfer Centre and the Alpha Project at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS), King’s College – respectively titled ‘India’s Nuclear Exceptionalism’ and ‘India’s Strategic Nuclear and Missile Program’ – also claim that at this point, India has already accumulated nuclear material for over 2600 nuclear weapons, including all of its unsafeguarded reactor-grade plutonium, which is weapon-usable, and raised concerns over this stockpiling. The Alpha report argues that ‘the process of Indian science developments taking the lead over policy direction is why India’s technological latency should raise concerns’. Turning a blind eye to these developments and the legitimate concerns of Pakistan vis-à-vis strategic stability in the region will only aggravate this dilemma.

The reports highlight that India’s strategic weapons complex has the potential to push its nuclear capabilities to a full spectrum of weapon systems, should there be political will. It is working on five to six ballistic-missile nuclear submarines; a force larger than either the British or French naval strategic forces; in order to fully operationalize and arm these vessels, it has also been working on the K-4 and K-15 nuclear-capable submarine-launched missiles. Given its growing missile program, and an under-developed naval submarine fleet, the project clearly indicates that India is seeking more plutonium and enriched uranium, ‘by hook or by crook’. Its efforts to join the NSG, therefore, are based primarily on a desire to secure nuclear trade for its ambitious three-stage fuel cycle. Furthermore, the supply of uranium from other countries will free up indigenous production for the expansion of their nuclear arsenal. Enhanced capabilities without restraints also create the possibility of erosion of political control of the nuclear arsenal, as well as of India’s commitment to ‘No First Use’ and to a maximum retaliation-only posture. Furthermore, there remains a risk of onward-proliferation, as military and civil scientists and engineers continue to meet discreetly in forums and conferences, which should raise concerns about cross-field blurring.

It is similarly clear that intrinsically, the geostrategic and commercial interests of the US were the motive behind the waiver. In other words, the interests of greater world were sacrificed by altering international laws, norms and values of peace for securing the national interests of the US. This phenomenon is further demonstrated via the India-US strategic partnership, and the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA), under which the sale of advanced military technologies to India thrives. These recent arms deals, which include submarine and drone sales to New Delhi, are likely to increase both Indian hostility in the region, as well the insecurity of neighbouring countries, completely upsetting the regional strategic balance. They have already dis-incentivized India from pursuing bilateral or multilateral talks for the resolution of core issues, or engaging in efforts to establish a strategic restraint regime and durable security architecture.

And yet exceptionalist behaviour towards the country continues as it is brought into the folds of the MTCR, while distinct pressure is created, once again by the US, for India’s unilateral membership of the NSG! The adverse impact of these developments on South Asia, and the threat that is posed to regional strategic stability can no longer be ignored. If the international non-proliferation regime is to retain both its legitimacy and control, it is vital that the culture of exceptionalism is discarded. It may well be time to also revisit the NSG waiver of 2008, in light of India’s vertical proliferation, continued failure to meet the conditions of the waiver, as well as the increasing threats posed by their force modernization, before considering an application to the NSG that WILL further disintegrate regional stability.