Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 28, 2016
Nuclear Security Summit: India should take the lead

The fourth Nuclear Security Summit is beginning in Washington DC from March 31 (to April 01). An initiative started by US President Barack Obama to focus attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism, it might cease once he leaves office because it has so far been more a personal than an institutionalised venture.  But it does not have to.  India has the interest and the wherewithal to continue the process and should not lose this opportunity to sustain the global attention on nuclear security.  Though a radical suggestion, India has a lot to gain by taking the initiative to keep these dialogues going.  India taking the lead in nuclear security will further demonstrate New Delhi’s credentials as a good global citizen in addition to strengthening confidence within the global nuclear community.  If India were to take a leading role in continuing with the Nuclear Security Summit, it will go a long way in building the transparency and confidence about its own nuclear security policies and practices.

India’s credentials among the global nuclear community is important for several different reasons, the primary one being its membership into the global nuclear clubs, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.  Such an Indian initiative will have a significant impact as the NSG prepares to debate its membership at its plenary in June this year.

Nuclear security became a subject of intense global debate in the post-9/11 context.  The 9/11 terror attacks in the US brought to the fore the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists.  The threat of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State getting hold of these weapons is a serious one.  Though the likelihood of such an eventuality might be small, the large consequences make it necessary to treat even such remote possibilities with seriousness.  The intelligence information being reported from Europe that the Islamic State has been conducting surveillance on nuclear plants and personnel suggest continued terrorist interest in demonstrating some nuclear capacity, even if it is limited to attacking a nuclear power plant.

President Barack Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, which focused a great deal on nuclear disarmament, also flagged the security of nuclear materials all over the world.  This concern led to the organizing of various Nuclear Security Summits.  The inaugural Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was held in Washington DC in 2010, followed by the second one in Seoul in 2012, The Hague in 2014 and the coming one again in Washington DC. Despite some initial apprehension, the NSS process has grown immensely in terms of the process and substance.  It brought about greater awareness among a large number of countries, both from a safety and security perspective.  The idea of “house gifts” or “gift basket” were excellent ways of getting countries to make pledges in the area of nuclear security.  These were basically unilateral commitments made by individual countries (hence, ‘gifts’) in the area of nuclear security.  These have included pledges such as a group of countries coming together on nuclear smuggling, reduction or freeing up of Highly Enriched Uranium, transport security, forensics in nuclear security, strengthening radiological security, among others.  These have improved the safety and security policies and practices while strengthening transparency and confidence among the global nuclear community members.  India’s gift basket to set up a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP) went a long a way in boosting the global confidence about India’ nuclear security approach.  The NSS also became an ideal platform for countries to share their best practices and countries have found it useful to learn from each other’s experiences.

Nevertheless, this process is yet to get institutionalised and thus the fear that the forthcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington will be the last one.  The fact that it has been tied to a particular US administration has also been a weakness. In addition, the lack of an overarching conclusion or declaration and the fact that this is not tied to any existing multilateral institutions such as the UN could see this process end.  Countries such as India have attached great importance to this process. This is demonstrated by the fact that Indian  prime minister had attended all except the one in The Hague. The challenge today is to continue with the momentum this process has gained.  Experts have argued that an international legal mechanism could ensure that there is continuity to the process.  However, the current international political climate where there are serious political differences between major powers makes this unlikely.  President Putin, for example, is not coming to the Washington summit.  Still, some way has to be found to keep this process moving forward.  This is another reason why an Indian initiative to continue the Nuclear Security Summits might help because India can bring the major powers together.

2 India’s nuclear security credentials

Nuclear security has concerned Indian political leadership and policy makers for a long time, much before the world woke up to WMD terrorism concerns in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Nevertheless, India’s policy attention on the subject is hardly known to the outside world.  This has been the case because India has rarely talked about the issue or even issued a broad outline of its policy despite having a strong institutional and legal architecture governing nuclear security.  This has hurt India’s case than further its interests.  Therefore, if India were to take a leadership role on the nuclear security, it could be very beneficial.  It will have an important bearing on India’s efforts to get integrated into the global non-proliferation architecture.  India’s accession issues are not technical – India’s export control lists are more or less in sync with the control lists maintained by the global technology control regimes, which is the only real technical issue involved.  As far as the technical parametres are concerned, India has totally streamlined its control lists (items that are controlled for exports) for the NSG and MTCR.  On the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group, there are certain gaps but still the problems faced by India are not so much related to these discrepancies but are more political in nature.  Therefore, New Delhi needs to contemplate measures that would address the political perception problem, the feeling among a small minority that India has not paid its dues and that it is being unnecessarily rewarded.  The NSG’s plenary meeting is to take place in June 2016 and the NSS presents an opportune moment to take some concrete steps.  India taking steps to continue with the NSS process could change the atmospherics among a small number of regime member countries which still have reservations about bringing India into the non-proliferation regimes.

India could consider a number of different options as Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit.  India could offer to take the process forward and agree to host the next Nuclear Security Summit in India.  India has nothing to lose and everything to gain through such an exercise.  India could use this platform to showcase India’s own achievements while suggesting additional measures to institutionalize this process.  India has been arguing for a greater role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the area of nuclear security.  The IAEA has had its lacunae – the fact that it is short on resources both financial and human resources could be taken up in this platform.  India could urge the international nuclear community to step up contribution to the IAEA and thereby offer afresh lease of life and guarantee a central role in ensuring better nuclear security policy and practice.  Any or some combination of all of these initiatives could demonstrate India’s deep interest in continuing to play a positive role in promoting global nuclear security.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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