CTBT Holdouts: The Asian Triangle


2012-10-13 by Richard Weitz

There are three key Asian states who have not jointed the CTBT regime. Each of these states in turn, China, India and Pakistan, are discussed in this article. And the prospects are not promising that they will join any time soon.


Until the end of the Cold War, Chinese officials regularly denounced the nuclear test ban agreements and other nuclear arms control measures as discriminatory and designed to prevent developing countries like China from acquiring the perceived military and economic benefits of possessing nuclear weapons.

A particular Chinese concern was the perception (largely correct) that Moscow and Washington were colluding to use arms control to freeze the Chinese nuclear arsenal into a position of permanent military inferiority. Beijing became more enthusiastic about nuclear arms control during the 1990s, but China, like France, conducted a last series of nuclear tests before adopting a unilateral moratorium on July 30, 1996, shortly prior to signing the CTBT less than seven weeks later.

The Chinese government made a number of concessions in signing the CTBT. Beijing had originally conditioned its support for the treaty on the other nuclear powers committing to not use nuclear weapons first and to move towards complete nuclear disarmament. During the Conference on Disarmament sessions, Chinese negotiators had also wanted the CTBT to permit peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) for economic purposes. They further wanted to remove the treaty’s explicit authorization that the parties could use of national technical means and on-site inspections to verify the CTBT. The Chinese delegation eventually conceded all these points.

Since signing the treaty, the Chinese government has formally submitted the CTBT to the National People’s Congress for ratification. Chinese officials have also repeatedly affirmed their support for the accord and for the principle of ending all nuclear weapons testing. In addition, they have frequently pledged not to resume nuclear testing.

For example, an August 2009 statement by the PRC Foreign Ministry states that “China supports the purposes and objectives of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty(CTBT) and believes that the Treaty contributes to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation and promoting nuclear disarmament.” In addition, “The Chinese Government will continue to promote the ratification and work with the international community to facilitate the early entry into force of the CTBT.”

China has been actively participating in the work of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission and has established the foundations for national implementation of the treaty. The Chinese government has created an agency to oversee the country’s preparations for the CTBT’s entry into force and is helping construct and modernize 11 IMS detection stations and a supporting radionuclide laboratory on its territory.  The Chinese delegate to the Article XIV Entry-into-Force Conferences have affirmed that “all necessary work is underway in a serious and orderly fashion” towards ratification. For unstated reasons, however, the People’s Congress, which normally rubber stamps whatever national security legislation is placed before it, has yet to ratify the treaty.

There are three key Asian states who have not jointed the CTBT regime. And the prospects are not promising that they will join any time soon. Credit Image: Bigstock

The Chinese government may be awaiting U.S. ratification before formally renouncing the option of further nuclear testing. When the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the CTBT in 1999, Sha Zukang, head of the arms control department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Beijing was gravely disappointed.”  More recently, PRC analysts had anticipated that President Obama would again attempt to secure CTBT ratification. The January 19, 2011 Joint Statement by President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama following their meeting in Washington affirms that “both sides support early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

Yet, by refusing to ratify the CTBT, Chinese officials feed suspicions that they are seeking to keep open the option of further nuclear testing, which would help China develop its next generation of nuclear weapons systems (e.g., missiles armed with lighter, multiple independently targeted warheads). China is the only member of the P-5 that continues to increase its arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles.

Some PRC analysts have acknowledged this problem and called on China to ratify the CTBT in advance of the United States to deprive the treaty’s opponents in the United States of this argument.  But other PRC analysts have warned that China may “need to conduct additional nuclear tests and develop new warheads that include decoys or maneuverable warheads to counter any developments in U.S. missile defense capability.”

(Editor’s Note: It may well be the case that the PRC has built an extensive underground tunneling system which would enable a rather robust notion of nuclear deterrence and complicate confidence in their intentions with regard to nuclear operations and war.)

India and Pakistan

Following their parallel nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, both India and Pakistan have refrained from further nuclear testing.

In their June 2004 joint statement, moreover, both sides pledged to adhere to a moratorium on further nuclear tests as well as pursue other confidence-building measures. The delegate from Pakistan spoke at the 2007 CTBT Article XIV Entry-into-Force Conference for the first time since 1999. “Despite being a non–signatory State, we are not opposed to the objectives and purposes of the Treaty.” But it is not clear whether Pakistanis would join the CTBT even if India did if they believed that mutual entry would lock Pakistan into an inferior position. Such concerns have made Islamabad reluctant to support a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)

Nonetheless, Pakistani leaders have indicated they would only join the CTBT if India does. They blame India for first introducing nuclear weapons to South Asia and for first testing them in 1974. They claim they conducted their own nuclear tests in 1998 only after India again tested nuclear weapons that year.

For their part, Indian officials have adamantly refused to sign the CTBT.

Although they have renounced any attempt to block the CTBT, India’s status as an Annex II country requires that New Delhi ratify the treaty for it to come into force. During the 1994-96 Conference of Disarmament session negotiating the CTBT, Indian representatives objected that the draft treaty language failed to mandate an end to all nuclear weapons development activities, including those not involving nuclear detonations, and that the formula adopted for requiring the CTBT’s entry into force appeared designed to coerce India’s consent in violation of customary international law. They also complained that the proposed treaty did not require the existing nuclear powers to commit to a timetable for eliminating their nuclear arsenals.

Most recently, the Indian government proved unwilling to sign the CTBT even as a means to increase American and other international support for the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement, which allows the United States to collaborate with India on the peaceful use of nuclear power despite New Delhi’s refusal to join the NPT or CTBT.  As a means of overcoming resistance to the agreement within India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured Indians that his government would reject any American pressure to link civil nuclear cooperation involving India to New Delhi’s signing of the CTBT.

On September 6, the NSG granted India an unconditional waiver to engage in commercial nuclear relations with NSG members, ending a ban enacted in 1974. Even so, some American proponents of the bilateral cooperation agreement still argue that the United States should end its nuclear ties with India if New Delhi tests another nuclear explosive device.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama explicitly said he would try to induce Pakistan and India to sign the CTBT, but there is no evidence of any targeted U.S. diplomatic campaign to this effect since the Obama administration took office in 2009.

The administration has continued to support the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear energy agreement despite the absence of any Indian interest in the CTBT. The administration would nonetheless probably undertake such a campaign if the CTBT were ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Indian analysts have speculated that if all the other holdout states, including China, were to ratify the CTBT, then India would ratify it too in order to not bear the opprobrium of being the only country to prevent the CTBT from entering into force.

Since the Indian government pledged to adhere to a voluntary testing moratorium following its May 1998 nuclear detonations, and since successive governments have adhered to that position, it would cost little for India to convert the unilateral declaration into a legally binding international treaty.

Both India’s geopolitical strategists and its most enthusiastic nuclear disarmers fault the treaty, though for different reasons.

The former Indian opponents of the CTBT cite China’s continued non-ratification of the treaty as a reason why New Delhi should avoiding formal adherence to the treaty.  They also worry that, unlike the reliably pro-Indian administration of George W. Bush, Obama might be more interested in improving relations with China.

More commonly, Indians continue to depict the CTBT as a distraction from the imperative of achieving universal nuclear disarmament.  The Indian government has complained that, as adopted, the CTBT “is not a comprehensive ban but merely a ban on nuclear explosive testing. It also lacks a definitive commitment to nuclear disarmament.”

The Indian speaker at the 2012 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference repeated these same arguments.