The status of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 

  • IASbaba
  • January 15, 2022
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The status of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 

Context: On January 3, five global nuclear powers, China, Russia, U.S., U.K., and France, pledged to prevent atomic weapons from spreading and avoid nuclear conflict. 

  • The joint statement was issued after the latest review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which first came into force in 1970, was postponed from its scheduled date of January 4 to later in the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What has been the goal of the NPT?

  • The primary goals of NPT has been
    • Cessation of the nuclear arms race 
    • Working towards not just more peaceful uses of nuclear energy 
    • Complete nuclear disarmament.
  • The NPT is joined by the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I and SALT II), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (I and II), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) among others. There’s clearly no dearth of treaties and agreements, and yet the situation hasn’t improved considerably.
  • While the objectives of NPT may seem easy on paper, it has been anything but. While the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are fairly straightforward aspects of the treaty, the ‘how’ is where the real challenge lies. 
  • Nuclear competition among major powers could encourage states without nuclear weapons to acquire their own. An ideal way to solve this would be for all nuclear states to abandon their nuclear stockpile. This certainly hasn’t been the case. 
  • A more practical solution, which for the longest time did work, but now seems to be waning, is to go for nuclear deterrence among large powers and provide a nuclear umbrella to non-nuclear states. 

What is the new danger to NPT?

  • The hegemonic rise of China and its debt trapping tactics in order to gain access to the other country’s key infrastructure projects has led other countries within China’s immediate sphere of geographical influence to decide if they need to acquire or develop strategic capabilities to safeguard their security.
  • Australia, through AUKUS, seems to be on a path to acquire nuclear capabilities for its naval fleet, in a bid to counter China. While this may seem like an effective counter to China’s aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific, the ramifications could be severe as it sets a terrible precedent.

What do the numbers tell us? 

  • The optics within P5, while looking promising on paper, paint a different picture in reality. 
    • China’s current stockpile stands at around 350
    • France’s at around 290
    • Russia’s at around 6,257
    • U.K.’s at around 225
    • U.S.’s at around 5,600. 
  • While the difference between U.S.’s and Russia’s may look considerable, the operational stockpile of Russia is about 1,600 and for the U.S. it is about 1,650. 
  • Outside the P5, 
    • Pakistan possesses about 165
    • India possesses about 160, 
    • Israel and North Korea either possess or have enough fissile material to build approximately 90 and approximately 45 weapons respectively. 
  • The world’s stockpile peaked during the 1980s and started to reduce considerably up until 2005. 
  • Since then, most of the reduction has come from the dismemberment of the retired stockpile. 
  • Development in technologies also means that the world keeps seeing new ways to deploy these nuclear weapons which is another worrying trend.

What lies ahead? 

  • With Australia already on the road to acquire nuclear capabilities, it stands to reason that other nations would work towards developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. This could, in principle, also re-ignite another arms race
  • The chequered history of nuclear weapons gives the impression that the NPT has not been entirely successful—but it hasn’t been an abject failure either. 
  • The impetus is on the major powers to stay on the path which the NPT has paved (even if a winding one) and signal commitment through its actions towards putting an end to the arms race and hopefully complete disarmament.

Connecting the dots:

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