Why is India Reticent on INF Treaty?

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
February 27, 2019


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union survived the Soviet collapse, demise of the bipolar global order, unprecedented expansion of NATO membership to the doorsteps of Russia, but has now been languishing on the deathbed.

The United States, after persistent accusation against Russia, has suspended its participation in the INF Treaty. Russia, after repeated call for negotiations and refusal of the Trump Administration to pay any heed, has also followed the American footstep and suspended its participation. If no concrete step is taken to revive the treaty in six months, the treaty’s death is inevitable.

Significantly, India under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi was one of the first countries to applaud the signing of the INF treaty in 1987 as a significant step in tangible nuclear arms control and as a spot-on step in the direction of ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons from the surface of the world.

While the realist school in India saw no security guarantee available for India under the INF Treaty, Prime Minister Gandhi had a vision to work towards complete nuclear disarmament and he actually became the first head of government to present a blue print of nuclear disarmament action plan at the United Nations in June 1988.

Today, the scrapping of the INF treaty does not directly threaten Indian security. It does not make India acutely vulnerable. Yet, should not India have reacted officially to stated American and Russian decision to suspend their participation in this treaty? The post-INF world may witness a missile race that may not be conducive to Indian interests. The US is apparently seeking withdrawal from this treaty to earn a freehand to make more sophisticated and technically more cutting-edge missiles, unless “China and others” join the US and Russia to negotiate a brand new treaty to ban inter-mediate range nuclear capable missiles.

Since President Trump mentioned China by name while justifying this decision in his State of the Union Message, Beijing did not delay delivering a response. It advised the parties to the INF Treaty, USA and Russia, to negotiate and revive the treaty and brusquely refused to be dragged into any negotiations for a multilateral treaty. Experts say that doing so would mean putting about ninety per cent of Chinese missiles on the negotiating table for planned reduction. Chinese position is surely explicable.

India was perhaps included in the unstated list of“others” in Trump’s statement that would apparently include North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and a few other countries. India’s name will certainly crop up in upcoming discussion of this issue. A member of the Russian Duma has already done so. Thus it is not prudent for India to maintain reticence on such a critical development. The end of INF treaty would almost certainly encourage China to keep expanding its missile arsenal, legitimise the incessant efforts of Pakistan and North Korea to increase their own arsenals and somehow adversely affect Indian security.

Only in the recent past, China, Pakistan and even the United States were trying to box India in South Asia by proposing a South Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Cannot India propose an action plan to reduce the number of missiles of all countries with the ultimate goal of calling for establishment of a Missile Free World (MFW)? President Trump wants other countries to join in a multilateral missile control regime. China does not want to be part of any such effort. India can uphold its principle of a universal ban on Weapons of Mass Destruction by calling for a Missile Free World. A universal missile control regime leading to a missile free world can make it easier to arrive at an agreement for universal nuclear disarmament.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had proposed a nuclear free world after conducting six nuclear tests and declaring India as a new nuclear weapon power. There was no contradiction in this formulation. India has now developed its own missile capability and there will be no contradiction in proposing a Missile Free World.

Until all nations are on board, India need not abandon its nuclear and missile arsenals and their further development. But such a proposal, despite its complexities, difficulties and anticipated oppositions, is worth pondering. Such a proposal can uphold India’s cardinal principles and upright support for world peace, nuclear disarmament and missile elimination to make the potential annihilation of the globe a remote possibility.

More significantly, it will pose a challenge to China that has been deftly using its new- found economic and military muscle to create an international order of its choice. It will also pose a challenge to a country like Pakistan that keeps on increasing the size of the missiles and the number of terrorist organisations simultaneously to house, train, equip and export them for causing destruction and disruptions.

President Trump claims his country can over-spend and out-smart others in a missile race. Even this plan to promote a missile race can be exposed, if the US starkly opposes a missile control regime. For long, all US presidents opposed nuclear disarmament. When Barack Obama entered the White House, he for the first time supported the cause of nuclear disarmament at least in principle.

Such ideas can easily be discarded as unreal. But idealism has meaning, purpose and usefulness in an otherwise dog-eat-dong world of ours.