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  June 1998    

Point of View
Editors' note: This new "Point of View" essay series reflects the UNU's mandate to provide scholarship that clarifies pressing global issues with analysis by experts in the field. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations University.

South Asian nuclear tests: Accentuating the positive

By Ramesh Thakur
Pakistan's nuclear tests are the expected response to India's. China has 1.2 billion people, India almost a billion, and Pakistan around 140 million. India has a border conflict with China in which the latter has the territorial upper hand. Pakistan has a border dispute with India in which the latter has the territorial upper hand. Relative to their populations, India is the least militarized of the three. China joined the nuclear club in 1964, India followed suit 34 years later, Pakistan just two weeks later. Had the world been as understanding of and responsive to India's security concerns in the two months before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as it has been with Pakistan in the last two weeks, we might never have got to today's sorry state.

But that is history. Now the need is to accentuate the positive at the global, regional and bilateral levels. This includes, in particular, clearing away the cobwebs that have accumulated over more than fifty years of nuclear discourse.

The thickest cobweb is the strange Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) definition of a nuclear-weapon state: not one which has and deploys nuclear weapons, but one which conducted tests before 1 January 1967. This is Alice in Wonderland stuff of making words mean whatever we want them to mean.

The "in-your-face" nuclear tests have changed world strategic realities. Can the world cope, or will it retreat into a sulk?

As Indians gradually wake up to the sobering consequences of the nuclear genie they have let loose in their own region, they might better appreciate why non-proliferation is essential for nuclear disarmament. A worsening security environment will not be conducive to any further rollback of nuclear weapons by the Big Five.

But the reverse is also true. Comments from London, Brussels and Washington confirm that the nuclear powers still don't get it. Their choice after the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 was not between progress and the status quo. It was between progress and regress: a progression down to zero for the existing nuclear powers, or the spread of nuclear weapons to others. The contrary belief defied common sense, logic and all human history.

The whiff of hypocrisy in the statements of condemnation from those who have nuclear weapons robs their comments of any value in the minds of the billion Indians and Pakistanis. On any objective analysis, both India and Pakistan have much better justification for going nuclear than Britain or France have for staying nuclear.

Because the United States insists on retaining nuclear weapons, Russia cannot reduce its stockpile to zero. So long as Russia and the US will keep nuclear weapons, China will not eliminate its stockpile. Because China is the principal long-term security threat to India, Delhi would not surrender the option of acquiring nuclear weapons. Without Indian renunciation, Pakistan did not buckle either.

The circuit-breaker in this countervailing nuclear-weapons capability spiral is the US. By eliminating its stockpile of nuclear weapons, Washington would prove that national security can be safeguarded without nuclear weapons capability. Others could then follow. Potential proliferators would be most impressed by such a levelling down of the security field.

Conversely, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries will erode the US advantage as the world's dominant power, and multiply the number of potential trouble spots where it might be called upon to intervene. Having breached the spirit of the CTBT, which it did sign, through subcritical testing, Washington is no position to lecture India and Pakistan, which did not sign the CTBT.

Perhaps now the world will seriously take up the challenge of a nuclear weapons convention that applies to all.

Regionally, China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear-missile programme must have been based on the assumption that India would accept a permanent inferior status vis--vis China. This has been proven wrong, and China's own strategic environment has worsened as a result. Now perhaps Beijing might be more responsive to a dialogue that improves the common security of all.

The nationalist government in Delhi has issued many inflammatory statements against Pakistan and China. It must show genuine leadership instead. Coming out of the nuclear closet makes it possible, and desperately urgent, to establish the apparatus of mutual deterrence and arms control, including no-first-use agreements. Delhi should express understanding for Pakistan's predicament and offer the full range of diplomatic assistance in combating the sanctions that have been imposed on both countries.

"On any objective analysis, both India and Pakistan have much better justification for going nuclear than Britain or France have for staying nuclear."
Nuclear countries will lose credibility and leverage if they impose harsh punitive sanctions. It is in no one's interest for South Asia to spin out of nuclear control. Nor does it make sense to mount an international rescue effort to save Indonesia while pushing South Asia to the same precipice of economic meltdown and sociopolitical collapse. One-fifth of humanity cannot be isolated or written off.

Why India tested first

The nuclear tests carried out by India were regrettable, disappointing and wrong - but they were also understandable. They demonstrated an underestimated level of nuclear sophistication, an unexpected strength of political will and an unsuspected ability to evade advance detection.

India's nuclear pursuit is based on a flawed grasp of contemporary international realities and mistaken calculations of national security needs and responses. India had four options: to become an overt Nuclear Weapons State (NWS); to reject the NPT but sign the CTBT; to renounce the nuclear option; or to maintain the threshold status while keeping open the nuclear option.

Advocates of the nuclear option argued that nuclear weapons would enhance India's international status, ensure its strategic autonomy, erode great-power hegemony, reinforce India's leading role in the Third World and the nonaligned movement, expand its diplomatic choices in global affairs, and stabilize relations with China and Pakistan. They perceived the nuclear option as a cost-effective "political force multiplier" against China's nuclear-weapons status and conventional superiority. The destabilizing effects of India's nuclear option on relations with Pakistan were regarded as regrettable but acceptable "collateral damage."

On the other hand, India's choice of the nuclear option was likely to trigger a fresh round of conventional and nuclear arms escalation in the region and unleash diplomatic and military forces of unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences. The net gain to national security would be nil: India would be buying into insecurity at higher levels of military sophistication and expenditure vis--vis China and Pakistan. There are also many other costs of the nuclear option for India, not the least of which are the large volumes of human, financial, and material inputs soaked up by a nuclear programme and the serious damage to India's political credibility among nonaligned and Third World nations.

The correct choice for India would have been to follow the example of other developing countries and decide that the military and political benefits of the nuclear option are illusory and to give it up completely by signing both the NPT and the CTBT. Renouncing the nuclear option would have enabled India to focus its energies on economic growth as today's currency of power and reclaim the disarmament moral high ground. By carrying out the tests, India has put itself on the wrong side of history. Why?

Domestically, the Vajpayee government has nothing to lose and much to gain by tapping resurgent nationalist sentiment. The uneasy coalition of 20 parties has been lurching from one crisis to another. Its collapse has often seemed imminent, threatening yet another election. The tests have enhanced the government's stature and the prime minister's authority. Instant polls showed a 91 per cent approval rating, even though 80 per cent of those polled also said they believed that Pakistan would follow suit with its own tests.

The Indian Government has seized the high ground, making it difficult for any political party to criticize it for fear of being branded unpatriotic. The Bharatiya Janata Party is arguing that only it has the courage of nuclear convictions that previous governments demonstrably lacked. This should ensure some stability for the government, as no other party would risk another election in which the BJP would be returned with a triumphant majority.

Regionally, India has faced strategic encirclement through nuclear missile collusion between Pakistan and China. After the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 and the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, New Delhi faced the cruel choice of "use it or lose it" on the long-held nuclear option.

The signals of international defiance are even more interesting. The Canberra Commission on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons in 1996 argued that it defied credulity to believe that a self-appointed group of five countries could forever maintain a monopoly on one type of weaponry. That conclusion has been vindicated.

The world cannot allow India to defy the developing anti-nuclear norm with impunity. But what to do? The dilemma is this: A moderate response will be self-defeating. India's nuclear hawks will feel vindicated, saying that India is now being treated with respect because it has nuclear weapons, which should therefore be openly deployed in numbers. A harsh response will be self-fulfilling. The hawks will argue that a friendless India which is the target of hostile international attention needs an arsenal of nuclear weapons to defend its interests.

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