Improving Nuclear Confidence Between India and Pakistan

The largely positive recent meeting between Pakistan and India’s foreign ministers marks an uptick in bilateral relations, but the two countries still have a long way to go.

On Wednesday, July 27, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna met with his newly inducted Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar. The meeting was colored by the most recent Mumbai bombings, leading many to doubt that it would be successful. Happily, however, the meeting was positive. One outcome was that Ms. Khar and Mr. Krishna agreed to convene again in September to discuss nuclear and conventional security matters.

This is a positive step. Another meeting could give the two countries a chance to explore further avenues of cooperation that could lead to increased mutual confidence, and one issue for both countries to discuss is the control of fissile material. Although realistically this topic will acquire little traction in the coming years, merely bringing it up for consideration in ongoing bilateral talks encourages India and Pakistan to make frank assessments of mutual stability, and may help create consensus on enhancing regional security.

An international “fissile material cutoff treaty,” or FMCT, has been discussed for decades in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD). This agreement would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts by controlling stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium worldwide. Disagreements abound, however, on what exactly such a treaty should entail.

One interpretation, which India supports, is that the accord would cap global stocks of weapons-usable fissile material where they stand now and put a freeze on further production, but would not necessarily require countries to reduce existing stocks. The opposing perspective, favored by Pakistan, is that the agreement should actually prohibit the existence of weapons-usable fissile materials, which means countries would have to make active reductions to their stocks.

Pakistan has its justifications for holding out. India has more plutonium than Pakistan, on account of India’s more robust nuclear energy sector and helped along by the 2005 U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement. Combined with India’s conventional military superiority, this fissile material gap makes Islamabad nervous about being in a strategically inferior position, and has prompted Pakistan to increase its plutonium stocks to build a bigger nuclear arsenal. Any agreement on a fissile material ban, therefore, would not be in Pakistan’s interests, at least until its leaders feel more secure with India.

But it is in Pakistan and India’s interests to work towards a moratorium on fissile material production – doing so could build peace and stability on the subcontinent. Getting to this point, however, will take much time and effort. In the meantime, there are some intermediary steps India and Pakistan can take.

First, Islamabad and New Delhi could arrange for a series of meetings between the nuclear regulatory authorities of the two countries, in order to share best practices on nuclear materials protection, control and accounting (MPC&A). Additionally, the scientific communities of both countries could be brought together to devise verification measures to be implemented in the event a fissile material agreement, bilateral or otherwise, comes to fruition. These steps would begin to build nuclear confidence between India and Pakistan.

Furthermore, both countries could make voluntary declarations of their existing stocks of un-reprocessed spent nuclear fuel, which would help build confidence by increasing transparency. Sharing information on spent fuel from civilian programs is not as threatening to national security as giving away details on weapons-grade plutonium, and therefore would make the move more politically digestible.

Fissile material is a particularly delicate issue between India and Pakistan that has never found consensus in the past. But this does not preclude future progress. The best long-term, sustainable way forward is to achieve a universal fissile material agreement through the multilateral forum of the UN Conference on Disarmament. None of the ideas presented above is intended to replace that process, and India and Pakistan should not be excluded from it.

In the interim, however, it is hoped that as both countries move closer to their September meeting, they consider some of the above suggestions. Hopefully, that meeting can at least begin to move Islamabad and New Delhi in a positive direction away from the status quo, to work towards reducing nuclear dangers on the subcontinent.