He did not single out Pakistan, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s late January meaningful statement, concerning the stalled deliberations over the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), left little doubt as to which country was being tipped as the spoilsport. “The tide of disarmament is rising, yet the CD is in danger of sinking. Let us restore the conference to the central role it can and must play in strengthening the rule of law in the field of disarmament,” he said while talking to the delegates from 65 countries. What he was alluding to was not the steps needed to cut down the huge inventories of nuclear weapons held by the N-5 powers, or the dangers emanating from the projected deployment of nuclear weapons in space, but underscoring Pakistan’s refusal to withdraw its veto that would let the deliberations commence to hammer out a draft FMCT in the CD. It might have stirred frustration and anger at the disarmament forum, but Pakistan’s refusal to cut down fissile material production is principle-based; it cannot agree to enable discussions on the FMCT, until its fast developing fissile material gap with India, caused by preferential US treatment, is either closed or at least becomes manageable.

The CD was formed in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community, following the first special session of the UN General Assembly devoted to disarmament (1978). Having 65 members, it conducts its work by consensus and has been the negotiating forum for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It reports to UNGA annually, meets on UN premises and draws its annual budget from it. And considering the US clout in the functioning of the global body, the CD’s position on nuclear disarmament reflects a deep partiality to its pursuits. The CD’s rather recently formed compelling focus on the FMCT has been developed on a track parallel to and in sync with the Obama administration’s non-proliferation priorities that are strongly pegged to finalising the FMCT. The US stamp on the CD is evident from the fact that it is intent upon following up the FMCT track, while developing blind spots for three other core issues that form the bouquet on its disarmament agenda. These include nuclear disarmament, the prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and negative security assurances; a term that refers to international arrangements to assure non-nuclear weapon states that they will not be attacked with nuclear weapons.

Halting the production of fissile material has acquired overriding priority at the conference, since the US and all major nuclear powers have accumulated large stocks of fissile material and fabricated enough numbers of nuclear weapons to provide them with nuclear security till eternity. They have declared a voluntary moratorium on further production of fissile material; additional accumulation being pointless and irrelevant. But this cannot be accepted by Pakistan for whom the nuclear capability has become the sole guarantor of maintaining a credible overall deterrence against India’s burgeoning conventional and nuclear muscle.

For Pakistan, halting further production without bringing in the calculus the existing fissile holdings of other nations, particularly India, would be catastrophically dangerous. A wide disparity in fissile material stockpiles of India and Pakistan would erode the stability of nuclear deterrence and freeze in perpetuity the fissile gap to Pakistan’s abiding disadvantage. Islamabad had agreed to a programme of work in 2009, hoping that some of its concerns would be addressed; but by early 2010, its opposition to the FMCT had begun to take a definite shape. In January 2010, Pakistan’s National Command Authority responsible for the nuclear weapons programme announced that the country’s position at the CD on FMCT would be based on “its national security interests and the objectives of strategic stability in South Asia.”

Pakistan’s fears are based on rational and realistic threat perception. The Indo-US nuclear deal and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) waiver for India, which has been spearheaded by Washington, have irretrievably loaded the fissile material balance equation in its favour. The ‘deal’, signed into a law by President George Bush in October 2008, has lifted the 30-year old restrictions on the sale of nuclear material, equipment, and technology to India. The USA also played a leading role in convincing the NSG to exempt it from similar international controls. This has enabled India to overcome its debilitating shortages of uranium and provided a boost to its nuclear weapons programme by allowing its civil nuclear effort to be fed by imported resource, while diverting it indigenous uranium to generate fissile material for the fabrication of nuclear weapons. It is estimated that this would enable India to produce up to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium enough for producing 40 weapons per year from its eight unsafeguarded heavy water power reactors alone.

This fillip will be an addition to India’s already acquired large stockpile of plutonium that by 2009 were estimated at about 700 kilograms; sufficient for 140 weapons along with a sustained capability for producing more at the rate of about 30 kilograms per year. This is alarming enough, but the true magnitude of Indian stockpiles becomes manifest once the cache of ‘unsafeguarded power reactor plutonium’ - estimated at seven metric tons; sufficient for fabricating approximately 700 weapons - is included in the accounting. If India uses this in fast breeder reactors, it would be able to produce 90 to 140 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per year that is sufficient for almost 20 to 30 weapons per year. The difficulties for Pakistan to retain a manageable fissile material gap with India get further compounded when the loopholes in monitoring of its civilian nuclear cooperation signed with the NSG and the IAEA are considered. There are genuine fears that India will always find ways to dance around the FMCT through the leeway provided in the USA enabled civilian nuclear track.

Pakistan’s objections to block the discussions on the FMCT are legitimate and based on a “well established principle of equal and undiminished security for all states.” It feels that Washington cares little about its impact on the South Asian security paradigm, which is detrimental from the Pakistani perspective. Islamabad must, therefore, stand its ground on the FMCT issue and use all the leverage within its means to highlight to the international community its concerns about a fissile material gap with India. That, through a biased US attitude, is eroding the precariously held balance of overall deterrence in the subcontinent to Pakistan’s perpetual and crippling disadvantage.

The writer is a freelance columnist.