International Day against Nuclear Tests: Where Does South Asia Stand?

The International Day against Nuclear Tests (IDANT) is commemorated on 29 August every year since 2009, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 64/35. The purpose of the commemoration is to make people aware of the effects of nuclear explosions and the need to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. However, the observance of the day has delivered mixed results. While the awareness against the effects of nuclear tests has increased in civil society globally, some states express to be inclined towards nuclear testing. Regionally, South Asia has its own dynamics where India might be interested in resuming testing. On the other hand, Pakistan has been strengthening the norms against tests by offering India to sign a non-testing agreement bilaterally.

States develop and test nuclear weapons for various reasons, but primarily to achieve status and prestige and to enhance national security. In South Asia, India has developed nuclear weapons for the prestige factor. It carried out a nuclear explosion in 1974 but termed it a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE), thus remaining short of achieving a status like the other five nuclear weapons states. To fully achieve that goal, it resumed nuclear testing in 1998 to assert its nuclear capability.

Pakistan’s security was threatened by the development and testing of nuclear weapons by India in 1974 and 1998. However, during the period between the Indian nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, Pakistan, as a responsible nuclear state, exercised a self-imposed restraint till India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 when Pakistan responded to the Indian tests by conducting its own tests. In the meantime, it kept proposing several agreements to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

South Asia has its own dynamics where India might be interested in resuming testing. On the other hand, Pakistan has been strengthening the norms against tests by offering India to sign a non-testing agreement bilaterally.

Such proposals from Pakistan included a proposed joint Indo-Pak declaration renouncing the acquisition or manufacture of nuclear weapons and keeping the South Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in 1978. India was not interested in either of these. Later, to ensure transparency, Pakistan proposed mutual inspections of each other’s nuclear facilities in 1979. It also offered India concurrent adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and simultaneous acceptance of full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in 1979. Then, Pakistan also proposed a bilateral non-testing regime in South Asia in 1987. These agreements were proposed despite the fact India had already carried out nuclear tests in 1974. The rejection of these proposals by India meant that India had ambitions to resort to nuclear testing, which it did in 1998.

After its nuclear tests in 1998, India’s aims were clear to Pakistan. Now, Pakistan had no other option but to test its own weapons, restore the altered strategic balance in the region, and ensure its security in the face of a belligerent India. Pakistan maintains that it was not the first country in the region to test nuclear weapons in 1998 and will not be the first country to resume nuclear testing.

After the 1998 tests, both Pakistan and India announced unilateral moratoriums on nuclear testing. But considering Indian behaviour, Pakistan offered to turn these unilateral moratoriums into a mutually binding bilateral agreement. Pakistan renewed its offer for a bilateral agreement on nuclear testing to India in August 2016. But India did not respond, which shows that India is still aspiring to resume nuclear testing. These examples demonstrate Pakistan’s resolve to maintain non-testing norms.

The norm against nuclear testing results from decades-long efforts to conclude the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). While this norm against nuclear testing has strengthened over the years, key states are still holding the right to test nuclear weapons. The United States (US) and China, as nuclear weapon states, have signed but not ratified the CTBT. India, enjoying preferential treatment from the West to get access to nuclear technologies, has neither signed nor ratified the treaty. Pakistan ties its decision to sign CTBT to India.

Now, after 25 years of its nuclear tests, India is again contemplating resuming nuclear tests. Several Indian scientists have claimed that India’s thermonuclear weapons tests in 1998 had fizzled out. In order to clear doubts over its thermonuclear capabilities, India may opt to retest. Therefore, the norm against nuclear testing, as celebrated by the CTBT, could be threatened by India. Many in India are advocating the need to resume tests. These voices are trying to create a feasible environment for nuclear testing, increase the acceptability of Indian tests globally, and decrease the chances of negative reactions and sanctions. However, the non-testing norm, once broken, may not stop in India. It may force other states to test their devices.

Additionally, the IDANT, CTBT, and the overall non-proliferation regime overlook the security dimension. While it wants Pakistan to adhere to these, these treaties and their proponent states are becoming increasingly silent on conflict resolution in the region. After 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, one of the conditions by the US for ending sanctions and diplomatic isolation was to resume dialogue on addressing the root causes of tensions between the two countries. While Pakistan has on multiple occasions asked India to resume dialogue, the latter has found multiple excuses to avoid it.

In conclusion, the South Asian region portrays an interesting picture where Pakistan has been asking India to keep the nuclear dangers limited, but the latter has ignored them to achieve its hegemonic ambitions. Likewise, despite celebrating the nuclear testing taboo, some states are contemplating resuming nuclear testing, which should be discouraged and condemned. The case for ending nuclear testing as represented in the observance of a designated date will be meaningful only once the non-testing norm is implemented without discrimination.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He focuses on nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and emerging technologies. He tweets at @samranali6.

Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password