It was a bombshell by any measure. Since it was signed 40 years ago, Indian leaders have been firmly against joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an agreement that prohibits nonnuclear states from acquiring such weapons, commits nuclear-weapons states to disarmament, and regulates the peaceful use of nuclear energy to prevent the weaponization of nuclear technology. But in a move that will have significant implications for India as a rising power, and for global diplomacy, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reversed course publicly on Nov. 29, saying that India is willing to join the NPT as a nuclear-weapons state.
Whether India follows through remains an open question, but pursuing NPT status would confer enormous benefits to the country. It would enhance its image as a responsible great power without forcing it to sacrifice its nuclear deterrent. It would send a message to Iran about its suspected proliferation activities without India having to challenge Iran directly about its nuclear intentions. It would enhance the stature of the treaty itself by throwing India's growing political weight as a responsible nuclear power behind the NPT at a moment when the treaty is under attack in light of North Korean and Iranian violations of it. By signing on, India can claim it is contributing even more to the fight against nuclear proliferation than it has in the past—and blunt criticism that the 2008 nuclear accord Singh's government signed with the U.S. undermines nonproliferation efforts by allowing India to obtain civilian nuclear technology without being part of the NPT. India's NPT strategy would also wrong-foot Pakistan, which used India's NPT stance to justify its own acquisition of nuclear weapons, and would put greater scrutiny on Islamabad and its poor nonproliferation record.
India's pursuit of NPT status would also force NPT members to engage in far-reaching strategic calculations of their own, concerning how to respond to India and its increasing geopolitical significance. To admit India as a nuclear--weapons state, NPT members would have to amend the treaty—specifically, the provision that defines nuclear-weapons states as those that manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon before Jan. 1, 1967. That means the member countries will have to decide how to balance their commitment to the NPT with their need to avoid ostracizing India as a strategic actor in world affairs. Two of the most important NPT members, the U.S. and China, will need to make particularly difficult strategic choices. Washington must decide if it is willing to oppose the NPT amendment, even if doing so would mean risking its improved relations with New Delhi, and harming its efforts to further strengthen ties at a time that U.S. interests in South Asia and concerns about China are deepening. Beijing, for that matter, must decide if it is willing to oppose Indian membership and risk being perceived as acting selfishly rather than in the interests of nonproliferation.
India may have other motivations in changing its policy. Singh's move may help India deflect arguments that it should also accept the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement that would ban all testing of nuclear weapons, which proponents of a nuclear-free world consider critical. By changing India's NPT stance, Singh has heightened its policy importance and moves the CTBT to the diplomatic background. In doing so, he has made it easier for New Delhi to resist entreaties to join the CTBT, while it negotiates accession and implements its NPT obligations, thus preserving its ability to test weapons to maintain its nuclear deterrent. Indian accession to the NPT might actually create obstacles to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons by complicating efforts to achieve a comprehensive ban on all nuclear testing.
For India, expressing interest in joining the treaty as a nuclear-weapons state is a shrewd move. It realigns critical aspects of global nuclear diplomacy around Indian ideas, interests, and influence in ways New Delhi's hostility to the NPT never achieved. No matter what happens now, India's shift on the treaty promises to bring benefits to the country and present difficult challenges to friends and rivals alike.