Opinion & Analysis

India's Nuclear Options

The concern over the possession and use of nuclear weapons has only grown since the illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia, a country that has already threatened the deployment of “tactical” nuclear weapons. Such a threat puts Russia well outside the war strategy framework of most nations, but not perhaps all.

In South Asia the three nuclear-armed nations (China, India and Pakistan) have all engaged in violent military stand-offs along their common borders. There’s no particular danger of a nuclear exchange however, despite the tensions in some remote mountain areas.

In Delhi, India’s nuclear strategy seems to be a permanent subject for debate. Is India slipping behind China? what is happening with the QUAD?, is Pakistan becoming unstable? ,  and perhaps more vitally – how should India move ahead in the area of nuclear energy, which will play such a huge part in the country's future. 

Central to that question is the issue of the NSG, the Nuclear Suppliers Group. - – a group of countries that aims to control the export of materials and technology relating to nuclear weapons, and nuclear power.

India's Kudenkulam Nuclear Power Plant / image Wikimedia

Because, while India continues to opt out of signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) , it is barred from being a member of the NSG. 

Fo its part India says it hasn’t signed the NPT because the treaty discriminates between nuclear-armed states that existed before 1967, and those who conducted nuclear tests after that date. India conducted a test in 1974, the year before the NSG came into being.

India did manage to negotiate a “waiver” from the NSG after lobbying by the US. That deal allows India to undertake limited nuclear commerce.

Dr Ramesh Thakur is a disarmament expert from the Crawford School of public policy at the ANU in Canberra. He’s among many who suggest India should be allowed into the NSG club , with the support of New Zealand , one of just a handful of nations opposed to the proposal.

Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur / Image supplied

“They decided to set up a NSG in order to coordinate supply of materials to recipient countries to tighten the controls, instead of just relying on good faith or the recipients. That's the origin of it.” he says.

“But it's a different world. It's 50 years later, just about, and I think we need to adapt to that.”

Part of the justification for India joining, Ramesh believes, is Delhi’s hesitancy over the whole question of nuclear weapons. “If we look at all the others, pretty much as soon as they had the nuclear capability, they went and got the bomb. India, having demonstrated this capability in 1974, still waited another 24 years.

“The other factors include the history of the NPT, when it was being negotiated, and when it came up for adoption, finally, in the 1990’s, India said it just wasn’t ready, although it has always behaved responsibly with nuclear material.”

Those supporting India’s entry to the NSG agree and say there are significant up-sides-  for example being able to put India’s nuclear plants under international safeguard protocols.

But those opposing suggest the wrong signals have been sent to India, which has not only developed  nuclear weapons, but also continues to opt out of an international treaty designed to limit their spread.

 Chief among nations blocking the NSG option for India is of course China – which watches on as India moves closer to the QUAD nations and continues its “waiver” relationship with the US over nuclear commerce.

In Wellington, the legacy of 1987’s Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act remains, and its been fairly effective in keeping Aotearoa on the rather short list of those who regard India outside the NSG as a better situation than the contrary.

Ramesh Thakur is among those who see New Zealand’s independence on foreign policy as an advantage. “ I think the Indians recognize that New Zealand's positions are independent of positions taken by Australia and the United States, not just on the nuclear issue, but on other issues as well, that New Zealand has its own set of interests.”  

“It's not going to be drawn into various things… You know, India has the QUAD relationship with Australia, Japan, United States, those are the big players, in terms of the diplomatic counter to China.  But I don't see India ever even considering let alone agreeing to join a military alliance as such, because India is not part of the China containment strategy and that, in a sense, actually puts India closer to New Zealand, rather than to Australia.”  

Bazaar in Hydrabad, Central India / image Eleanor Wenman

And outside Australasia, Professor Thakur sees the uncomfortable tensions between India, China and Pakistan rolling on , whether or not India finally realises its plan to be accepted into the NSG.

He’s also convinced India has an appropriate strategy regarding Russia, as the violence continues in Ukraine.

“You see India called out internationally for its refusal to join the Western criticisms of UN sanctions against Russia after the Ukraine invasion last year, you see criticisms of that from academics and public intellectuals, less so now from government officials in Canberra or Washington" he says.

“I think the way India has handled the Ukraine challenge has been the most impressive performance in Indian foreign policy in decades, it has managed to retain its independent and autonomous perspectives, respond as per its mix of values and interests, and over time, it has gradually managed to explain to Western governments and to Western audiences just what it is doing and why it is behaving as it is, and retain the freedom of action.

“I think the difference between the non-alignment era and today is that for the first time today, India acts from a position of self-confidence and strength. Previously, it was based on weakness.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar visited New Zealand last year and he has not been apologetic at all, not fence-sitting. He said himself last year - I'm not sitting on the fence. I'm sitting on my own ground, and I'm very happy and comfortable sitting on my own ground. Thank you very much.”

“I think India's positions on some issues are clear. It's been very clear It doesn't support wars of aggression, and in fact, it's very critical of threats of a nuclear weapons being used.”

India is currently proving adept at balancing partnerships with a range of countries, and has even managed to navigate the CAATSA sanctions imposed by the US on many countries who deal in arms with Russia. 

But it has a wary eye on China and Pakistan, backed up by its Russian S-400 air defence system. 

Just how things develop in the new "no limits" relationship between China and Russia may well force India to adopt a more security-focused role, moving away from its stance as unaligned.

As India's Foreign Minister said last year: “Every time the world polarises, it has its own complications and we are at that stage right now. There are multiple reasons for it, Ukraine being one of them”


 - Asia Media Centre