India demonstrated its diplomatic prowess at the G20. The GNFU is the next step. China already has an NFU policy and if US shows any inclination, Russia may also come on board.
The text of the G20 New Delhi Leaders Declaration certainly adds a feather to India’s political and diplomatic cap. The declaration states that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”. If this is their commitment then they should agree to a global no-first-use policy.
Steered by the MEA, the Declaration mentioned nuclear weapons in the section about the ongoing Ukraine War. It stated – “While recalling the discussion in Bali, we reiterated our national positions and resolutions adopted at the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly (A/RES/ES-11/1 and A/RES/ES-11/6) and underscored that all states must act in a manner consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter in its entirety. In line with the UN Charter, all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”.
Although the G20 is primarily an economic forum, the declaration makes the security-economic connection. It highlights the threats posed to the planet, people, peace and prosperity by stating, with deep concern, the immense human suffering and the adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world. However, in reality, these words do not match the deeds of the powers that be. Neither of the USA and its allies nor of China and Russia. For all these countries have, with impunity, used force and violated the sovereignty of many nations in the decades following the Second World War.
The hypocrisy is glaring even if it keeps the flame of hope alive.
Nuclear weapons along with climate change are two of the primary global existential threats. There is indeed a glimmer of hope when every nation of the G20 has endorsed the notion that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.
There is now a strong case for India to follow up on the endorsement, by taking the lead along with China, for a Global No First Use Treaty (GNFU).
Without a doubt, it will be a challenging task. But if accomplished, it will make the world safer than it is today.
Importantly, both India and China are the only two nuclear powers that have steadfastly adhered to the doctrine of No First Use (NFU). Russia, too, had declared an NFU policy between 1983 and 1992. The rest of the nuclear powers, USA, UK, France, Pakistan and the recent entrant, North Korea, have so far refused to adopt such a stance. So, when the USA, UK and France signed the G20 Delhi declaration it opened the space to seek and hold them to their commitments.
The leaders recognised by the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK—have long subscribed to the view that nuclear wars cannot be won and should not be fought. They have reiterated this as recently as in January 2022. Their stance is that as long as nuclear weapons exist they should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and deter war.
For a long time, nuclear strategy has survived on thin ice. Nobody knows what will follow if a nuclear weapon is used against another nuclear power. In the Delhi Declaration, they have gone a step further by recognising the inadmissibility of the use or threat of use.
The hopes ignited by this recognition can only be fulfilled if there is an acceptance that nuclear weapons are political weapons and are not for military use, especially between nuclear powers.
They are political weapons because the only justification for their existence is deterrence—of nuclear weapons and perhaps other weapons of mass destruction like chemical and biological weapons.
The question now is what steps should India undertake in pursuance of a GNFU?
Partner with China
The first step would have to be an attempt to partner with China. This may not be easy, but it is doable. It is not easy not only because of the current state of the relationship but also because China has not been inclined to discuss nuclear issues with India as it is not a recognised nuclear weapon power under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Apart from China, all other nuclear powers have implicitly recognised India’s nuclear status especially after India signed the nuclear deal with the USA.
China should partner with India as it would otherwise expose that it is only providing lip service to its commitments to NFU.
The partnership is feasible because, despite its military aggression on the northern borders, trade has increased. This reveals that the India-China relationship has several layers and that common interests can coexist. Overall it is a diplomatic challenge that is well within India’s capacity as has been proved by the G20 Declaration.
But there is a shadow cast by China allegedly developing over a hundred missile silos. Though China has denied their existence, it has been interpreted by the West as an indication that it is on the path to loosening its NFU policy by adopting a policy of ‘Launch on Warning’.
The second step is to draft a GNFU Treaty. This can be done even if the first step does not succeed.
The contours of the treaty must delineate and define the use and threat of use and instil a commitment to not do so. This too is well within India’s intellectual capacity and expertise.
The USA may in fact pose a bigger challenge than China for two primary reasons. Its doctrinal proclivity is dominated by the military and the Pentagon that still believe in notions like countering a ‘bolt from the blue’. This manifests in the USA keeping a fairly large portion of its nuclear weapons in a high state of alert. Despite being debunked by convincing scientific evidence, the idea that any attempt to neutralise US nuclear assets would cause a ‘nuclear winter’ and pose an existential threat to humanity persists.
The Obama administration had briefly toyed with the idea of adopting NFU, but its progress was shelved by counterforces from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon argument also draws its sustenance from the need to strengthen ‘extended deterrence’. According to it, US has to protect its allies against conventional threats from Russia and China. This is a problematic issue as in the contemporary geopolitical landscape, both Russia and China are posing threats to allies and partners of the US particularly in Europe and Asia. In Europe, it is Russia against its NATO allies and in Asia it is China against Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
The conventional threat is countervailed by the USA’s conventional military power and the security coalitions with middle and smaller powers. With the pace of contemporary coalition-building efforts, the balance of military power can be expected to remain tilted towards the West and its allies in Asia.
It is then up to the USA to revise its Cold War-like mindset. It is now impossible to stay disconnected due to deep economic and technological ties.
The signatories to GNFU must provide negative security assurances that nuclear weapons will not be used against a non-nuclear power. They must also define ‘non-nuclear power’ as those that are not part of any extended deterrence system.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the weaknesses of its conventional military power. Logically, this would increase its dependence on nuclear weapons. But, it may have realised by now that dangling a nuclear threat has not deterred NATO interference, and any actual use would be against its short and long-term interests.
Therefore, if the USA shows any inclination towards GNFU, Russia may also come on board.
The other silver lining to the dark cloud of nuclear weapons use is the growing voice of non-nuclear powers against nuclear weapons. This resulted in The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted in the UN General Assembly on 20 September 2017 and entered into force in January 2021.
Although it is a dead duck and a bridge too far without the endorsement of the nuclear powers, the treaty is a reflection of the support that a GNFU Treaty would be able to garner. India and China spearheading the GNFU would also strengthen their efforts to lead the Global South.
The door to a GNFU Treaty has been opened by the G20 Declaration. The pathway to its achievement is open to exploitation by India and China. Even if China does not play ball, India should pursue it with all its growing political and diplomatic power.
The battle, in essence, is between political wisdom and the delusion of false promises through military strength embedded in nuclear weapons.