Addressing the Nuclear Apartheid at the 2023 G20 Summit


In an influential article published in 1998, the then Indian Minister of External Affairs, Jaswant Singh criticised what he called ‘nuclear apartheid’ in the standards of national security demonstrating inequality of the non-proliferation regime. Twenty-five years later, the non-proliferation regime has experienced little change, albeit the emergence of new non-compliant nuclear weapons states and growing threats of nuclear warfare.

As India gears to host the 2023 G-20 summit amidst growing global instability, addressing the flaws in the non-proliferation regime is paramount.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968 aiming to prevent the spread of nuclear technology while promoting cooperation in furthering the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. In its organisational framework, the NPT divides its member states into two categories: the Nuclear Weapon States and the Non-nuclear Weapon States. Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) are defined as the states that successfully tested a nuclear device before January 1, 1967. The United States, Russia, UK, France and China fall in the category of NWS in the NPT framework. On the other hand, all other nations that do not possess nuclear weapons or have tested their nuclear devices post the January 1, 1967 deadline are considered Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS).

A major criticism of the NPT is the power struggle between the status of Nuclear and Non-nuclear Weapon States under the framework. India and many other non-aligned countries frequently criticise the NPT as a discriminatory treaty that arbitrarily allows only five countries to possess nuclear weapons while restricting the other states from maintaining a nuclear arsenal, leaving their security concerns unaddressed. Although the NWS pledge to work towards universal nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT, the indefinite extension of the treaty in the 1995 review conference has only exacerbated the concerns of nations outside the NPT framework.

India’s Nuclear Conduct

Historically, India has had peaceful nuclear conduct. India was involved in the negotiations for the NPT in its formative stages. India was also one of the first nations to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963. Over the course of several decades, India has emphasised the importance of nuclear disarmament instead of nuclear proliferation. However, Indian initiatives aimed at nuclear disarmament such as the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan failed to gain support from the concerned nations. The growing security concerns led India to conduct the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, declaring itself as a nuclear power. According to Jaswant Singh, India’s decision to conduct the Pokhran-II tests was driven by its unaddressed security concerns in the region and the lack of action on the part of the non-proliferation regime to move towards nuclear disarmament. However, while India has maintained a nuclear arsenal, it has refused to facilitate the spread of nuclear technology to the Non-nuclear Weapon States. India’s contention with respect to the NPT is that the obligations of Article VI also need to be followed rather than just restricting the spread of nuclear weapons, arguing in favour of containing vertical as well as horizontal proliferation.

The 2023 G-20 Summit

In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, the international community has experienced a grave sense of instability with nations possibly looking at nuclear technology to maintain a deterrent against other nuclear powers. As the insecurity is set to rise in the current global order, it is imperative for the non-proliferation regime to ensure international compliance with the NPT. On the other hand, it is also important to bring the non-compliant nuclear weapons states into the NPT’s framework. This calls for a reform in the treaty in order to make it just and feasible for encouraging the outliers to further the cause of nuclear disarmament.

To this end, the New Delhi G-20 Summit seems to be an appropriate platform to advocate for a just Non-Proliferation Treaty. The G-20 comprises all the NWS under the NPT and plays an influential role as an international forum, accounting for two-thirds of the world population and 85% of global GDP.

In a declaration made at the 2022 G-20 Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, the leaders condemned the Russia-Ukraine war stating the threat of use or use of nuclear weapons as “inadmissible”. This lays the ground to go a step further in the process and address the discriminatory nature of the NPT.

India at the helm

This year marks 25 years of the historical Pokhran-II tests. India’s decision to go nuclear was one rooted in mistrust for the non-proliferation regime and a need to ensure national security. The G-20 Summit provides India with an opportunity to address an issue it has for long highlighted – the issue of nuclear apartheid. India, in its presidency, will prioritise the interconnectedness of all life on the planet and the need for inclusive, just, sustainable, and equitable growth for all. Peace, being a prerequisite for growth, must be ensured before making any concrete claims of moving towards an inclusive order. However, the looming threat of conflict going nuclear must be mitigated in a way to foster cooperation and work towards a peaceful world order. A just NPT, once negotiated, will prove to be the bedrock for more concrete dialogue and negotiations, potentially bringing countries like North Korea and Iran into the framework. In a world threatened by great power politics, India must present itself as a representative of the global south, ensuring its national interests while working towards an inclusive non-proliferation regime.

Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari is a Non-resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US. He holds a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia University, India and is currently pursuing Korean language at the University of Delhi. His research interests include Disarmament, Nuclear diplomacy, India's foreign policy, inter-Korean relations and North Korea's nuclear policy.


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