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Insights into Editorial: At the edge of a new nuclear arms race



In mid-April, a report issued by the United States State Department on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report)” raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nur test site, in violation of its Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) undertakings.

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.

Russia and China have rejected the U.S.’s claims, but with growing rivalry among major powers the report is a likely harbinger of a new nuclear arms race.

What is Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)?

It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996, but has not entered into force.

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a legally binding global ban on nuclear explosive testing.

It is a multilateral treaty that bans all nuclear explosions, for both civilian and military purposes, in all environments.

Since the time it was opened for signature, India did not support the treaty based on its discriminatory nature.

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.

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.

Of the 44 listed countries, to date only 36 have ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S. have signed but not ratified.

North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission is based in Vienna.

The organization promotes the ratification of the treaty, and implements the verification regime so that it is fully operational when the treaty enters into force.

Drawbacks regarding CTBT:

  1. 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.
  2. However, US announced a science-based nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program to keep the nuclear laboratories in business and the US happy.
  3. Accordingly, the CTBT prohibits all parties from carrying out “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion”; these terms are neither defined nor elaborated.
  4. Another controversy arose regarding the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14) of the treaty.
  5. 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.
  6. Unhappy at this turn, the U.K., China and Pakistan took the lead in revising the entry-into-force provisions.
  7. The new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India.
  8. 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.
  9. CTBT has therefore not entered into force and lacks legal authority.

In order to operationalize this treaty, some measures have been taken to build trust among the states, such as:

The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)- Established in 1997, it has been working towards bringing the Treaty into force, making preparations for effective implementation, in particular by establishing its verification regime and also operate the IMS in it.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO):

  1. The supporting organisation of the treaty, i.e. CTBTO has been trying to build trust with India and address its concerns which have restricted India from joining it.
  2. In this direction, the CTBTO has invited India to join as an observer, which will let India know what is going on this front and obtain benefits from its information without actually binding itself.
  3. Nevertheless, an international organisation to verify the CTBT was established in Vienna and an annual budget of $130 million.
  4. 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.
  5. The CTBTO has refrained from backing the U.S.’s allegations.
  6. Russia and China have been concerned about the S.’s growing technological lead particularly in missile defence and conventional global precision-strike capabilities.
  7. 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.
  8. In addition, both countries are also investing heavily in offensive cyber capabilities.
  9. The new U.S. report stops short of accusing China for a violation but refers to “a high level of activity at the Lop Nur test site throughout 2019” and concludes that together with its lack of transparency, China provokes concerns about its intent to observe the zero-yield moratorium on testing.
  10. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits U.S. and Russian arsenals but will expire in 2021 and U.S. has already indicated that it does not plan to extend it.
  11. Instead, US would like to bring China into some kind of nuclear arms control talks, something China has avoided by pointing to the fact that the S. and Russia still account for over 90% of global nuclear arsenals.


Both China and Russia have dismissed the U.S.’s allegations, pointing to the US administration’s backtracking from other negotiated agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal or the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

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.

The Cold War rivalry was already visible when the nuclear arms race began in the 1950s. 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.

It is “high time” to bring the treaty into force and countries should take the last steps to finish one of the longest sought international instruments in the area of non-proliferation and disarmament.