M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, August 13, 1998

Pokhran II has catapulted India into a situation radically different from the past. Therefore it has become urgently necessary to abandon the mindset of yesterday in bilateral and multilateral negotiations relating to political and security concerns. Professor Martin Sherman has focused upon the theoretical rationale for a differentiation between democratic and non-democratic regimes with regard to the manner in which security dilemmas of these political systems are resolved. This analysis has far-reaching consequences for the possession of nuclear weapons by a democratic country like India, which has to face the expanding nuclear arsenal (despite her acceptance of the NPT and CTBT regimes) of a politically totalitarian China.

India’s new self-image would need to be based on a positive and unified national perspective, of a democratic and responsible power capable of acting in a rational manner to develop the reciprocal control systems necessitated by its nuclear deterrent. There is no place here for knee-jerk reactions as we stand on the threshold of a new international reality based on our overt nuclear status. Most importantly, we have perforce to alter many of the assumptions made in our career as a non-aligned nation which led us sometimes to express a trade union affinity with non-democratic regimes.

A prudent approach for New Delhi at this stage would be to focus on the depth and scope of the commitment of the United States to Indian military and economic security. Before any serious talk of far-reaching global arms control, we have to ensure acceptance of “minimum nuclear deterrence” for India. It is also necessary on military grounds that there should be continued missile testing pending border settlements with China and Pakistan. India should therefore emphasise that it is not interested in rushing into a deal which would solve some short-term problems but create more political turmoil in the long run.

A primary and legitimate subject is India’s permanent membership in the Security Council. No less important is the recognition of our legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean, South-East Asia, the Gulf and Central Asia. As a nuclear weapons state India is not interested in exercising hegemonic leadership: on the contrary, it wants to be recognized publicly as a non-expansionist and constructive power in the Asia-Pacific.

The central issues with regard to the CTBT for India are: (i) that signing it should not freeze India into an intolerable position of strategic inferiority and (ii) that being the case, it should advance our generalized interest in containing the spread of nuclear weapons. With regard to the first point, the CTBT is an obstacle to designing and perfecting weapons, the latter being as much an issue of ensuring their safety and reliability as of maximizing yields. Much depends on the current state of knowledge in this field, and on the kind of agenda planned for the future.

Next on the non-proliferation agenda after CTBT is the FMCT (fissile materials cut-off treaty) which will freeze the raw material for nuclear weapons, effectively putting a limit on the number of weapons we could make in the future. It will also entail levels of inspection by international agencies which we might find offensive. If we wish to have the capacity to build a credible force de frappe vis--vis China’s nuclear armoury, then a series of immediate decisions will need to be taken with regard to the requisite mix of sophistication in technology and raw materials that these will necessitate.

It is important, therefore, not to close options, and at the same time to build a stronger scientific and technological constituency, outside the circle of defence scientists, for underlying security concerns. My recommendation here would be that the government appoint a high-level commission with a majority of scientific and strategic expertise from outside the current DAE/MOD set-up to evaluate these questions in a very short period of time, and reach a conclusion on whether more tests are essential. Part of the model here would be the American JASON programme that uses the expertise of non-defence scientists (who are given access to classified information for their work) to make a realistic assessment of the weapons labs. An unclassified summary of their conclusions could later be made public.

With regard to the second point, the answer is likely in the direction of a qualified yes, even if it is likely to have little impact on such likely sources of threat as China, Pakistan and Iran (which recently test-fired an 800 km. missile, declaring that for the present its military and security concerns are only with Israel). For one thing, it will still constrain the process of proliferation in which we have no great stake beyond ourselves. Otherwise the world may be heading for a dangerous confrontation between the US and the “rogue” states, so we should not position ourselves in a manner that invites comparison with the latter. In this regard, the greater transparency implicit in the constitution of the above suggested commission would go a long way in projecting a more responsible profile.

Should the technical answer of the commission be that further testing is not really necessary, there should be no further objection to signing the CTBT. There remains the question of conditionalities under which the signature is given. Ideally, the decision should emerge through a consensus which would obviate the need for conditions, but if that is not possible, then it is better to ask for an engagement by the US at the level of security concerns rather than demand high technology transfers. A better understanding on strategic issues should take care of the high tech problem anyway.

The real frontier over the next decade is going to be the spread of ballistic missiles and the impact of high technology on warfare (the so-called revolution in military affairs, RMA). The recent Rumsfeld report to the US Congress notes that several countries deeply hostile to the US (Iran, North Korea, Iraq and maybe even Libya and Syria, although that portion of the report is classified) may in as little as five years possess the capacity to aim an ICBM armed with weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) at the US directly. Needless to say, the US will respond in two ways: by strengthening its anti-missile defences (perhaps on the scale of Star Wars) and by directly preventing the deployment of such weapons on the part of the “rogues”.

Israel will react similarly. Both may also evolve doctrines that call for massive retaliation against the “rogues”. The theological fig leaf of the NPT will thus be dropped to expose the very real security anxieties of the remaining super-power. In the midst of all this are India and Pakistan, countries not hostile to the US as the report notes, but nevertheless contributing to this expanding and dangerous nuclear pluralism for their own reasons. The report also notes that China, Russia and the US itself have made the problem much worse through their shortsighted policies of arming other states through both conventional and nuclear means.

The CTBT area of concern is focused on the manufacture of weapons, but it is over delivery systems that the next round of battles is going to be fought. Hence, instead of rear-mirror driving and concentration on the last war, we would instead usefully think how to safeguard our security in the midst of this growing capacity of a large number of states to threaten each other. Certainly an important feature behind the present developments has been the unraveling of an inequitable international regime dominated by the US, but it is all the more imperative to think about what might come next, and whether it will be to our benefit.

Therefore, the current stalemate with the United States over the CTBT should not be an excuse not to find time to rethink the need for India and the USA to work together in broad strategic concerns. For the present, the mutual interests of the US and China seem to hold centre stage, and India has every reason to feel that both countries are cooperating to impose a hegemony on the subcontinent. But there are many aspects of China’s behaviour that are worrisome for Washington, and its inadequate dialogue with India is coming under increasing criticism within the United States.

Two years ago in a prophetic piece of writing Selig Harrison, the noted south Asian expert, said: “If we try to preserve the nuclear status quo, first India and then Japan will, in my view, become overt nuclear weapons powers. Not only because they face the Chinese nuclear arsenals, but also because they won’t accept second class status. Both of them are capable of making ICBMs that can reach the US. Nonproliferation will simply not work unless the world is moving towards denuclearization.”

India has never been in the kind of adversary relations with the United States that would warrant even thinking of aiming ICBMs at that country, but it is clear that as a nuclear weapons power it is necessary for Indian policy-makers to investigate casual relations between regional and international factors, and sharpen the awareness of issues involved which can produce a new strategic bargain. This bargain must take into account India’s long-term goals and their compatibility with America’s long-term interests. It must recognize both India’s geopolitical importance and her rootedness as a democracy in the moral-political sphere.
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