Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

International Implications of the India-Pakistan Tests
By Rebecca Johnson


Although India, Pakistan and Israel have long been characterised as 'nuclear capable' States or even de facto nuclear States, the nuclear tests in May did more than confirm this. By declaring itself a nuclear-weapon State, and pushing Pakistan into accelerating its programme, India has nuclearised its regional relations, including the conflict over Kashmir, and challenged the credibility of international security based on nuclear non-proliferation, as represented by the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The tests have raised political, security and diplomatic questions that can no longer be swept under the carpet of nuclear ambiguity.

Responding to the challenge posed by the South Asian nuclear tests will require actions on three distinct but related levels: bilateral, regional and international. With States in other areas of regional tension and proliferation concern, including the Middle East and North Asia, watching closely, how effectively the international community responds will determine future security developments and the stability of the non-proliferation regime. This paper addresses the international implications and considers what steps can now be taken to reinforce the objectives and credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and reduce the risks of conflict in South Asia.

The Nuclear Explosions

India announced that it conducted 3 nuclear test explosions on 11 May and two more on 13 May at the Pohkaran site in Rajasthan. According to Indian government statements the nuclear tests were a 12 kt fission device, a 43 kt thermonuclear device, and low yield tests of 0.2 kt, 0.5 kt and 0.3 kt respectively.

Despite many international calls not to retaliate in kind, Pakistan announced on 28 May that it had conducted five nuclear tests, followed by a further test on 30 May. They were conducted in the Chagai region of South-West Baluchistan, close to Pakistan's borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Islamabad announced that its tests were all of boosted fission devices using high enriched uranium, including a first detonation of 30-35 kt, followed by low yield explosions for tactical nuclear weapons.

Western analysts have cast doubt on whether either country actually detonated the number or size of tests they announced. In particular, there have been suggestions that India did not conduct a thermonuclear explosion of 43 kt, and may only have conducted three tests, all below 12 kt. India released information to back up its argument that Pakistan conducted only one detonation of between 7 and 8 kt on 28 May and another detonation between 1 and 3 kt on 30 May. Verification analysts consider that both did multiple tests but that different components could have been tested without as many separate explosions as implied.

Whether the tests were of the actual number and type publicised by the governments of India and Pakistan is clearly of interest in determining technical (and therefore weaponisation) capabilities but it is not central to the political debate. Nowhere is it disputed that India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear test explosions in the past month. As a result, the regional and international security and nuclear proliferation environments have been transformed. The Foreign Ministers of the P-5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) and the G-8 leading economic nations held special sessions to discuss the crisis, but their public responses so far indicate that they have not yet grasped the wider implications of this challenge for the sustainability of the present non-proliferation regime and their own nuclear policies.

What Did India and Pakistan Want?

For both countries, the decisions to test were driven mainly by domestic considerations, though for different reasons. (1) Actual security considerations were either not high on the agenda or were not well analysed. Developing nuclear arsenals was not a primary rationale, though the danger of a nuclear arms race cannot now be discounted. Although both are keen to develop effective missile capability, neither country appears to have thought through how they would integrate nuclear weapons with their military force structures.

The newly-elected Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used nuclear testing as part of a strategy to press for India to be accorded the international status and recognition it would like. The BJP sought to cement a fragile electoral coalition and expected to gain widespread public support for asserting India's power, importance and independence in this way. The government may also have had a longer term rationale of repositioning India's security relationship with China and asserting New Delhi's dominance among its neighbours. Most importantly, India seeks international recognition and status commensurate with its population size and growing economic strength (such as a seat on the UN Security Council). Noting that the five permanent members of the Security Council are also the five declared nuclear-weapon States (although all but the United States went nuclear after taking up their permanent Council seats), India seems to have calculated that nuclear weapon status is an acceptable or even indispensable route to Big Power status. Following its tests, India publicly declared itself a nuclear-weapon State, a condition without legal standing and questionable military and political attributes.

Pakistan said it had no ambitions to be a nuclear power, but had needed to demonstrate to India that it had a definite and credible nuclear capability. Islamabad criticised the international community (and especially the United States) for not offering adequate security guarantees and for failing to punish India sufficiently, but even if more had been done (and more quickly) it is not clear that international action after India's tests would have succeeded in deflecting Pakistan from carrying out its own explosions. After detonating Pakistan's first tests on 28 May, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif summed up his country's sentiments: "Today we have settled the score with India." (2)

The perceived necessity to prove itself vis-à-vis India has its roots in regional history and nationalism, combined with the widespread fear that New Delhi might use its military superiority to overwhelm Pakistan unless Islamabad could 'deter' them. Although Sharif and his closest advisers seriously considered the international and diplomatic advantages of showing constraint after India tested, it appears that such a course of action would have been too unpopular at home for the government to risk. As a consequence of the tests, Sharif has strengthened his already-strong grip on power. It remains to be seen whether that will continue to apply if Pakistan's economy collapses, as looks dangerously possible, accelerated by the sanctions.


India has at times sought to justify its nuclear policies (and more recently its tests) by citing the nuclear arsenals of the P-5. In various of his many statements following the tests, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reminded the world of how Nehru had called for an end to nuclear testing in 1954. Vajpayee argued that India's decision to pursue the nuclear option was due to the lack of adequate security assurances, a deteriorating security environment "as a result of nuclear and missile proliferation" and the failure of the nuclear-weapon States to give up their arsenals. The tests, he said, were "necessary because of the failure of a flawed non-proliferation regime". (3) Later he sought to take the moral high ground by claiming that one motivation for India's tests was to draw attention to the need for nuclear disarmament. (4)

Some of India's criticisms of the non-proliferation regime are valid and shared by the 181 countries which joined the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon States. That does not mean that they are valid as justifications for nuclear testing. Nor does it mean, as the British Foreign Secretary has imputed, that those who criticise the nuclear-weapon States and call on them to do more to reduce and delegitimise their nuclear weapons are closet apologists for India's nuclear ambitions. India's occupation of the moral high ground on nuclear disarmament may be a sham, but that should not blind us to the fact that nuclear disarmament is an essential component of effective non-proliferation, as well as an obligation under the NPT.

International Response: Condemnations and Exhortations

Condemnations of the tests by India and then Pakistan came even more thickly than they had in 1995 when France resumed testing. Foreign ministries from all over the world issued statements condemning India, and appealing to Pakistan to show constraint. Altogether more than 80 statements were made to the Conference on Disarmament, in two long sessions. One, signed by 47 countries, condemned the tests as undermining both the non-proliferation regime and the process of disarmament and called them "totally irreconcilable with claims by both countries that they are committed to nuclear disarmament". (5)

The initial international reaction has sought to emphasise that countries cannot bomb their way to the top table. (6) Foreign Ministers attending a special meeting of the P-5 in Geneva and the G-8 meeting in London (4 & 12 June respectively) emphasised that 'breaking the rules' was not the right way to get international standing, and that there was no possibility of a permanent security council seat for India as long as it remained outside the non-proliferation regime. The P-5 foreign ministers issued a communiqué, followed by one from the G-8 which went a bit further. Arguing that the tests had worsened India and Pakistan's security environment, damaged their prospects of achieving sustainable economic development and undermined global efforts towards non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, the G-8 reiterated many of the exhortations from the P-5, including the call to cease testing and join the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT); not to weaponise or deploy nuclear weapons, nor test delivery vehicles; to avoid threatening military movements or cross-border violations; and not to export equipment materials or technology to anyone else. India and Pakistan were offered help to calm the regional conflict in Kashmir and get bilateral talks underway, and to prevent terrorist activity and implement and develop the confidence and security-building measures already agreed. (7)

Along with the majority of countries, the P-5 demanded that India and Pakistan accede unconditionally to the CTBT and NPT and join negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT). Since then, the 'G-8 Plus' taskforce, which includes several non-nuclear weapon countries, has tried to harmonise a tough response, offering both sticks and carrots. More recently, shuttle diplomacy by US delegations to New Delhi and Islamabad, under the leadership of Strobe Talbott, have explored the conditions under which each country would be prepared to participate more constructively in the international arms control regime, including the CTBT and FMCT. For India, these conditions appear to include lifting of sanctions and some relaxation of restrictions on high-tech exports. Pakistan is believed to be seeking a lifting of sanctions and a substantial financial package to bail it out of impending economic collapse.

On 9 June, eight foreign ministers, representing a cross section of political and geographical interests, issued a joint ministerial declaration for a nuclear weapons free world, identifying the need for a new agenda. The concept of this 'New Agenda Coalition' actually predated the tests and originated as an Irish-Swedish initiative reflecting a growing unease about the 'complacency' of the nuclear-weapon States and their squandering of the post Cold War opportunities, resulting in 'meagre and disappointing' progress on nuclear disarmament. The South Asian nuclear crisis, however, injected a sharper sense of urgency. (8)

There was disappointment that although US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emphasised that "as the NPT nuclear-weapons States we have a responsibility to protect the non-proliferation regime" (9), only one sentence in the P-5 communiqué mentioned the nuclear disarmament component of the NPT's obligations. The G-8 statement reinforced the nuclear-weapon States' own obligations in a paragraph referring not only to the Article VI obligations of the NPT, but to the 1995 commitments to pursue 'systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally...' This still did not go far enough. Among demands for India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT and join the NPT regime, more and more non-nuclear-weapon States have been identifying the need for more concrete progress on nuclear disarmament. There is concern that by their actions, the nuclear-weapon States have belied their best arguments. Most recently the Defence Reviews by Britain and France, as well as Russian and American pronouncements, have continued to emphasise their own nuclear status. India also considers that more weight is given to negotiating with China because it is part of the nuclear club.

While not justifying the nuclear tests in any way, it is clear that delinking international prestige (and Security Council membership) from nuclear possession, together with more positive progress on nuclear disarmament will have to be part of the solution.

Reinforcing the International Arms Control Regime

Since the tests, calls for India and Pakistan to join the non-proliferation regime, sign the CTBT and start negotiating on a cut-off treaty have intensified. With regard to the first two, India's opposition has been stated in ideological terms: the treaties are discriminatory. Pakistan, though critical of both treaties, has stayed outside principally because of India, and it has hitherto been assumed that Pakistan would join if India did. In assessing what steps can now be taken, distinctions must be made between these measures, as some are more realisable than others.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty

Few of those who exhort India to join the NPT believe that this will happen. The NPT has been the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime for 30 years and its importance should not be under-estimated, but it will not be the instrument by which India, Pakistan and Israel are turned into non-nuclear-weapon States. True enough, South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and even Brazil and Argentina can be cited as countries which gave up nuclear weapons or serious ambitions and came into the non-proliferation regime as non-nuclear-weapon States. The political reasoning behind these very different sets of decisions, however, is not readily applicable to the three present hold-outs. If India and Pakistan have not signed in the past 30 years, what would make them join now?

India will not join as a non-nuclear-weapon State, and for a range of legal and political reasons, it cannot join the NPT as a nuclear-weapon State. Under Article IX, the NPT defined a nuclear-weapon State as one which 'has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.' That applied only to five countries: the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), Britain, France and China. Testing nuclear weapons in 1998 (or even 1974, as India first showed) cannot change that definition without an amendment to the Treaty. Much as they disliked the discriminatory provisions for the five defined 'haves', most countries signed up to the NPT on the basis that no more than the five would be accepted. The apparent willingness (until now) of India, Israel and Pakistan to exist in a 'threshold' limbo was cited as illustration that the essential NPT norm was holding good. Attempting to amend and broaden the definition would likely spell the end of the Treaty as a credible measure against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Countries in the Middle East will be watching closely. All but Israel have now joined the NPT. The Arab States continue to demand that Israel should do so as well. Though there is proof that Iraq was violating the Treaty and persistent suspicions with regard to Iran and others, the NPT regime has undoubtedly restricted nuclear ambitions in the region. Even before India's recent explosions, serious cracks were appearing in the strengthened process to review implementation of the NPT, established as part of a package of decisions in 1995 to extend the Treaty indefinitely. The recent meeting of NPT Parties in Geneva collapsed because of fundamental differences on two principal issues: the United States' refusal to discuss the implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East (which called for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region); and the collective resistance of the five weapon States to South African and Canadian proposals for setting up mechanisms to facilitate progress on nuclear disarmament.

The opposition to acknowledging new nuclear-weapon States is most acute among Middle Eastern countries, but diplomats from a number of other non-nuclear-weapon States have suggested that they would have to reassess their own NPT commitments if that happened. It is not necessary to subscribe to the debate over whether Pakistan's nuclear tests herald the first 'Islamic bomb', predicated on overly simplistic assumptions about a complex set of religious and political relations between Pakistan and its neighbours to the west. Nevertheless, there is a real danger that if new nuclear-weapon States are acknowledged, as India wants, other governments may decide to free themselves of their Treaty obligations, citing supreme national interests. The regime is locked between legal definitions and political necessity, creating severe strains. It may be necessary to acknowledge the nuclear capabilities of India, Israel and Pakistan in order to develop appropriate policies and measures to control them and limit the dangers. Certainly it makes no sense to continue the fiction that lumps India and Pakistan in with the non-aligned, non-nuclear weapon countries. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that negotiations on the CTBT and at other disarmament fora have been hampered by the perceived necessity not to negotiate directly with the non-NPT weapons States. Appropriate ways to engage with the non NPT States must now be found.

Security guarantees (to come to the aid of a country threatened by nuclear weapons and also not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons) are generally regarded as benefits offered to NPT parties which have renounced the acquisition of nuclear weapons. But both Pakistan and India have also called for such guarantees to be given to them. To the extent that India or Pakistan developed nuclear weapons as a response to feeling insecure and threatened by a nuclear-armed neighbour, which they claim is what drives their need for a nuclear capability, security guarantees from the declared weapon States might help to lessen the threat perception. Nevertheless, the non-proliferation regime could risk serious damage if India and Pakistan - and especially Israel - were acknowledged in ways that conferred special status, a privileged role in talks, benefits that non-nuclear-weapon States regard as attached to the NPT, or any degree of acceptability. Such is the conundrum at the heart of assessing how best to deal with the new nuclear equation.

Although the point of the NPT definition was to identify different obligations, it has been taken by India and some of the P-5 to confer legitimacy on the declared nuclear possessors. If the non-proliferation regime is to emerge from the present crisis without being seriously weakened, it will be necessary to reaffirm that the definition of 'nuclear-weapon State' was not to legitimise the possession of the weapons but to impose particular obligations, including Article VI on nuclear disarmament.

If the norm of non-proliferation is perceived as failing, a host of other countries which have renounced nuclear weapons but have the technological base to develop them could reassess their options. These countries include South Africa, which dismantled its weapons and facilities in 1992; Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which made the difficult decision not to retain the Soviet weapons on their territory and therefore joined the NPT as non-weapon States; Brazil and Argentina, which engaged in a regional nuclear race until recently, though Brazil has not yet formally acceded to the NPT; and several European and Asian countries including Germany, Japan and South Korea (already facing uncertainty over the nuclear capability of North Korea). Such reassessments will not result in the collapse of non-proliferation norms overnight, but confidence and stability may be eroded, with disastrous consequences for the future.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

If the call for India to join the NPT is recognised as symbolic, that is not true of exhortations to join the CTBT and start negotiations on a fissile materials production ban. There is much to play for here. India participated in the CD negotiations on a CTBT but refused to accept or sign the resulting Treaty, calling it discriminatory. India complained that the absence of concrete nuclear disarmament and the ability of some nuclear-weapon States (notably the United States) to conduct sub-critical and other laboratory experiments, aimed at advancing and refining warhead designs, made the CTBT into a technology-threshold test ban. Such criticisms were shared by other non-nuclear-weapon States, but in India's case, the complaints were primarily camouflage for its real problem: New Delhi wanted to hold open its nuclear options. It is now clear that India was preparing to conduct nuclear tests when it was detected by US Intelligence in December 1995. In 1996, when the BJP attempted to form a government after being elected the largest party, it ordered the tests to go ahead, but the government fell in less than a fortnight, so the explosions were again postponed.

Soon after conducting the May 1998 explosions, the BJP implied that it might be willing to adhere to 'parts' of the CTBT, implying conditions. That was unacceptable to other CTBT signatories, who demanded that India and Pakistan join the CTBT unconditionally. India and Pakistan each declared a moratorium on their testing, but with caveats that cast doubt on its durability under stress. India's ground also seems to be shifting towards a willingness to sign the CTBT - under the right conditions. At first it was thought that India sought the kind of technology support for sub-critical tests that it assumed was given to France. (10) Even were the United States willing, which it is not, such assistance would violate Washington's own NPT obligations under Article I.

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Officials from India and Pakistan now say that the bottom line would be removal of the sanctions imposed on them. India also wants a lifting of export controls, while Pakistan wants assurances that technology controls will continue to be imposed on India. Most importantly, Pakistan needs financial support. Although it was formerly assumed that Pakistan would sign if India did, this is now not so certain. To keep its nuclear scientists happy, Islamabad has recently signalled that even if India joined the CTBT, Pakistan might wish to retain the option of testing for weapons development purposes. Lately, however, as economic catastrophe looms, Islamabad has seemed more prepared to discuss joining the CTBT. Public sentiment, however, could still make that a very difficult political decision if India were not also preparing to sign.

Although there are clearly some delicate questions about not rewarding international 'wrong-doing', lifting the sanctions in return for bringing these two States on board the CTBT would be well worth bargaining for. Because of stringent conditions imposed by certain nuclear States in order to capture the non-NPT States, the CTBT cannot enter into force without the ratification of all nuclear-capable countries. The stakes are therefore high, but in the aftermath of the nuclear tests and with a combination of political and economic leverage, they may be more achievable than before.

At the same time others could do more to strengthen the norm against testing. The CTBT would carry more weight if all 149 signatories were to ratify without further delay. The domestic difficulties of the United States with regard to ratifications are well known, but with non-proliferation at risk it is time to demonstrate some real leadership. The United States' expensive stockpile enhancing programmes and sub-critical tests undermine the political purpose and spirit of the CTBT and play into the hands of proliferators: if the country with the biggest and most diverse arsenal feels the need to keep improving and testing it, that reinforces the message of desirability and necessity. Recent Russian pronouncements about its sub-critical testing programme and the importance of refining its nuclear arsenal and keeping weapons up to date are similarly counter-productive. It is important to exert pressure for India and Pakistan to accede to the CTBT unconditionally, while at the same time the P-5 should refrain from programmes that lessen the credibility of the test ban as a genuine disarmament measure.

Far from demonstrating the weakness of the test ban regime, as CTBT critics in the US Congress and elsewhere have suggested, the Indian and Pakistani tests prove the need for a strong, credible anti-testing regime and for the international detection and verification system which the CTBT would establish.

Fissile Material Ban or Cut-off Treaty

Despite agreeing a mandate in 1995, the Conference on Disarmament has not managed to start negotiations on a cut-off treaty. First, Pakistan led a group of countries, principally from the Middle East, who pushed for negotiations to include existing stockpiles - a fissban rather than just a cut-off (FMCT). Their principal concern was that the proposed cut-off would only freeze the status quo, leaving India and Israel (not to mention the P-5) with significant stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. At first, India sided with the P-5 and Israel in refusing to count stocks. After its failure to block the CTBT, however, India's position hardened altogether, resulting in ideological opposition to FMCT negotiations unless conducted concurrently with timebound nuclear disarmament. This was unacceptable to the P-5, so the issue has been stalemated for three years. Since conducting its tests, India has declared itself in favour of starting FMCT negotiations in the CD. Pakistan's position, however, has hardened again. In addition to its concerns about being frozen with stocks much smaller than India's, Pakistan questions whether India may seek to use the FMCT negotiations to have itself accorded nuclear-weapon State status.

In fact an FMCT is very much in the interests of both India and Pakistan, neither of which has the economic nor technological infrastructure for a nuclear arms race. At this juncture, to insist on pre-negotiation guarantees is tantamount to blocking. The 1995 report identifies the basic cut-off as the core mandate but does not preclude consideration of wider issues. As the CD gets to grips with the political and technical issues of such a treaty, it will of necessity consider a number of relevant issues, including stocks. The outcome will have to be determined by the negotiations and the political will of participating States.

These are rational positions, consistent with the security interests of both India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, nuclear decisions are rarely taken on the basis of rationality or defence calculations, but on the irrational tides of nationalism and ego (scientific and political). It is certain that the tight coterie of elite nuclear scientists played a bigger part in the testing decisions of both countries than the military and defence ministries. With the tests, the nuclear elites have augmented their power and were able to come out of the shadows and be feted as heroes. They have a vested interest in the continuation of nuclear production and a greater say in the disposition of budgets than before. Their hold on policy will have to be weakened before either country can draw back from the brink and start negotiating a fissile materials ban.

Here again, the P-5 exhortations would be more convincing if they were to lead by example. At least four of the five have already halted fissile material production for weapons, and the US and Russia have transferred a small proportion of their vast excess stocks to safeguards, thereby taking them out of military use forever. As a voluntary measure in advance of FMCT negotiations, the P-5 should aim for transparency, starting with declarations of existing quantities, followed up by the progressive transfer of excess stocks to safeguards, storage, and progressive elimination. That would still leave some big imbalances, but such steps would enhance confidence-building. Considerable diplomacy will need to be exercised to bring China along, as Beijing dislikes transparency and is sensitive about revealing its nuclear size, apparently fearful that it might not impress sufficiently. Britain, as announced in its Strategic Defence Review, has now shown willing to take the lead on transparency.

Nuclear Weapons, (In)security and Control

Calls by the P-5, G-8 and others for India and Pakistan not to weaponise or deploy their nuclear capabilities are sensible and necessary. Opinion differs over actual capabilities. Recent news stories have suggested that India could manufacture up to 80 or 100 nuclear bombs, against a possible 30 for Pakistan. More realistic estimates put the capabilities at around 20-30 for India and less than 20 for Pakistan. (11) India plans for short range Prithvi missiles (150-250 km) and longer range Agni (around 1000 km, although designed for over 1500 km). Pakistan is developing Ghauri missiles, the first test of which was probably aound 700 km. By present capabilities it would be more likely that nuclear bombs would be delivered by aeroplane than by missile, with India in the position of air superiority.

The militaries of both countries seem more anxious than gung-ho at the prospect of going nuclear. Praise has been heaped on the nuclear scientists; the respective militaries are not so sure. Their command and control structures are inadequate. Potential military targets are too close to major cities. Any exchange would cause massive casualties and contamination that could not be confined to one country. The risk of accidental or unauthorised use escalates with deployment, a grave prospect neither military can discount. Nevertheless, there is also a perception in both countries, in part whipped up to gain support for the nuclear tests, that they are exposed and vulnerable to regional military and nuclear threats.

During the CTBT negotiations, Indian diplomats were fond of saying that what is 'sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander'. It is now more urgent than ever for the US and Russia to get the START process back on track. The continuing stalemate over the Russian ratification of START II, Moscow's ongoing distrust over the expansion of NATO and the risk posed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and US-Russian arms control by US missile defence plans are feeding into a growing international perception that nuclear arms control is at a standstill and may even have been derailed. Britain and France are to be congratulated for ratifying the CTBT early.

Delays by other countries in ratifying this important Treaty, especially the United States, Russia and China, could make it more difficult to convince India and Pakistan to adhere. It may not be possible for outsiders to do much about the problems in the US Congress and the Russian Duma, but there are additional steps which could be undertaken by the smaller nuclear-weapon States which would help to reinforce the CTBT and START process, and at the same time reinforce the calls to India and Pakistan not to embark on a nuclear arms race. In particular, the P-5 should give serious consideration to making unilateral or joint declarations not to modernise or increase their nuclear forces.

After the first flush of nationalistic fervour on the Subcontinent, the dangers of a nuclear stand-off are beginning to sink in. There exists the chance to return from the brink and not to deploy nuclear weapons. The governments of India and Pakistan must show more leadership and take responsibility for freezing, talking and then pulling back. At the same time, while not overstating the part ascribed to P-5 nuclear policies in the calculations of India and Pakistan, P-5 talks aimed at transparency, mutual de-alerting and no-first-use could play a positive role.

Even if India's arguments about non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament are rejected as self serving and justificatory, the declared nuclear-weapon States can no longer avoid the wider consequences of their own actions. In their recent statement, the P-5 firmly told India and Pakistan that nuclear weapons would not enhance their security; their words were belied by actions that showed little inclination to give them up themselves. On the contrary, they have displayed and flaunted their nuclear prowess, and offered to share their special umbrella of 'deterrence' with certain favoured friends, thereby reinforcing the weapons' perceived value as rare objects of desire and status.

India and Pakistan may respond positively to calls not to weaponise or deploy, although they will no doubt want to continue missile testing and development. At this stage, it may be politically important for the declared weapon States to lead by example, especially if China can be engaged more fully. Further progress on taking nuclear weapons off alert would be an important, global confidence-building measure. At the very least, de-alerting would reduce the risk of accidental, unauthorised, hair trigger or pre-emptive use. Going a further step and de-mating the warheads from their delivery vehicles - in effect 'de-weaponising' - would create a fire-break between nuclear possession and use and offer a practical way of dealing with existing nuclear capability in the transitional stages towards nuclear disarmament. Such actions would increase confidence in the nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regimes and give weight to reinforce the P-5's message to India and Pakistan that nuclear weapons are not essential for security.

Soon after Pakistan tested, India offered a bilateral agreement on no-first-use. Islamabad rejected the proposal for the logical reason (in accordance with western-developed deterrence doctrine) that its inferiority in conventional forces might necessitate the threat of first use. This philosophy, long held by NATO and reinstated by Russia in 1992, is particularly dangerous when mixed with nationalist fervour and a conventionally unwinnable regional conflict, such as Kashmir. In the past, Pakistan has been among non-aligned nations calling for a multilateral no-first-use agreement, but Islamabad is now very unlikely to accept such a bilateral arrangement.

First-use doctrines were a product of the Cold War and have no sensible role in European post-Cold War security policies, notwithstanding Russia's concerns about its weak conventional forces. China has long maintained a policy of no first use. It could be very important in reducing tensions in South Asia if NATO and Russia would renounce their first use postures and initiate talks aimed at establishing an international agreement, including India and Pakistan. Although Islamabad has backed away from its earlier support for a multilateral no-first-use treaty, Pakistan would find it more difficult to stand alone against an internationally supported measure of this importance.

The South Asian tests have blown apart the cosy assumptions of non-proliferation based on an elite club of nuclear haves. Notwithstanding Article VI of the NPT, it has to be acknowledged that key policy-makers in the nuclear-weapon States and their nuclear-umbrella allies did not regard nuclear disarmament as feasible or (if they were honest) desirable. Rather, they cherished an objective of 'deterrence stability' - aiming for much lower levels of nuclear arsenals held by 'friendly', or at least 'stable' regimes. This proliferation-freezing would have been attractive for the 'haves' and their allies, but in global terms, such an imbalance is inherently unsustainable. The nuclear club cannot remain exclusive and must not be enlarged, so it must be closed altogether. The corollary of non-proliferation, as recognised in the NPT, is nuclear disarmament. If that lesson is not learnt from these tests, it will be very much harder to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.


The nuclear blasts were hugely popular in both countries but precipitated worldwide condemnation and resulted in the imposition of sanctions by some governments. Worst case scenarios posit the danger of regional conflict (possibly over Kashmir) going nuclear, or of a domino effect resulting in further proliferation into the Middle East or East Asia.

In recognition of the stalemate in US-Russian relations and the START process and the nuclear crisis in South Asia, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in June put its 'Doomsday Clock', symbol of nuclear peril, forward five minutes, bringing it to nine minutes to midnight. The international community, and the P-5 in particular, have appeared slow to comprehend that the non-proliferation environment has been profoundly altered following the tests. What stands between international non-proliferation and a nuclear-free-for all is the political calculation by a number of major States of national self interest and collective security.

It is clearly necessary to de-link Security Council membership from nuclear weapon status. There are several ways in which this could be done, for example, through regional based seats (in which case there could be no justification for both Britain and France to retain their individual positions) or by inviting significant non-nuclear-weapon States such as Japan, Germany, Brazil or South Africa on board. While it is right to deny India preferential treatment or prestige as a consequence of its tests, India's desire to be treated with greater respect and seriousness by the international community is not unreasonable, in view of its population, growing economic stature and regional importance. The P-5 and ambitious countries like India need to be reminded, however, that great power status carries responsibilities and obligations as well as prestige and influence.

The likelihood of India and Pakistan acceding to the NPT is as remote as before. Since the reality of nuclear capabilities cannot be ignored, it is important to include the NPT hold-out States to the fullest possible extent in the wider arms control regime, rather than allowing the NPT to become a stumbling block to progress in other areas. A moratorium on nuclear testing is immediately achievable, and in return for lifting the sanctions, it may be possible to get India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT, thereby enabling it to enter into force. Banning the production of fissile materials for weapons will still be very difficult, because of conflicting interests over how to deal with the different levels of existing stocks, but if the rest of the international community were to act in unison (unfortunately a big if) it would be possible now to get negotiations started.

Neither country can win the nuclear rivalry that has been set in motion; the question is rather, who will be the bigger loser? At first, early opinion poll data showed support in both countries at nearly 90 percent. As sanctions have begun to bite, the media have recently carried detailed discussions of the death and destruction which could be wrought on cities in the Subcontinent if nuclear weapons were ever used. In India, public support for the BJP, as well as the nuclear tests, has begun to erode. Pakistan's shaky economy is much more vulnerable to the effects of sanctions. Its weaker defence capabilities combined with strong nationalist sentiment are factors that could give rise to nuclear adventurism, even pre-emptive first strike. Some form of acceptable security guarantees may need to be reconsidered, notwithstanding the fact that India and Pakistan are outside the NPT. Bilateral confidence-building and transparency measures are urgently required.

Kashmir and the regional problems for South Asia were not the subject of this paper, but finding more just and stable resolutions - or at least ways to address the ethnic and regional conflicts - will be crucial. India wanted Kashmir to remain a domestic issue, but by nuclearising the conflict with Pakistan, India has played into Islamabad's hands, ensuring increased international involvement and attention. As a potential nuclear flashpoint, Kashmir can no longer be dealt with just on India's terms.

With regard to India's evocation of China as a pre-test 'enemy', this is cold war psychology. Despite the war between China and India in 1962 and the unresolved border dispute, China is not perceived as a real and actual nuclear threat by New Delhi. Some useful confidence building measures are in place between China and India and relations were regarded as improved and stable (although China did persist with its nuclear-related trade with Pakistan, which fed into India's hostility). Despite the rhetoric, India did not develop its nuclear policies on the basis of a threat assessment of China. Although China is angry to have been used as the justification for India's policies, Beijing has showed restraint in its responses so far, but has taken a more pro-active role in the P-5 discussions than usual. If India goes ahead with the deployment of Agni missiles, however, that could force China to rethink its nuclear policy, including its commitment to no-first-use.

Neither India nor Pakistan wants a nuclear arms race, but each will continue to offer bilateral arrangements (non-aggression pact, no-first-use agreement, and so on) that the other is likely to reject. Mutual confidence-building and preventing weaponisation and deployment are now of crucial importance. Much of what the P-5 and G-8 called on India and Pakistan to do was sensible and necessary, but the statements smack somewhat of hypocrisy.

It must be recognised that the dynamic between India and Pakistan is the product of history and region, and that the South Asian nuclear crisis will not necessarily be determined by anything the nuclear-weapon States do. Acknowledging this does not, however, let the nuclear powers off the hook. The non-proliferation regime has been weakened, not just by the South Asian tests, but by the juxtaposition of those tests with a growing cynicism over the NPT review process and P-5 complacency about keeping their own nuclear forces. The non-nuclear-weapon States could play a greater role in assisting India and Pakistan to pull back from the brink, while also increasing pressure on the nuclear-weapon States for more tangible and systematic progress on all aspects of nuclear disarmament. In this regard, the Eight Nation New Agenda Coalition offers a positive way forward. The argument is not that P-5 steps would directly influence the nuclear crisis in South Asia, but that it is now, more than ever, necessary to demonstrate the futility of security based on nuclear threat.

Strengthening the NPT regime in the wake of the South Asian tests will require the putting into practice of a clearly demonstrated commitment to nuclear disarmament. It is important to get the START process back on track towards deep cuts in US and Russian arsenals. Meanwhile, all the nuclear-weapon States could reinforce the non-proliferation message by undertaking not to modernise or increase their nuclear arsenals. Steps to marginalise, de-alert and eliminate nuclear weapons would be valuable contributions to non-proliferation and international security in their own right. They would also provide backing to those in India and Pakistan who want to pull back from the nuclear brink.

The P-5 foreign ministers viewed their meeting in Geneva as "setting in motion a process" to deal with the crisis, strengthen stability in South Asia, encourage restraint and bolster the international non-proliferation regime. Can they rise to the challenge themselves?

Notes and References

1. For a good summary of the motivations and regional implications, see Chris Smith, Nuclear Tests in South Asia, ISIS Briefing Paper No 69, June 1998.

2. Nawaz Sharif, quoted in UPI article 'Defiant Sharif prepares for fallout', 28 May, 1998.

3. The arguments were reiterated in different ways in many statements, but these quotes come from Vajpayee's statements to the Indian Parliament, 27 May and 8 June, 1998.

4. '[Vajpayee] said India carried out the tests in part to prod the five established nuclear states...to agree to plans to disarm. "That was one of the main reasons: We thought that if there is nuclear disarmament it will make the world a better place to live in," he said. "It will also provide security for us."' Quoted in 'Leader says India has a Credible Deterrent', by Kenneth J Cooper, Washington Post News Service, 17 June 1998, p A21.

5. Statement on behalf of 47 CD member states and observers, read by Clive Pearson, Ambassador of New Zealand to the Special Session of the Conference on Disarmament, 2 June 1998.

6. India was also not elected to a seat on the Security Council in 1996 after vetoing the CTBT.

7. G-8 Foreign Ministers Communiqué on Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Tests, Lancaster House, London, 12 June 1998. See also the Joint Communiqué on India and Pakistan nuclear tests by the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Geneva, 4 June 1998.

8. See the Joint Ministerial Declaration by Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden, entitled 'A Nuclear-Weapons-Free World: the need for a new agenda. See also the statement from David Andrews, foreign minister of the Republic of Ireland, 9 June 1998.

9. Madeleine K Albright, statement to the press, Geneva, 4 June 1998.

10. Analysts have even referred to India's motivation as 'doing a Chirac', although that is probably a post-hoc assessment.

11. SIPRI, from homepage at http://www.sipri.se/projects/technology

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page