Global nuclear trade with India places South Asia’s security at risk, as Pakistan and India expand their nuclear arsenals while regional tension brews.
The tepid surface of the Indian Ocean suddenly erupts with a colossal gush of water as a long rage ballistic missile bursts into the air, leaving behind a thick trail of exhaust fumes as it ascends and turns towards the Pakistani coastline.
In an undisclosed test location in Pakistan, a red flag flaps in the wind – marking the target for the Pakistani military’s first ever submarine-launched nuclear capable missile. Moments later the missile slams into the ground metres from the flag, sending dust and debris into the air around the point of impact; a landing that pales in comparison to destruction of the missile’s potential nuclear payload.
Pakistan is testing its latest weapon in their nuclear bomb delivery arsenal, the nuclear-capable Babur-3 missile. Launched from a submarine, the missile’s reach extends over 450 kilometres, nail-bitingly close to the distance between the Pakistani border and India’s capital, New Delhi.
Islamabad’s display of nuclear power is the most recent development in a South Asian nuclear arms race that has been running since the 1960s, with historical rivals India and Pakistan trying to put a nose, or a warhead, past one another for nearly half a century.
Now, since a 2008 deal with the United States has opened India’s doors to the international nuclear market, resource rich countries are stepping into the race to fulfil India’s nuclear needs. But this trade comes at a cost; the sale of uranium and other nuclear materials to India risks fuelling tensions with Pakistan as the two states race to become the dominant nuclear power in the region.
Opening India to the international nuclear market
India was propelled into the international market in 2008 when it signed the ‘Indo-US nuclear deal’ a bilateral nuclear trade agreement with the United States that effectively eliminated a 30-year international trade embargo on India, allowing members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to trade sensitive nuclear materials to the South Asian power.
Many saw this as a step towards legitimacy for India as a nuclear energy state, with India agreeing to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into its civilian (but not its military) nuclear facilities as a condition of the deal, among many other strict requirements to ensure that the nuclear material sold to India is being used for solely energy requirements.
However, critics claim that this agreement allows India to continue to develop its nuclear military capabilities. During the drafting of the agreement in 2005, US foreign affairs specialist Sharon Squassoni expressed concerns in a congressional report, stating,
“There are no measures in this global partnership to restrain India’s nuclear weapons program. India has a self-imposed nuclear test moratorium but continues to produce fissile material for its nuclear weapons program…”
This agreement may also undermine the international conventions that have sought to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpiles after the near-disastrous outcome of the Cuban missile crisis: the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India has signing these treaties, claiming that they too, deserve the right to posses and develop nuclear arms – making them the only non-signatory state that can freely purchase nuclear fuel from overseas.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre expressed his concerns to the Washington Post,
“We are going to be sending, or allowing others to send, fresh fuel to India … that will free up Indian domestic sources of fuel to be solely dedicated to making many more bombs than they would otherwise have been able to make.”
Brewing South Asian tensions
In 1974, India rocketed onto the world stage by testing its very first nuclear bomb, the Pokhran-1 or the “Smiling Buddha.” At a time when it was accepted that only the 5 existing nuclear powers – China, US, Russia, Britain and France – possessed warheads, India was busy developing and testing its own nuclear arsenal. Using nuclear technology from Canada, acquired under the onus that it was to be used for peaceful purposes only, India produced and tested its first bomb. The test ignited fears within Pakistan, with then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto claiming that India was using its newfound nuclear capabilities to “blackmail” and “intimidate” Pakistan. This was the first in a chain of events that has led to the fastest growing nuclear arms race in the world today.
Both Pakistan and India possessing relatively equal reserves of nuclear warheads (estimates show each state has between 100-130), have recently ramped up their efforts to develop their warhead delivery capabilities. In January, Pakistan released footage of the Babur-3 missile, which an analysis from the Diplomat reports as a troublesome development in the ongoing race.
“A question to mull over seriously is whether the command and control challenges of maintaining a submarine nuclear force are so great and simply generate more vulnerabilities than the deterrence benefits…”
This forward nuclear posturing is mirrored in India as it continues to develop its nuclear delivery “triad”, reporting the success of its Agni-V missile test in December 2016. With a recent Al-Jazeera investigation revealing the secretive construction of a potential nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in rural Southern-India, it is clear that neither side is showing signs of slowing down in the race for nuclear supremacy.
Buying into the race
Amid the escalating tensions between Pakistan and India, nuclear resource-rich states continue to strike trade deals with India, each looking for a share in the previously “off-limits” Indian marketplace.
During a visit to India in late-2014, then-Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbot signed a bilateral agreement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to supply India with uranium, provided it is used for civilian energy purposes. The agreement was subsequently confirmed in 2015 by Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull, resulting in the reversal of the Australia’s previous intentions to only sell uranium to signatories of the NPT. In an SBS interview, Rakesh Ahuja, former Australian Deputy High Commissioner to India confirmed that the sale of Australian uranium to India does allow for the use of the nations reserve stock as fuel for weapons.
“That has always been the case, yes, I mean we sell to China, it frees up their domestic [use] for [military purposes], yes, it’s a fact of life,” he said.
Currently India has now signed civil nuclear trade agreements with 12 different countries, with a significant number of the deals being steeped in domestic controversy – namely Japan, Australia and Canada – as concerns for the growing tension between Pakistan and India cast a contentious shadow over the safety of these deals.
As Pakistan and India continue to develop their arsenals of nuclear weapons, and political tensions between the two states worsen, the supply of nuclear energy material to India is questionable at the very least. If India continues to import uranium for its civilian nuclear power, reserving its indigenous resources for weapons development, can the international community distance itself from their role in fuelling the 21st centuries fastest nuclear arms race?