M.L. Sondhi

Times of India, New Delhi, July 9, 1998

The resumption of nuclear explosives testing by India and its initiation by Pakistan have likely brought an end to the non-proliferation regime that the NPT initiated and the CTBT was intended to secure.  As with all qualitatively new developments, it has generated a great deal of confusion.  This is true of India despite its authorship of the current developments, and of the United States which remains the guarantor of last resort of all international regimes.  Leaving aside the level of clarity prevailing in New Delhi, it is to the perceptions and policies of Washington that I wish to address myself.

First three background facts, commonly misunderstood:

  • India’s nuclear weapons program has everything to do with China and little to do with Pakistan.

If Pakistan were India’s only threat, India would have every incentive to keep South Asia free of nuclear weapons, leaving it free to use its conventional dominance to secure its interests vis--vis Pakistan.  Indeed the Indian nuclear weapons program began as a response to the defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war being followed by the 1964 testing of a nuclear weapon by China; the 1974 test by India took place after the formation of Bangladesh when Pakistan had ceased to be a credible threat to Indian interests.  That this is rarely said in public is testimony to the Indian elite’s hypersensitivity to Chinese reactions, which is characteristically displaced to obsessive verbal exchange with Pakistan or to complaints that the US is unwilling to restrain China.  This appeasement of China by India, starting with the latter’s entry into Tibet is now extracting a terrible price from India’s nuclear diplomacy for the country seems to be in the position of arguing that it developed a hydrogen bomb in order to make the case for universal disarmament!

  • India tested because of the technical requirements of weapons design and not because of BJP domestic political compulsions.

The entire point of the CTBT, summarized for instance in Richard Garwin’s 1997 article in Arms Control Today, is to prevent vertical proliferation, i.e. development of plutonium-based implosion devices, boosted fission devices and hydrogen bombs in the Indian case, by casting doubt on their reliability in the absence of testing.  To the extent that India is unwilling to give up on a nuclear deterrent vis--vis China, it simply had to test before the political costs of testing were made prohibitive by the incipient CTBT regime.  Indeed the BJP is more assertive on national security matters, but the pacifist P.V. Narasimha Rao was barely dissuaded from testing in 1995, and as rumour has it, intended to do so in 1996 had he returned to power.  The imperatives of the Indian state were not invented by the BJP and will survive the BJP.

  • The non-proliferation regime was fatally wounded the day China transferred a nuclear weapon design to Pakistan, thereby undermining the basic presumption that the existing weapons states were responsible powers. India’s action is simply not in the same class of irresponsibility.

It seems to me that the policy implications of these assertions are twofold.  First, it is hopeless to try to resurrect the old nuclear cartel by scolding India and Pakistan at meetings with China in the chair – this simply does not carry conviction.  Second, it is hopeless to define this as a sub-continental issue when its genesis and sustenance are as much from without; the unit of analysis needs to be Asia.

 In order to move beyond this impasse, I would like to propose a three-track policy for the United States.  The first track would focus on minimizing the risk of accidental nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan or India and China as the range of Indian missiles grows.  If this is done, I foresee much more stable relationships, as John Mearsheimer has argued in a recent article in The New York Times.

 The second track would be the analogue of a Helsinki process for Asia.  Such a process in Asia could start with a US initiative for “transparency, predictability and limitation” of armed forces applicable to all of Asia.  The US should focus not only on Beijing or Tokyo but start thinking in terms of concentric circles of security cooperation with all major powers in Asia inclusive of India.  The US Congress could immediately legislate to set up a working group to design CSCE-type institutions for Asia and more generally, the entire array of “peace tools” developed in the context of the Cold War could be very fruitfully applied to keep the peace in Asia.  In the case of India, such a development could lead to it involving itself in a constructive role for nuclear arms control.

The third track would indeed focus on the subcontinent but with a view to realizing the vast potential for cooperation between India and Pakistan as well as the other states in the region.  It is essential to realize that these states share a common culture in every detail, and their long term destiny is surely to coexist with open borders much as Austria and Germany and the US and Canada do today.  Once this happens, the nuclear threat in the subcontinent will take care of itself.

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