PAKISTAN is blocking the start of negotiations of a global halt to the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) can’t begin, Pakistani diplomats say, because existing stockpiles won’t be covered. But Pakistan would be loath to reveal its existing stocks, and no one in any position of authority would permit foreign inspectors to verify their locations and extent.
And if, by some miraculous event, existing stocks were covered in the treaty, an absolutely necessary first step would be to verify a freeze on existing production — the very agreement that Pakistan wholeheartedly resists.
Another problem with an FMCT, Pakistani officials say, is the civil nuclear deal offered to India by the United States. This deal, they assert, will allow Indian authorities many new sources of fissile material to make bombs. But foreign companies aren’t rushing into the Indian nuclear power market. Instead, they are keeping their distance because of meagre liability protections passed by the Indian parliament.
Even if, in the future, Indian liability laws are changed and foreign companies build dozens of new power plants, the diversion of electricity into bombs is very unlikely. India has facilities dedicated to military production, and no longer needs to poach on power plants to make weapons.
A related Pakistani argument used to block the start-up of FMCT negotiations is that India’s breeder reactor programme will provide an open-ended source of fissile material for weapons. This presumes that India’s breeder programme, unlike that of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan and Russia, will actually prove to be worth its considerable investment.
Even if New Delhi continues to subsidise the breeder programme, there will be severe domestic political penalties for diverting electricity into bombs. Pakistani analysts who warn of this outcome are projecting their own civil-military relations onto India.
Pakistani officials have suggested that they will lift their veto on FMCT negotiations if they are offered a civil nuclear deal similar to the one granted to India. This argument undercuts all others against the FMCT: if status trumps security, then the security-related arguments against the FMCT can’t be very serious. Besides, calling for a similar civil-nuclear deal is wishful thinking.
Pakistan can’t afford nuclear power plants unless they are offered at concessionary rates, as China has done for two plants. Everyone else will invest only with profit in mind, and Pakistan now figures to be a very risky place for multi-billion dollar investments.
Foreign investment can become more attractive with greater domestic tranquillity, sustained economic growth and normal ties with neighbours, but even then, nuclear power will not be an attractive sector for investment.
If Pakistan’s stand on the FMCT is about foreign investment, status and pique about India’s civil nuclear deal, blocking the FMCT negotiations is an especially unwise strategy, since it confirms Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation.
Another argument against the FMCT is that Pakistan can better resist outside pressures — especially Indian adventurism — by having more nuclear weapons. But Pakistan’s susceptibility to pressure comes from its domestic and economic weaknesses, not from the number of nuclear weapons it possesses.
For the last two decades, Indian governments have concluded that sustained economic growth is more important than fighting Pakistan. Attempts to seize and hold Pakistani territory would result in severe trials. Pakistan’s nuclear inventory has also helped dissuade Indian leaders from engaging in military adventurism.
If this has been the case when Pakistan possessed fewer weapons, why would a larger inventory be required — especially if an FMCT would constrain a parallel Indian build-up?
Besides, the threat of an Indian conventional offensive would only be prompted by spectacular attacks on Indian soil carried out by individuals trained and based in Pakistan. Preventing the groups that engage in these tactics would also prevent unwanted Indian military responses.
Yet another argument against the FMCT is that nuclear weapons are not that big a drain on the Pakistani treasury. But Pakistan has so many unmet needs that any opportunity to meet some of them would appear to be worthwhile. The clinching argument against the FMCT in Pakistan is that it is a thinly disguised attempt by outsiders to take away Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.
In actuality, Pakistan’s current position on the FMCT, calling for the inclusion of existing stockpiles, would pose a greater threat to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent than the negotiating mandate Pakistan is resisting, which would leave current stocks untouched.
With or without the FMCT, Pakistan will retain nuclear weapons. So, too, will India. Pakistan can compete with India to increase its nuclear stockpile. But the country with a weak economy loses in this competition. Nuclear weapons are a poor substitute for the growing disparity in Indian and Pakistani economic fortunes.
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.