Pakistan, US and the FMCT

Pakist­an can freeze its stocks unlike India, negoti­ate a treaty on future produc­tion or let Indian stockp­ile grow.

Zahir Kazmi August 23, 2011

“Forum shopping — switching forums to pursue interests — is not a good idea for negotiating a treaty banning ‘future’ production of fissile materials,” an unnamed US official was reported as saying last month. That sane voice drowned amid media reports of the US tightening the noose around Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The array of options before the US include the impractical attempt to snatch Pakistan’s nukes, or shifting negotiations from the consensus-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), to the P-5-dominated UN and reforming the CD. The twelve-year itch is blamed on Pakistan, whereas Islamabad entered the spat three years ago. 

The current acrimony between the US and Pakistan is ostensibly over the scope of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). The US apparently favours a halt on future production of fissile materials and Pakistan disagrees.

The impending face-off between Pakistan and the US raises three queries. Does the US have a problem with Pakistan’s nuclear programme? Why is Pakistan the only holdout state on the FMCT? Lastly, if cornered, what can Islamabad do?

US officials have always denied plans to snatch-and-grab Pakistani nukes. Senator Kerry, purportedly, was ready to write the assurance with his own blood. Realistically, nuclear weapons states would want to retain their status while denying it to others unless their strategic interests meet or there’s a quid pro quo — the US is no exception. Islamabad would not help in containing China like India does. It does not have strong caucus in the US like Israel or India. Additionally, Islamabad is not an economic magnet.

Instead of gelling with the regional economy and capitalising its potential to bridge the South and Central Asian Silk Road, Pakistan ends up providing its territory as a staging ground for forays into Central Asia. Lastly, Pakistan is the only Muslim nuclear weapons state. Hence, the jihadist threat is flagged to create an insecurity perception and past proliferation is drummed up as a pressure tactic.

Pakistan doesn’t stand alone at the CD, as evident from the Non Aligned Movement support to its stance. It rather shares the UNs disarmament ideal and urges the states not to disregard the regional conventional and nuclear asymmetries while negotiating treaties as means to achieve global strategic stability. Conversely, the US and like-minded countries follow an arms control approach to fissile material production.

The General and complete disarmament ideal does not suit the pre-1970 proliferators because they would like others to disarm first. Out of the non-proliferation treaty outliers, Pakistan is the only state that does not enjoy a special dispensation with the old proliferators. Can Pakistan change the status quo?

Islamabad may miraculously revive the Silk Road, but it cannot abandon China and certainly would not change its Islamic DNA. India’s burgeoning military power and extraordinary American-led politico-economic support stumps the FMCT. Pakistan’s National Command Authority has repeatedly demanded an end to this neo-nuclear apartheid, as it allows the first South Asian proliferator to expand its military power at Pakistan’s cost. The civil nuclear energy deal with the US is the tip of a broader ‘US-India strategic partnership’ and has exacerbated regional instability.

Pakistan may be a tugboat to the Indian capital ship in the economic sphere; it manages a credible ‘minimum’ deterrence. The word minimum has a dynamic nuance. If Pakistan seemingly has the fastest growing nuclear programme, it is logical to watch the increasing asymmetry with India. India’s $100 billion plus wallet for conventional, space and nuclear technologies is a good omen for the defence industry but a knell for Pakistan.

The FMCT presents a dilemma for Islamabad, as it may not be able to match India in the conventional arms race after the treaty. Pakistan can either freeze the stocks asymmetry with India by quickly negotiating a treaty on future production or let the Indian stockpile grow.

By signing a civil nuclear deal with India, the US allowed an exponential surge in its nuclear programme. Conversely, Pakistan is urged to ‘seize the opportunity’ of freezing its asymmetries with India by allowing negotiations to cap future production of fissile materials. In defence, the weak argument of phased reductions is offered. If the FMCT is signed, what will be the mechanism to verify stocks?

The fact is that the old proliferators would not leave their comfort zone and reduce to the levels of the young proliferators. It is a diabolical power maximisation game and every state uses its aces. The way out of the dilemma and impasse at the CD can be a genuine move to stop the trend of selectivity in the region.

Pakistan takes the blame for impasse at the CD free of cost for other equally concerned but hiding states. Interestingly, if push comes to shove, even India may throw a monkey wrench after the negotiations like it did on June 2, 2009. Ambassador Rao said, “India is willing to join only a non-discriminatory multilaterally negotiated and internationally verifiably the FMCT as and when it is concluded in the CD, provided our security interests are fully addressed…”. Their interest would be to avoid verification.

The FMCT is the hallmark of President Obama’s two-year-old Prague Agenda and Pakistan’s intransigence is frustrating America as its next elections draw closer. Failure of the Prague Agenda will be bad for optics and hence the urge to shift the issue to the General Assembly or reformation in the CD.

The US contends that it has garnered P-5 support, especially China’s, that may later guarantee a start of negotiations over the FMCT, but these will be meaningless without Pakistan. Consequently, Pakistan may be subjected to additional political and economic pressures but that is nothing new. Islamabad did not join the NPT, and the CTBT and test nuclear weapons in 1998 under duress. Similar pressure will only fuel the anti-US sentiment and even the goodwill American aid to the seminaries may fail.

Seeking treaties is a pipedream if the political issues that force the states to pick up arms are left unattended. While the states squabble for at least another decade to arrive at a treaty that bans fissile materials production, the stocks and strike capabilities will continue to swell.

The onus of breaking ice always lies with the larger powers. India has no incentive to control its arms acquisitions and gets no sermons. With three-fourth of Indian forces facing Pakistan and asymmetries widening, Islamabad will not be satisfied with good Indian intents and American assurances and impasse will continue at the CD.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2011.