India Has Nuclear Bombs—But It’s Not Defined As a ‘Nuclear Power’

Among the big changes in the global strategic landscape since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force in 1970 is the expansion of the nuclear club from five to nine.

All five nuclear powers at that time were recognised as nuclear-weapon states by the NPT. Since then, four more countries have gate-crashed the exclusive nuclear club: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

The first three have been de facto nuclear-armed states for decades, and North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. But because of an Alice-in-Wonderland definition in the treaty—nuclear-weapon states are countries that nuclear-tested before 1 January 1967—they can’t be recognised as nuclear-weapon states.

The legal straitjacket means the NPT can’t function as the normative framework for the nuclear policies of four of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states: a triumph of definitional purity over strategic reality.

The NPT is supplemented by several other treaties and arrangements that together constitute the broader non-proliferation regime. All are designed to reinforce the NPT standards. On the one hand, part of the NPT bargain is to help non-nuclear-weapon states in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy.

On the other, the treaty prohibits any form of assistance to non-nuclear states in getting the bomb. Accordingly, assistance with peaceful applications of nuclear energy is subject to safeguards, and increasingly stringent export controls were instituted to eliminate the risk of nuclear trade being diverted into weapons programs.

There are four key arms control export arrangements. India’s 1974 nuclear test showed that reliance on the good faith of a recipient of nuclear assistance was misplaced. In response, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established in 1975 to tighten export procedures for sensitive nuclear materials and technology.

The Australia Group was founded in 1985 as an informal forum for the harmonisation of export controls on proliferation-sensitive chemical and biological materials.

The 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime targets missile and drone technology. And the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement is a voluntary regime covering the export of conventional arms and dual-use technologies to problematic states and nonstate groups.

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