Treaty obligations and the geopolitical consequences of the nuclear race

Despite widespread acceptance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, most countries have failed to comply with their disarmament obligations. With the exception of the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, all modern military alliances have been built on the power and strategic relevance of nuclear weaponry. In light of recent developments around the Quad and AUKUS alliances, SHUBHAM SHARMA writes about the likely outcome of global power rivalries, and folly in treating nuclear capabilities as real solutions to conflict.


THE demise of the Soviet Union had two major fallouts. First, it left the United States undeterred in international politics. As the only big dog on the bloc, it leashed other smaller and pliant mongrels to its collar. Second, the world, instead of becoming more stable and peaceful by eliminating superpower rivalry, became amenable to the violent imperial adventures of the US.

Strategic allegiances

This grand conjuncture had another important angle, an economic one. The end of the Soviet Union marked the integration of a well-fed labour reserve to global capitalism, providing capital through, what British geographer David Harvey calls, the ‘spatial fix’. At the same time, two of the biggest countries of the world, India, and China, opened their economies to the world market.

There could not have been a more favourable situation for the US-led world order.

China, despite calling itself socialist, was in no way ready, ideologically, politically, or economically to take the place of the Soviet Union. Ironically, China had covertly supported the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets, by providing them money, arms, and ammunition.

India, on the other hand, cozied itself up to US, more than ever before. It cited two reasons for doing so: the presence of a strong US-Pakistan strategic partnership that had allowed the latter to proceed with its nuclear program; and the lure of an economic partnership with the US.

Also read: US Navy in Lakshadweep: Gunboat Diplomacy Masquerading as Freedom of Navigation

As India strengthened ties with the US, marking itself to become a strategic partner, it had already detonated a nuclear bomb, and almost a decade later signed the Indo-US nuclear deal. The deal not only went against the spirit of non-alignment, which had been the mainstay of Indian foreign policy, but also contravened the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Notwithstanding its weaknesses, the NPT, signed in July 1968 and effective from March 1970, remains committed to nuclear disarmament, at least on paper. It has a very broad acceptance globally – the P-5 are signatories to the treaty, making the NPT the only disarmament agreement to have been ratified by 191 out of 195 States.

Under US pressure, the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) gave India a waiver, and allowed it to trade in nuclear fuel and acquire nuclear technologies from member countries. In violating the NPT, India became the first country that is not a signatory to the NPT, to engage in nuclear trade.

The nuclear deal cautioned China and Pakistan and brought them closer to one another.

For the US, it was a win-win situation because Pakistan had ceased to become of any relevance to it after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and India had cited its deteriorating relationship with China to justify its development of overt nuclear capabilities in 1998. India became a natural and the most viable geopolitical cat paw for the US to contain China.

Even though the stage was set, it took almost five decades for tensions between the US and China to surface. In the meantime, the Obama administration tried to mend relations with China by offering it a G2, an imperial condominium of sorts, along the lines of the G7. The aim of this offer was to control nuclear proliferation and to stabilize world capitalism in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, one that China had bailed the world out of, through a massive stimulus programme. During his visit to Australia in 2011, Obama, for the first time, declared, “the United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay”. He further said, “So let there be no doubt: In the Asia Pacific in the twenty-first century, the United States of America is all in.” The declaration was to assure its allies, especially Japan, Australia, and India, that the United States remained fully committed to the Asia-Pacific. However, Obama simultaneously proceeded carefully with his G2 offer to China. He walked a tight rope during his visit to India, making no explicit mentions of China.

Till 2011, the strategy seemed to have worked well for the US. It culminated in China’s shameless endorsement of the International Criminal Court’s report on Muammar Gaddafi’s actions against a part of the Libyan population, which led to the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion of Libya. China went to the extent of abstaining from the vote when the NATO allies tabled a UN-sponsored military invasion of Libya. It was anyone’s guess what the outcome of such actions would be, and whether they would go beyond their remit. And so, they did. Not only was Gaddafi killed mercilessly, but Libya also joined the inglorious list of failed States. No matter how it ended for Libya, China found a reason to ‘feel cheated’ at the hands of the US.

Concomitantly, the G2 was dead before it was born, impressing upon America the fact that China was a strategic rival that needed to be contained through a complex web of military and diplomatic pacts and pressures.

An arms race to the bottom

China’s rise and Xi Jinping’s aggressive posturing, made redundant any peaceful accommodation of the country in the US-led imperial world order. Very swiftly, the US put in place its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. The strategy had been in the making since the days of George W. Bush. However, it was not put in place after the diversion of resources toward the so-called ‘war on terror’ following the 9/11 attacks.

The 2006 version of the Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) referred to China as a major power that had the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States. However, neither China, nor the Asia-Pacific was indicated among strategic priorities. The 2010 document observed that “the rise of China, the world’s most populous country, and India, the world’s largest democracy, will continue to shape the international system.”

Allies responded favourably to the pivot, but the US itself was unsure of the specific role countries would play in the whole scheme of things. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2018, China’s GDP had grown by 12 times and its military spending by 20 times. Till 2018, frontline allies, such as India, were loath to blindly commit to China’s containment. Modi’s warm welcome of Xi in 2018 displayed India’s willingness to find room for strategic manoeuvring. Japan, too, had opened positive dialogues with China during this period.

Also read: India Must Work to Maintain Relations with Bangladesh as the Country Moves to Negotiate with China and Russia

China, for its part, started seeing itself as the regional hegemon, whereas the US feared its loss of the crucial sea routes in the Indo-Pacific, routes that were under its stringent control since the days of the Cold War.

The coming of Trump gave the United States’ approach to China an offensive edge. Several actions, such as the deployment of 5000 marines in Guam, the cancellation of the People’s Liberation Army’s invite to the biennial exercise at the Rim of the Pacific, and the first ever May 2019 joint sail by the American, Indian, Japanese and Philippine navies through the South China Sea. Trump also issued an open call for a nuclear arms race when he said, “let it be a (nuclear) arms race… we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Trump also spoke of Russia’s immense contributions in the Second World War, and pointed to the fact that the two countries could work together. China, for its part, had started digging up artificial islands as large as 3,200 acres in the South China Sea, and if the Pentagon’s 2018 Annual Report is to be believed, it also installed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Spurred by these developments, the world saw an aggressive arming and modernisation of nuclear weapons. India became the largest importer of arms, with arms imports accounting for 14 per cent of its net imports. Trailing India is Saudi Arabia, a country which has, incidentally, been engaged in a devastating war against Yemen.

India accounted for 9.5 per cent of the  total arms production between 2016 and 2020 and became the third-highest military spender in 2019 by spending USD 71.1 billion. Other nuclear States, also armed to the teeth, saw an increase in military expenditure. The US increased its spending to USD 732 billion. China remained the next highest spender by spending USD 261 billion, marking a 5.1 per cent increase from 2018, and which was 85 percent higher than in 2010. Russia, too, marked an increase in its military expenditure by 4.5 per cent, moving up from the fifth to the fourth highest in terms of spending.

Contrary to the security thesis that nuclear weapons are a good substitute for costly full-spectrum conventional arming, both Russia and the US are engaged in extensive and expensive programmes to modernise their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapons production facilities.

For instance, in late 2019, the US started to deploy a new low-yield warhead on some of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The nuclear arsenal of China is in the middle of a significant modernisation program, whereas both India and Pakistan are thought to be increasing the size of their nuclear arsenal. These trends are even more baffling given the fact that the US and Russia each have 1,750 and 1,570 deployed warheads respectively, with 4,050 and 4,805 readied for further deployment. China, India, and Pakistan have 320 (up from 290), 150, and 160 warheads respectively, with none deployed.

China, which had hitherto maintained a lean nuclear arsenal, designed primarily for deterrence purposes, is now seeing a direct correlation between its heft in world politics and its number of nuclear weapons. Actively prodded by the United States’ encirclement strategy, first through the Quad and now the AUKUS, China has speeded up its nuclear build-up, mainly to increase the survivability of its arsenal against a first strike.

In the wake of its confrontation with China, India is also preparing for the test of its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) AGNI-V. It claims to enhance deterrence against the Chinese Dong Feng-41, which has a range of 12,000-15,000 km and the ability to hit any Indian city.

India’s action goes against Resolution 1172 of the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR), which clearly proscribes India and Pakistan from developing further nuclear weapon capabilities and ICBMs. China, for its part, is also guilty of reneging on this Resolution.

Since its passing in 1998, China has consistently supplied enriched uranium to Pakistan along with advanced nuclear weapons technology. In 2018, the State-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that it had sold Pakistan a tracking system to speed up the development of multi-warhead missiles.

The nuclear dimensions of regional alliances

The recently concluded AUKUS defence pact between the US, the UK, and Australia, has further warmed the waters of the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US has added a nuclear dimension to the anti-China defence pact. The fact that Australia cancelled its order of diesel-powered submarines from France and opted to build nuclear-powered ones instead, shows that the nuclear dimension was a well thought out strategic contrivance. The move irked France, which has hitherto been the foremost European player in the Indo-Pacific region.

Now, more than ever, Australia has become caught up in American geopolitical machinations. In doing so, it has violated the Treaty of Rarotonga (1985), also called the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty. It was one of the most important treaties to be drafted in the wake of regular nuclear tests that were being conducted during the Cold War by the UK, the US, and France in the Pacific. The South Pacific Forum (SPF), now called the Pacific Islands Forum, had taken cognizance of intermittent nuclear tests after New Zealand called to set up a nuclear weapon-free Pacific.

In 1983, Australia had taken up this issue at the Canberra meeting of the SPF, wherein a Working Group was commissioned to draft the terms of the Treaty of Rarotonga. Thirteen Pacific countries, i.e., Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Western Samoa, have assented to the Treaty.

In the past, Australia has used the treaty to claim accolades for itself. In the 2017 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meetings, it listed membership in the Rarotonga Treaty as key evidence of the State’s commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament and its compliance with the 2010 NPT Review Conference action plan.

Hawks in India have welcomed the AUKUS treaty under the pretext of deterring China. This is foolhardy, to say the least. Not only would it lead to a massive nuclear arms race, but also create further problems between India and China. In bandying deterrence theories, they often forget that India is the only country in the entire containment calculus that shares a massive 3,488 kilometres long land border with China. Japan’s anxieties are hyped by mere maritime borders with China. It is absolutely unimaginable that a build-up of nuclear weapons would have any peace-making, or for that matter deterrence, capabilities in the Indo-China dyad.

Had this been the case, the Galwan Valley clashes would not have assumed such proportions of killing and land grabbing, since both India and China are nuclear-armed neighbours.

Even sensible ‘strategic’ thinking belies the jubilancy of the hawks because of the presence of Pakistan in the Western sector of Jammu and Kashmir, which is India’s most sensitive territory. India cannot afford to have a hostile China in the East.

And with relations between Pakistan and China reaching the proportions of Israel-US relations, India just cannot afford to be sandwiched between two nuclear-armed neighbours. Problems are further exacerbated when the possession of tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of both China and Pakistan is considered. Neither of them is bound by any international treaty obligations on the development of tactical nuclear weapons.

Also read: Resolution of India – China Border Dispute over Ladakh is the need of the hour

The cumulative outcome of all this is bound to be an escalation of power rivalry. The open nuclear arms race would make the chances of enduring peace even more remote.

In the past, international law, treaties and UN resolutions have already taken a battering during such phases of great power conflict. This time, greater harm and meaninglessness would be rendered to such conventions because of the all-enveloping spatial dimension of the conflict, i.e., from the Pacific to South-Asia. Global progressive forces have their task cut out for them: any strategy must involve unrelenting criticism of US imperialism and condemnation of Chinese belligerence.

(Shubham Sharma is a research scholar with the Department of World History, University of Cambridge. The views expressed are personal.)

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