Canada recently signed a 280 million dollar deal for the supply of 3,000 metric tonnes of uranium over the next five years to India, a nuclear weapon state outside the NPT. This deal comes against the backdrop of experts’ warnings that the agreement will spur proliferation in the region, and if the Indian test of Agni III, mere hours after the signing of the deal, is any indication of things to come, the warnings are not without cause. The deal, if put in perspective of the recent efforts by the West to bring outlier states to abide by the rules of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), undermines the efforts for the universalisation of a rules-based nuclear non-proliferation regime.

It is staggering to think that the very same country that forsook all nuclear cooperation some 45 years earlier with India after the latter diverted nuclear fuel from Canadian reactors, supplied for ‘peaceful, civilian’ use, to conduct a nuclear weapons test would now actively sign a 5-year deal that can only further exacerbate the South Asian security dilemma. The deal brushes aside the entire controversy of the Indian episode of proliferation of nuclear fuel for conducting a nuclear test. At the very least, it is not a story any of the major powers are ready to lend an ear to anymore, busy as they are cashing in on the growing market economy of India. Paul Meyer, Canada’s former permanent representative to the Geneva Disarmament Conference expressed his fears in this regard saying that, “All of this flows from decisions where we essentially sold the shop some years back, sacrificing our nuclear non-proliferation principles and objectives for some other considerations, and I think it’s been a very poor deal for us in terms of the risks of nuclear proliferation.”

This deal cannot be seen but in the context of the Indo-US strategic partnership and the civilian nuclear deal forged between New Delhi and Washington in 2007. It is after all the Indian civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the US that has opened the floodgates of nuclear technology for an otherwise sanctioned India. This agreement between the US and India was tailored to bring the country at par with other nuclear weapon states of the NPT, without, unfortunately, any of the ensuing non-proliferation obligations that come with the NPT.   Given the geopolitical context and timing of the Indo-US deal, it appears to have been a strategic necessity for a superpower in decline, struggling to maintain a unipolar world order and checking the rise of an economically strong challenger - China. India’s role therefore, on this strategic chessboard has come to be that of a strategic bulwark against China.

The Indo-US deal indicates an implicit recognition of India’s nuclear weapon status, proffering a unique status to India notwithstanding its similar case for nuclear weapons acquisition as Pakistan. It also works against the much-touted US principles of propagating nuclear restraint in South Asia. The agreement has enhanced India’s strategic capability, freeing its domestic uranium reserves for military use, apart from its equally unsafeguarded breeder reactors programme.

Following the US-India nuclear agreement and the NSG waiver, several other states have also engaged in nuclear commerce with India, and the Canadian deal is only the most recent example. Thus far, India has secured nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia, France, the US, Australia and Canada. Noticeable here is the fact that Australia despite being a NNWS of NPT that held out for so long against such a deal has in the end, given in for economic benefits over moral ground.

India has made it a point in these deals, to convince its nuclear partners to forgo the provision of tracking the nuclear fuel end bound for India, especially from Australia and the US. Such a commitment is not only a violation of the NPT, to which all these states except India are a party, but also raises serious non-proliferation related challenges. It essentially demonstrates how India would be free to divert the nuclear fuel supplied for civil nuclear energy production for weapons with no check.

A series of measures have also been instituted by the US for easing nuclear-related sanctions on India and facilitating its access to nuclear technology control regimes. This includes the assurances by Washington to India for membership of the export control regimes.

India’s membership of NSG opens the gates for advanced technology in the nuclear field for dual-use items, making India a potential supplier as well. India as a state outside NPT, non-signatory to CTBT and continuing to produce fissile material, does not fulfill the criteria for NSG membership. Moreover, the resultant technological advancements pose an equally great challenge for Pakistan in this field and destabilise deterrence stability in the region.

While debating the non-proliferation issues in South Asia, one also has to take into cognisance the fact that India’s so-called ‘Peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE)’ triggered the South Asian proliferation in the nuclear domain and also led the international community to think of controlling nuclear technology more stringently. The NSG, now considering the Indian membership, was created specifically after the illegal Indian diversion of nuclear fuel for the nuclear test.

For Pakistan, the reward for a stringent export control on nuclear technologies and a transparent nuclear command and control structure has not been forthcoming from the international community. The lesson learnt is that it is geopolitics rather than a good non-proliferation record that governs eligibility for nuclear commerce.

Unlike its regional rival and other nuclear weapon states, Pakistan is the only state that has made its nuclear command and control structure explicit and constructively engages with the international community on these issues.

The regional security complex in which Pakistan is situated has left the state with few options. While American strategic compulsions might require building India as a counter weight to China, it will be at the cost of undermining regional non-proliferation and global nuclear non-proliferation norms, and the repercussions will be for Pakistan to bear. Many believe the nuclear competition in Southern Asia to be triangular; however, the nuclear cooperation offered by world powers to India will have direct implications for Pakistan specifically. Being conventionally weaker and constrained by economy, the state has to rely on maintaining a precarious strategic balance vis-à-vis India. India’s increasing fissile material stocks, both Pu and HeU, alongside its introduction of capabilities like BMD systems, canister launch system for missiles, MIRVed technology combined with the confidence to fight a conflict and control escalation, involve dangerous trends for the region. Indian missiles, cruise, hypersonic missiles and long-range ICBM production negate any claim of a minimum credible deterrence.

On the issue of the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, criteria governing the inclusion of prospective outliers can help lessen the damage done to the non-proliferation regime by exemptions such as the 123 Agreement. It would also ensure that only those states qualify for nuclear commerce that uphold the nuclear non-proliferation norms and promote them. Such a move would also reiterate the nuclear community’s impartiality in mainstreaming nuclear non-proliferation treaty outliers.

Unless the regional concerns relating to development of technologies and impartiality in determining the future of non-proliferation outliers is established, non-proliferation concerns in South Asia will continue to pose a challenge. To convert this challenge into opportunity, the international community should promote indiscriminate policies to establish balanced and criteria-based engagements in the nuclear arena.

The writer is the President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and Member Senate Standing Committees on Defence.