The South Asian Nuclear Balance: An Interview With Pakistani Ambassador to the CD Zamir Akram
As the Pakistani permanent representative to the UN Office at Geneva, Zamir Akram serves as Islamabad’s ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament (CD). He has been a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service since 1978. From 2007 to 2008, he was additional foreign secretary for disarmament and arms control in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Arms Control Today spoke with Akram on October 18 at the Stimson Center in Washington after Akram’s presentation, “Deterrence and Regional Stability in South Asia.” (In the interview, there are several references to that presentation.) The interview focused on the stalled negotiations at the CD on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and Pakistan’s position that it lags behind India in fissile material production and cannot agree to a production halt until it has closed the gap.
The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity.
ACT: Pakistan has expressed its opposition to fissile material cutoff talks at the CD. Pakistan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Raza Bashir Tarar, said in an October 11 speech at the UN that an FMCT “should deal clearly and comprehensively with the issue of asymmetry of existing fissile material stocks.” However, independent estimates suggest that India and Pakistan currently have roughly similar stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile material.
Can you be more specific about how Pakistan views the fissile material balance and how Pakistan believes the issue can be “clearly and comprehensively addressed” in an FMCT?
Akram: An FMCT as currently being envisaged is a treaty that will only ban future production and not existing stocks. Now whatever the count may be—and the count varies as to how much fissile material Pakistan has or India has or other countries have—the game changer in this environment has been the NSG [Nuclear Suppliers Group] waiver for India, which was spearheaded by the United States.
As a result of this NSG waiver, India has signed several nuclear cooperation agreements, with the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Canada, and several other countries. Through these agreements, India will be receiving an unknown but obviously high quantity of fissile material, ostensibly for its civilian nuclear program. This would mean that its existing stocks of fissile material, its indigenous stocks, can be quite easily converted to weapons use because it will have the imported material to use in the civilian facilities. At the moment, what India has to do is to divide it up, between civilian and weapons programs. So it will give India a free hand to enhance its weapons capabilities.
That is what we have to look for.
ACT: If Pakistan believes that India has a greater fissile material production potential today, why is it not in Pakistan’s interest to freeze the size of current stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile material by agreeing to a halt in the further production of fissile material for weapons purposes?
Akram: In the time that we can, we need to enhance our own capabilities so that we have sufficient fissile material for what we would then feel is a credible second-strike capability, or credible deterrence capability. So that’s one reason—that if we were to conclude such an agreement, that would deny us the possibility of ensuring that there is no gap between us and India. That’s the first thing.
The other thing is that, with these agreements that have been signed under the NSG with India and with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], the monitoring of civilian nuclear cooperation and the use of civilian nuclear fuel, or fuel meant for civilian purposes, by India is not adequate. There is no real guarantee that material from this particular area will not be diverted for weapons use.
These are some of the factors that cause concern for us that an FMCT concluded now would leave us vulnerable because there would be ways of getting around an FMCT through the civilian nuclear track.
ACT: Accepting for the sake of argument that India is somewhat ahead of Pakistan at this point—because India’s civilian program is significantly bigger than Pakistan’s and if your concern is the implications of the civil nuclear deal, wouldn’t that mean the gap between the two countries would get larger and larger? Even if there’s a relatively small gap now, wouldn’t it be strategically in your interest to hold that gap as it is rather than allow it to expand as it could if this scenario you’re describing materializes?
Akram: No, as I said, with the program that we have, we are working toward ensuring that we have sufficient fissile material that would give us a more credible assurance of deterrence. So we need to build up to a point that we are assured of that number. Now, what the number is, I can’t tell you because we don’t know how many and what the Indians will be doing. Even if we have an idea where both of us are today, with the fact that they will now get access to very large amounts of fissile material, and how they will use that fissile material, we need to compensate for that now. We need to start working on that possibility now so that even if there is a gap, it’s not a huge, big gap, and that despite the gap, our second-strike, or our deterrence, capability is credible.
ACT: As you said in your [Stimson Center] talk, if a minimum credible deterrent depends to a certain extent on what the other side has, that number is only going to go up in the future as both sides continue to build. As India’s goes up, if it takes advantage of this situation that you’re describing, then yours will have to go up as well, will it not?
Akram: As I said, there are two things. One is potential: their potential for increasing their stocks will go up as a result of the NSG agreements. That’s number one. Number two, we cannot discount the possibility of diversion from civilian to military. So taking these into account, we have to build our own capacity to a point where we feel comfortable with our deterrent.
ACT: Why can’t the issue of existing stocks be addressed once negotiations on an FMCT are under way at the CD? Even if Pakistan itself would not be prepared to join an FMCT in the coming years, once the treaty is negotiated, why prevent other countries from reaching agreement on such an accord by blocking consensus on the agenda?
Akram: Those are two questions. As for the second one, we’re not blocking—okay, we’re blocking in the CD, but they can take it out and negotiate it outside if they want to. The countries that have already declared a moratorium on production of fissile material for weapons, they can convert that moratorium into an international treaty among themselves—the five nuclear-weapon states, or if the Indians want to join them, so much the better. Fine.
As for the other question, we are concerned that the negotiations that are being envisaged right now will be concluded in a way that the major powers want. The major powers have themselves, in informal meetings, very clearly stated, “We are not ready to include stocks.” If you permit me to say, this so-called Shannon mandate is an eyewash. It’s basically what we call constructive ambiguity in the UN. It’s a means of getting around a difficult issue and fudging the problem. That’s what constructive ambiguity is.
That’s not good enough for us at this point. In 1998, 1999, when this issue of an FMCT came up and the Canadians came up with this idea of what was then being called the Shannon mandate, that could work then. But now you have—as I say, the NSG waiver is a game changer. At least for us, it has made a big difference. So now we can’t deal with ambiguity. If we’re going to deal with stocks, it has to be up front. It has to be accepted that, yes, we’re going to negotiate reductions of stocks and a ban on future production. That’s our position.
ACT: Why not start that process, where you can make those points, rather than prevent the process from moving ahead?
Akram: As I say, this process will not take long to complete because they are ready with their commitments. They are ready with what they want. I don’t see this going to be a long, drawn-out process.
But anyway, what you’re saying is, why can’t we talk about it, right? Fine, in the CD they can talk about it. We don’t have to say we are negotiating it, but we can talk about it. And we’ve done this for many years, talked about different things. We talked for several years about chemical weapons before we actually negotiated the Chemical Weapons Convention.
ACT: Some countries have suggested that if the CD cannot begin talks on an FMCT soon, they will seek action in the UN General Assembly on an FMCT. Others, including the P5 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council— China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States], are holding discussions outside the CD to help sort through the issues that are blocking negotiation of an FMCT. What is Pakistan’s view of any role for the General Assembly in negotiating such a treaty? Why wouldn’t Pakistan welcome the chance to discuss its views on fissile material with the P5 and other states, including possibly India?
Akram: As for our position on the UN’s role, of course, the UN can set up a group of governmental experts to negotiate anything. There’s no way we can oppose that; that’s fine. But it’s not mandatory for anyone to be there, so whoever wants to be there can be there. Fine. On the role of the UN, there is no problem, they can do what they want; the UN can take a decision on this.
As regards the participation by some of these countries in informal talks, like the scientific- and technical-level talks, I was all for scientific- and technical-level talks if they are in the CD, to elaborate ideas about verification, about scope, about definition, all those things. We can talk about these in the CD, we never opposed it. In fact, I told Japan and Australia, the two of them who were spearheading this, that it’s better to do it in the CD than outside the CD. If you’re doing it outside the CD, the CD is not bound by it, so what is the value addition?
As for the P5-plus, the problem is on several levels. First of all, the P5 is not a recognized group in the CD. The P5 can have its own say on whatever it wants to say. But the idea that the five nuclear-weapon states and the three new nuclear-weapon states can get together and decide this issue for the rest of the world is something which we find is a bit presumptuous. This is not the way that we need to proceed with an international treaty. You can’t have five or eight countries decide and basically come and tell [the other countries], “This is it; sign onto it.” That’s not the right kind of approach. If we want to have a discussion on what the issues are, we’re ready for that. We do engage with all of them in an informal setting in the CD itself or outside the CD; we do that. But to have a process called a P5-plus-N3 process on an FMCT, I don’t think the nuclear- weapon states have the authority to do this.
ACT: Given Pakistan’s concern about the further expansion of India’s fissile material stockpiles, has Islamabad raised the issue directly with New Delhi? Is it possible for the two countries to engage in bilateral arms control efforts to slow the current arms race?
Akram: I mentioned in the talk today what we call the “strategic restraint regime.” The strategic restraint regime had three parts—has three parts, because it’s still on the table. One is strategic: that deals with a bilateral commitment not to test nuclear weapons, a commitment not to deploy new technologies such as ballistic missile defense systems or submarine launch systems, those kinds of destabilizing things. On the conventional side, we’ve offered discussions on balanced reduction of forces, conventional forces. And on the third, political side, we’ve advocated dialogue to resolve outstanding issues like Kashmir.
So, there is a comprehensive proposal out there. So far, what we have succeeded in is identifying and agreeing on some confidence-building measures such as early warning about missile tests, prior warning about military exercises, these kinds of small things. But we have not ventured into the critical areas.
This proposal was made in 1998-1999; now we’re more than 10 years after. In that time, a major shift has taken place, what I call the game changer. As a result of this U.S.-Indian nuclear deal and as a result of the NSG waiver and India’s arrangements, agreements with the United States, with Israel, with Russia on conventional arms buildup, plus transfer of ballistic missile technology, transfer of space technology, which can help build intercontinental ballistic missiles, and which also involves now leased Russian nuclear-powered submarines with submarine-launched missiles—all these are developments that have radically altered the strategic environment in South Asia and, at least from our perspective, encouraged a greater degree of belligerence on the part of the Indians.
[In the Stimson Center talk,] I mentioned Cold Start. This has obviously raised concerns in Pakistan about our security vis-à-vis India. We’ve had to respond. We’ve taken measures that would ensure that we continue to maintain a credible deterrent. But we’re ready to talk to the Indians as well.
Unfortunately, of course, the Indians look at this discussion on strategic issues as something that does not involve only Pakistan. They say that, well, Pakistan’s nuclear capability is India specific, which it is. But they say that our nuclear capability is not Pakistan specific.
ACT: “Our” being India’s?
Akram: India’s. The Indians say that Indian nuclear capabilities are not Pakistan specific, so we’re not going to discuss it only with you.
ACT: Meaning it’s also China specific?
Akram: They don’t say that, but they imply it.
So now here too, I’m going back in time, in the early 1990s, before either side had tested in 1998, in the early 1990s when we were making all kinds of efforts to make progress on these things, we had actually convinced China to become a part of the 5-plus-2 discussion, which included the P5 plus India and Pakistan, in a dialogue to address these issues of nuclear buildup and security. That again was not acceptable to the Indians. So these things have been tried. Effort has been made for a dialogue, but you need a partner.
ACT: Some analysts have expressed concern that Pakistan’s development of smaller nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield, potentially in response to an Indian conventional attack, raises the risk of a nuclear war in South Asia. What proposals, if any, has your country recently discussed with or offered to India to reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange?
Akram: I think the most important approach here is to find ways to resolve our differences and reduce the existing tensions. That’s the most effective way of progressing on this front.
As long as that is not something that has been achieved, we need to have efficient, reliable confidence-building systems and measures, like a hotline, which we have, like advance notification of flights and other things, that we have. These are processes that are there. We can improve them, fine-tune them, increase their reliability and all these things, but we also need to be able to use them. Sometimes, situations have arisen where the hotline has never been used. These are very important things that we need to do, but overall, deterrence has to be made credible. That’s the only real way of ensuring, in the absence of anything else, a credible deterrent, which is the only way that we can preserve stability, peace, and security. This is what I said in that five-point plan that I mentioned [in the Stimson Center talk]; it’s just the first thing.
ACT: Part of the concern here is that developing these kinds of weapons potentially lowers the threshold for nuclear use and that it makes it easier for a conflict to escalate to the nuclear level. How do you factor that into the equation?
Akram: It does. But then, you see, we have to look at it from an action-reaction kind of process. What is it that we are trying to do here? We are trying to ensure that our deterrent remains credible. Why are we doing this? Because the situation has changed dramatically over the last five to 10 years, especially as a result of the kind of agreements and understandings that have been reached between the United States and India and some other countries that I mentioned.
This has brought a lot of qualitative change. It’s not just the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement; the nuclear cooperation is just part of a broader strategic engagement that involves transfer of a huge amount of advanced technology including [ballistic missile defense] technology. It involves opportunities for India to purchase the latest versions of fighter aircraft and other kinds of military equipment from the United States, Russia, Israel, and others.
We have to deal with capabilities. Any country will look at its opponent’s capabilities and then will have to assess how it is going to respond to these capabilities in order to ensure that its security is not compromised. This is the way we find is the most cost-effective way to do it. We can’t afford to be involved in a race with India tank for tank, aircraft for aircraft, submarine for submarine. We can look at other ways of trying to find the same solutions.
Yes, it causes a dangerous environment. It does. But both sides have to recognize that there is a shared interest in avoiding such a situation. That’s why I said that confidence-building measures—the best confidence building, of course, is to resolve your problems, so you don’t have any reason to be concerned. But short of that, you need to find ways to ensure that both sides are assured that nothing is happening that can cause alarm, and that requires effective confidence-building measures.
ACT: You already mentioned Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Subsequently, each country pledged not to be the first to resume testing. Has your government discussed how this mutual test moratorium might evolve into a legally binding, verifiable ban on nuclear test explosions? For instance, is Islamabad willing to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty if New Delhi does so?
Akram: Yes, we have said so. If India does, we will too.
ACT: Is there any discussion about moving that ahead?
Akram: Between India and Pakistan? No, unfortunately we have not had a discussion on this, whether or not to move forward, on how to move forward. I think there is no real incentive for the Indians to move forward, actually. If you have been reading some of the work that’s coming out, George Perkovich [of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] actually wrote that, with the kind of deal that’s been given to it, the NSG and the other things, the incentive for India to move toward the CTBT is even less.
ACT: What kind of incentives would be required, do you think, to move India to that position?
Akram: Not giving them more fissile material through preferential treatment. What more can I say? Our position is very clear.
ACT: Pakistan has linked its position on FMCT negotiations to its receipt of a waiver from the NSG so it can participate in global nuclear commerce, as India now can. How would the waiver address Pakistan’s concerns about the fissile material imbalance it sees?
Akram: It would give us access to civilian-use fissile material that we would be able to use for our civilian technology and for producing energy and whatever we need it for. But more important than the nuts and bolts of it is the principle of it, that Pakistan needs to be treated as a country which has as much of a legitimate right as India does to have a nuclear capability.
ACT: So it’s not on the substance of the fissile material issue, because the issue of your concern is fissile material for weapons. This wouldn’t address that, certainly not directly. Even indirectly, as we discussed earlier, it wouldn’t help Pakistan in the same way it helps India because India has a much larger program, and I don’t think you have the same shortfall of uranium that India does. It wouldn’t seem that this would have the same impact on Pakistan’s ability to produce fissile material for weapons as it would, under your scenario, for India.
Akram: But it would place us on a par. More than that, it would give us access to civilian nuclear technology that is being denied to us under these restrictions, allow us to engage in nuclear cooperation with other countries, and there is a whole host of things. If that requires us to be able to be a part of these negotiations on an FMCT, we are willing to pay the price to start these negotiations. There has to be some kind of a trade-off. We’ve been cut out of this whole business, even though Pakistan was not the one that started this nuclear race in South Asia in the first place.
So we are ready to be a part of this process if we are given equivalence, if we are treated on par with India.
ACT: Just to clarify, if Pakistan had an NSG waiver like India, Pakistan would be willing to enter negotiations on an FMCT?
ACT: Even with ambiguity about the mandate?
Akram: Yes. I mean, we would like to have a clearer mandate, but with the kind of situation that exists now, I don’t think that is something that is likely to happen.
ACT: How much support is there, do you think, within the NSG for such a Pakistan waiver?
Akram: I think there are very few countries—the thing is that it just takes one country to block in the NSG, because it’s by consensus. We feel that a case needs to be made in Pakistan’s favor just as a case was made by the United States in India’s favor. The argument that India has a better nonproliferation record than Pakistan was one of the issues that was cited. But I can show you statement after statement after statement, and sanctions after sanctions imposed on India by the United States itself for nonproliferation misdemeanors.
That’s not the argument. One of these Indian journalists was saying, “Well, what about [Abdul Qadeer] Khan?” I said the issue of A.Q. Khan is something which has been used again and again to deny us this kind of status. There are several examples of proliferation activities by India which were basically brushed under the carpet when it was decided to give the Indians this deal. So that is what is needed; you need basically a political decision that we have to move on and we have to change the game now. That’s what is required.
ACT: Is there a country in the NSG that is willing to do for Pakistan what the United States did for India? Do you have someone who is willing to make the case for you within the NSG?
Akram: I can’t speak for any other country. All I will say is that we have civilian nuclear cooperation with China. And that’s under IAEA safeguards; these nuclear reactors at Chashma, Chashma-1 and -2, are in operation; now we are working on [Chashma-]3 and -4. We do have nuclear cooperation. This is under a grandfather clause that the Chinese used when they joined the NSG.
But we need to move beyond this. There are three countries that are not parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but have nuclear capability. You’ve given only one of them a special dispensation. There needs to be a criteria-based approach that would make all three eligible, if they want to engage in this thing. This is something that you can’t roll back. It’s like toothpaste out of a tube. What can you do? You have to deal with this reality.
ACT: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much; we appreciate it.
1. In 2008, the NSG agreed to exempt India from the group’s general rules by allowing India to receive nuclear exports from NSG members although New Delhi does not apply so-called full-scope safeguards, that is, does not open all its nuclear facilities to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. See Wade Boese, “NSG, Congress Approve Nuclear Trade With India,” Arms Control Today, October 2008.
2. The five countries recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as nuclear-weapon states are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (Because those are the same countries that make up the P5, the term “P5” often is used to refer to those countries in their role as NPT nuclear-weapon states.) Three additional countries—India, Israel, and Pakistan—have never joined the NPT and operate nuclear programs that are unsafeguarded.
4. When China joined the NSG in 2004, the other members of the group agreed that certain Chinese projects in Pakistan could be “grandfathered,” that is, China could continue with those existing projects although Pakistan does not accept full-scope safeguards. China reportedly has argued that Chashma-3 and -4 are covered by that agreement. See “The NSG in a Time of Change: An Interview With NSG Chairman Piet de Klerk,” Arms Control Today, October 2011; Daniel Horner, “China, Pakistan Set Reactor Deal,” Arms Control Today, June 2010.
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