Pakistan declared in January that it had strengthened its opposition to negotiating a treaty banning the production of fissile material as it prepared to bolster its nuclear arsenal.
Islamabad’s position threatens to prolong a 14-year stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the United Nations’ arms control negotiating body, which operates on a consensus basis. Pakistan has been the only country blocking the start of negotiations on a so-called fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the CD for more than two years, leading some of the body’s 65 member states to search for ways around the Pakistani roadblock, including holding negotiations outside the CD.
Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the CD, reiterated in a Jan. 25 statement that Pakistan opposes opening negotiations on an FMCT in the CD because of a 2008 agreement by the world’s key nuclear technology suppliers to lift long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with India. (See ACT, October 2008.) This action, he said, “will further accentuate the asymmetry in fissile materials stockpiles in the region, to the detriment of Pakistan’s security interests.”
Pakistan and other critics of the move by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which now has 46 members, have argued that, because India now has access to the international nuclear market, it can purchase foreign uranium for its nuclear power reactors and therefore keep its limited domestic uranium reserves for its military program, potentially allowing it to field a larger nuclear arsenal.
Islamabad has maintained that a fissile material ban must cover existing stocks of fissile material instead of simply halting future production, a position backed by several other CD members, primarily from the developing world. Most nuclear weapons possessors, including India, insist on a production cutoff that does not address current stockpiles.
Akram added that Pakistan’s opposition was further hardened by a U.S. call for India’s eventual admission to the NSG, a move he characterized as an “irresponsible undertaking” that “shall further destabilize security in South Asia.” (See ACT, December 2010.) According to Akram, because such admission would allow India to enhance its own nuclear arsenal, “Pakistan will be forced to take measures to ensure the credibility of its deterrence.”
Pakistan has sought to counter India’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities by expanding its nuclear arsenal and moving from larger highly enriched uranium-based weapons to more compact plutonium-based warheads.
Those efforts reportedly include the construction of two additional plutonium-producing nuclear reactors at Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear complex. Pakistan already has two such reactors at the site, producing an estimated combined total of 22 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for up to four nuclear weapons. Islamabad began constructing a third reactor in 2006 and, according to satellite imagery analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, started work on a fourth in recent months.
After steadily increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile over a number of years, Pakistan is estimated to have up to 110 warheads, all of which are believed to be maintained in central storage, rather than deployed with their delivery systems. Responding to recent reports of Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters Feb. 1, “Pakistan is mindful of the need to avoid an arms race with India,” noting Islamabad’s policy of maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” against its South Asian rival. It is not clear, however, what such a credible minimum deterrent entails.
Seeking a Path Around Pakistan
During the opening of the CD’s 2011 session, the body’s president, Ambassador Marius Grinius of Canada, said there was no agreement on a program of work for the CD, effectively preventing it from beginning substantive negotiations. The CD last adopted a program of work in 2009 after nearly a decade of disagreement, but Pakistan broke the consensus soon after over the FMCT, preventing negotiations from commencing.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held a high-level meeting last September to help “revitalize” the stalled CD, but diplomats said last fall that the session only retraced existing divisions. (See ACT, December 2010.) Several states expressed frustration with the CD stalemate during that meeting and raised the option of pursuing FMCT negotiations outside the CD if progress was not made in 2011. Pakistan, China, and a number of developing countries opposed such a prospect.
In their opening remarks to the 2011 session of the CD, many delegations, including those from the European Union, Japan, Mexico, and the United States, reiterated the potential for an alternative negotiating process on an FMCT. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, told the body Jan. 27 that “the longer the CD languishes, the louder and more persistent such calls will become.” She stressed in a press briefing later that day, however, that it is the “absolute first priority” of the United States to seek negotiations inside the CD. She declined to speculate on other options.
Although delegations would not say how much time the CD should be given to resolve the current impasse, Mexico’s ambassador to the CD, Juan José Camacho, proposed in a Jan. 25 statement that members establish a deadline for the CD to adopt a program of work.
Stressing the importance of preserving the function of the CD as the sole multilateral negotiating body for arms control, Ban warned in Jan. 26 remarks to the body, “We must not risk pushing states to resort to alternative arrangements outside the Conference on Disarmament.” He expressed support for starting an informal process on an FMCT in the CD prior to beginning negotiations in order to build trust among members.
The United States indicated that if there was no agreement to start FMCT negotiations, it would back a dual track of formal and informal FMCT talks. “We strongly support the idea of robust plenary discussion on broad FMCT issues, reinforced by expert-level technical discussions on specific FMCT topics,” Gottemoeller said.
Throughout February, CD members held plenary discussions on an FMCT, as well as other issues on the body’s agenda. In addition, Australia and Japan co-hosted a first round of expert-level talks in mid-February focused on the subject of defining key aspects of a treaty, including what would be considered fissile material and what constitutes production of that material. Diplomats from CD members said in February that a second round of experts’ talks on verification is expected this month.
Although several states supported the Australian-Japanese initiative, China and Pakistan said in remarks to the CD Feb. 17 that they did not attend the session. Chinese CD ambassador Wang Qun told the body that conclusions drawn from such informal discussions did not have standing in the CD. Akram raised concerns that such informal talks could undermine the role of the CD as the sole negotiating body for such issues.
In spite of Islamabad’s opposition, “Pakistan has not taken any action to date to seek to block either the plenary discussions or the expert-level talks,” a State Department official said in a Feb. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. The official added that although Pakistan could “create some problems on the plenary discussions,” it would not be able to prevent the expert-level talks, which are being hosted on a national basis although they still are linked to the CD.
Diplomats from states supporting the experts’ talks told Arms Control Today that even if the talks are being held on an informal basis, delegations initially opposing them may realize after some time that their interests are served better by participating in them, rather than being left out. They also stressed that such discussions are important for addressing complex technical issues before negotiations begin and could lay the groundwork for eventual negotiations in the meantime.