Nuclear Diplomacy and Disarmament

World at the edge of a new nuclear arms race


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: CTBT, New START, INF etc.

Mains level: Paper 2- CTBT and reasons for India's decision to withdraw from the talks.

The focus of this article is on the possible revival of the nuclear arms race among the US, China and Russia. In this context, the purpose and present status of the CTBT, which was aimed at ending the nuclear arms race is also discussed. The article ends by predicting the beginning of new arms race and possible demise of the CTBT.

What were the findings of US compliance report?

  • State Department Report: In mid-April, a report was issued by the United States State Department on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report).
  • Tests with low yields by China: The report raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nur test site.
  • And these tests are conducted in violation of its Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty (CTBT)
  • Violation by Russia: The U.S. report also claims that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produced a nuclear yield and were inconsistent with ‘zero yield’ understanding underlying the CTBT.
  • Though it was uncertain about how many such experiments had been conducted by Russia.
  • Russia and China have rejected the U.S.’s claims.
  • New nuclear arms race: With growing rivalry among major powers the report is a likely harbinger of a new nuclear arms race.
  • The demise of CTBT: This new nuclear arms race would also mark the demise of the CTBT that came into being in 1996 but has failed to enter into force even after a quarter-century.

Background of the CTBT

  • Test ban-first step: For decades, a ban on nuclear testing was seen as the necessary first step towards curbing the nuclear arms race but Cold War politics made it impossible.
  • A Partial Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963 banning underwater and atmospheric tests but this only drove testing underground.
  • By the time the CTBT negotiations began in Geneva in 1994, global politics had changed. The Cold War had ended and the nuclear arms race was over.
  • The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, had broken up and its principal testing site, Semipalatinsk, was in Kazakhstan (Russia still had access to Novaya Zemlya near the Arctic circle).
  • In 1991, Russia declared a unilateral moratorium on testing, followed by the U.S. in 1992.
  • By this time, the U.S. had conducted 1,054 tests and Russia, 715.
  • Negotiations were often contentious.
  • Eventually, the U.S. came up with the idea of defining the “comprehensive test ban” as a “zero yield” test ban that would prohibit supercritical hydro-nuclear tests but not sub-critical hydrodynamic nuclear tests.

Make note of the points mentioned under “entry-into-force” provision given below. The reasons for India’s withdrawal from the negotiation are important from the UPSC perspective.

“Entry-into-force” provision and India’s objections to it

  • Another controversy arose regarding the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14) of the treaty.
  • Why India withdrew from negotiations? After India’s proposals for anchoring the CTBT in a disarmament framework did not find acceptance, in June 1996, India announced its decision to withdraw from the negotiations.
  • Unhappy at this turn, the U.K., China and Pakistan took the lead in revising the entry-into-force provisions.
  • What is “entry-into-force” provision? The new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India.
  • India’s objection: India protested that this attempt at arm-twisting violated a country’s sovereign right to decide if it wanted to join a treaty but was ignored.
  • The CTBT was adopted by a majority vote and opened for signature.
  • Of the 44 listed countries, to date, only 36 have ratified the treaty.
  • Signed but not ratified: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S. have signed but not ratified.
  • China maintains that it will only ratify it after the U.S. does so but the Republican-dominated Senate had rejected it in 1999.
  • Not signed, not ratified: In addition, North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed.
  • All three have also undertaken tests after 1996; India and Pakistan in May 1998 and North Korea six times between 2006 and 2017.
  • The CTBT has therefore not entered into force and lacks legal authority.

An organisation to verify CTBT

  • Even though CTBT has not entered into force, an international organisation to verify the CTBT was established in Vienna with a staff of about 230 persons and an annual budget of $130 million.
  • Ironically, the U.S. is the largest contributor with a share of $17 million.
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) runs an elaborate verification system built around a network of over 325 seismic, radionuclide, infrasound and hydroacoustic (underwater) monitoring stations.
  • The CTBTO has refrained from backing the U.S.’s allegations.

The revival of the nuclear arms race

  • End of the unipolar world for the US: The key change from the 1990s is that the S.’s unipolar moment is over and strategic competition among major powers is back.
  • The U.S. now identifies Russia and China as ‘rivals’.
  • Its Nuclear Posture Review asserts that the U.S. faces new nuclear threats because both Russia and China are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons.
  • The U.S., therefore, has to expand the role of its nuclear weapons and have a more usable and diversified nuclear arsenal.
  • The Trump administration has embarked on a 30-year modernisation plan with a price tag of $1.2 trillion, which could go up over the years.
  • Concerns of Russia and China: Russia and China have been concerned about the U.S.’s growing technological lead particularly in missile defence and conventional global precision-strike capabilities.
  • Russia has responded by exploring hypersonic delivery systems and theatre systems while China has embarked on a modernisation programme to enhance the survivability of its arsenal which is considerably smaller.
  • Cyber capabilities being increased: In addition, both countries are also investing heavily in offensive cyber capabilities.
  • The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits U.S. and Russian arsenals but will expire in 2021
  • And U.S. President Donald Trump has already indicated that he does not plan to extend New START.
  • Instead, the Trump administration would like to bring China into some kind of nuclear arms control talks.
  • But China has avoided such talks by pointing to the fact that the S. and Russia still account for over 90% of global nuclear arsenals.

Context of the US backtracking from negotiated agreements

  • Both China and Russia have dismissed the U.S.’s allegations.
  • They pointed to the Trump administration’s backtracking from other negotiated agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal or the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF)
  • Tensions with China are already high with trade and technology disputes, militarisation in the South China Sea and most recently, with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  • The U.S. could also be preparing the ground for resuming testing at Nevada.

In the context of the latest developments, a question can be asked by the UPSC, for ex- “In the light of the latest developments on the global platform which are pointing to the revival of the nuclear arms race, how far India’s decision to not sign the CTBT is justified?”


New rivalries have already emerged. Resumption of nuclear testing may signal the demise of the ill-fated CTBT, marking the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race. 

Back2Basics: What is “zero-yield test?”

  • This means that the agreement prohibits all nuclear explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction of any kind whether for weapons or peaceful purposes.
  • The decision not to include a specific definition of scope in the Treaty was a deliberate decision by the negotiating parties, including the United States, made to ensure that no loopholes were created by including a highly technical and specific list of what specific activities were and were not permitted under the Treaty.
  • A thorough review of the history of the Treaty negotiation process, as well as statements by world leaders and the negotiators of the agreement, shows that all states understand and accept the CTBT as a “zero-yield” treaty.

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4 years ago

– “In the light of the latest developments on the global platform which are pointing to the revival of the nuclear arms race, how far India’s decision to not sign the CTBT is justified

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4 years ago
Reply to  Sonia Katariya

please review and correct me on mistakes and missing things.
thank you.

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4 years ago

Hello ,
I think you elaborated too much about what china and Russia are doing and totally missed the essence of the question.
Your answer lacks arguments in support of India’s move.

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4 years ago

thank you so much sir.. I will correct on it.


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