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The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Paradox

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The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Paradox

10 September 2023 marked the 27th year of adopting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Promised to end nuclear testing in all environments, the treaty still awaits its entry into force because of states like India and the United States (US). At this stage, the CTBT faces a paradox that makes its future uncertain. The international security milieu is rapidly changing, which necessitates CTBT’s entry into force, but the same environment makes the treaty’s future uncertain.

The treaty has not entered into force because major nuclear-armed states have only provided lip service to the treaty. They do not want to give up the option of hot testing. The US has carried out more than 1,000 tests in atmospheres of different types. Likewise, India has done nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and is still interested in doing a thermonuclear weapon test. The emerging global security environment has further strengthened their intention against accepting any ban on nuclear testing.

The international security environment is mired by growing great power tensions and trust deficits. The US says it is defending the global political and economic order from assertive Russia and revisionist China. It is, therefore, making active efforts to contain China’s economic and military influence globally and in the Pacific region, particularly by bolstering political and military alliances. In Europe, Russia objects to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) expansion in Eastern Europe, and in the same context, it is stuck in the Ukrainian conflict.

The non-nuclear weapon states have exhibited frustration over the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament and continued nuclear proliferation.

One major aspect of great power competition is the ongoing armament efforts among these key states. Besides expanding their conventional forces, these states are engaged in advancing their nuclear capabilities. They are also investing in new military technologies such as precision-guided weapons, Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered weapons systems, cyber domain, and autonomous weapons. There is also a fear that strategic non-nuclear capabilities could complicate nuclear deterrence.

The military build-up is marked by the decline of nuclear and conventional arms control. Some arms control treaties have become history, and others may face a similar fate. Citing security concerns from NATO, Russia withdrew from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which sets limits on the conventional forces in NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. On the nuclear front, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is already dead after the US exit, and even the New START could be the next victim.

Moreover, the nuclear-armed states are increasing the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. The national nuclear arsenals are growing. The US has already been sharing nuclear weapons and extending deterrence to its allies, and now Russia is also stationing its non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus. The US and the United Kingdom (UK) also set a precedent by providing Australia with nuclear power submarines under the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) pact. Meanwhile, the nuclear rhetoric has not died down. On the one hand, these states are letting nuclear arms control terminate. On the other hand, they are finding multiple excuses for not preserving old, negotiating new arms control, and acting on their disarmament pledges made in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a result of these developments, the risk of war is increasing. So is the risk of accidental, inadvertent, or intentional nuclear weapons exchange.

Overall, the challenges to CTBT emanate from the above developments and are varied, including the technical requirements of several states, lack of political will, and accusations of discrimination. Similarly, the international security environment, geopolitical rivalries, trust deficit, and insincere approaches to nuclear non-proliferation by nuclear-weapon states are some of the factors for the lack of progress on several treaties, including the CTBT. Other states, such as India, are already contemplating resuming nuclear testing for their technical and political needs. In this regard, CTBT’s entry into force does not remain the priority of these states, and in line with their national interest, they will continue to delay its entry into force. The US cannot sign or ratify it as its Senate voted against it on 13 October 1999.

To achieve entry into force, CTBT requires the ratification of 44 states of the Annex II countries. These states possess nuclear power and/or research reactors. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the US have signed but not ratified the treaty, while North Korea, India, and Pakistan have neither ratified nor signed the treaty. Different reasons based on their interest and security are preventing these states from ratifying the treaty.

Ironically, in this precarious security environment, CTBT’s entry into force could have helped to minimise the growing nuclear risks. The treaty’s entry into force would have been a stabilising and confidence-building development. This would have meant that the current nuclear states could not carry out the hot testing of new warhead designs, stopping more states from testing nuclear weapons and putting a break on the regional and global nuclear arms race.

The CTBT’s entry into force and overall progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament would have created an environment of trust and confidence for non-nuclear weapon states or states with nuclear weapons outside the NPT. The non-nuclear weapon states have exhibited frustration over the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament and continued nuclear proliferation.

However, fixing this paradox that the international security environment requires CTBT’s entry into force but also impedes it remains a daunting task. Nuclear-weapon states can make progress on these issues when they engage in constructive and result-oriented talks. Instead of waiting for a positive security environment, they can work towards creating that environment.

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.

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