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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 52, November 2000

Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in South Asia: What Next?

By Robert Hathaway

The arms control community will not find much satisfaction in the election of George W. Bush as 43rd President of the United States. Bush and the men and women who are likely to serve as his principal lieutenants and advisers are generally sceptical of multilateral arms control agreements and the arms control regime that has served as a centrepiece of US national security policy since Richard Nixon. Bush opposes the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and has called the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty a "Cold War artifact" that would not constrain his actions as President.

With respect to South Asia, it seems safe to assume that non-proliferation will not be the focal point of the Bush Administration' approach to the region. Bush did not have much to say about South Asia during the campaign, but what he did say seemed calculated to win support from the affluent Indo-American community rather than to raise unpleasant questions about India' or Pakistan' nuclear ambitions or intentions. India is "emerging as one of the great democracies of the twenty-first century," notes the Republican Party platform. One searches in vain for any hint of anger or a sense of betrayal because of the May 1998 nuclear tests staged first by India, then Pakistan.

During the campaign, Bush called for the removal of all Glenn amendment sanctions against India imposed in the aftermath of New Delhi' 1998 tests; presumably he would treat Pakistan in the same fashion (although other legislation pertaining to military coups against democratically-elected governments will restrict his freedom of action). Candidate Bush pledged he would not push India or Pakistan to sign the CTBT. To the contrary, he has suggested that testing is required to ensure the reliability and safety of a nuclear stockpile. Whether his opposition to a ban on American testing indicates he would view with equanimity an Indian or Pakistani resumption of testing is less certain. Should either South Asian country decide to abandon its current testing moratorium, however, proponents of such a course would undoubtedly draw solace from Bush' own stance.

The new President' enthusiasm for ballistic missile defence (BMD) also threatens to undermine arms control and non-proliferation in South Asia. Bush has indicated he would place the construction of a BMD system at the very top of his priorities. If his campaign rhetoric is to be believed, he would dramatically expand current national missile defence (NMD) plans and probably add sea-, air- and space-based components to the current land-based system. If need be, he would tear up the ABM Treaty if the Russians refused to renegotiate the treaty to accommodate US missile defences. And he would seek to include US friends and allies - including Japan and perhaps Taiwan - in a theatre missile defence (TMD) system.

It is not difficult to envision the likely consequences of such a policy. While important European allies have deep reservations about American BMD plans, and Moscow has repeatedly indicated its misgivings, China would in all likelihood be the country that felt most threatened by a robust BMD system. And bringing Taiwan under an American-controlled TMD umbrella would be viewed in Beijing as a blatant US move to encourage Taiwanese independence. Given Chinese sensitivities on this issue, Beijing' response would be almost inevitable: a massive build-up of its missile forces as a way of overwhelming whatever missile defences Taiwan might acquire. While South Asia would play no role in this escalation, one can feel certain that New Delhi would not view such actions on the part of its primary strategic competitor with indifference. India would surely respond with an accelerated missile programme of its own, and Pakistan would automatically follow along. So a Bush initiative said to be stabilising and exclusively defensive could in fact set off a dangerous new missile race, with profoundly adverse consequences for stability in South Asia.

In addition, the outcome of November' Congressional elections constituted a resounding vote for the status quo, and the status quo on Capitol Hill over the past several years has supported a full scale retreat from an earlier Congressional insistence that non-proliferation concerns be given high priority in US policy toward South Asia. In the two and a half years since the nuclear tests in the region, Congress has on four separate occasions enacted legislation easing the sanctions required by US non-proliferation law. Congressional debate on South Asia today revolves around trade, the supposed similarity of values and political institutions linking India and the United States, Pakistani support for cross-border terrorism, and, at least in some circles, the desirability of having a good friend in New Delhi should US relations with China turn sour (some officials in a George W. Bush Administration may find this last point especially compelling). Talk about the need for firm American action to prevent the further development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region has all but disappeared.

The new Congress is unlikely to have dramatically different priorities. With the retirement of John Glenn from the Senate two years ago, no one of similar stature has stepped forward to carry the non-proliferation banner on Capitol Hill. It appears highly unlikely that the new Senate will have any greater affection for the CTBT than did the previous one, which decisively rejected President Clinton' appeal for ratification. And a continued US failure to ratify the CTBT can only give solace and political sustenance to those in India and Pakistan who oppose the accord.

Still, prospects for non-proliferation efforts in South Asia are not uniformly bleak. Say what they will about '' arms control treaties, Bush officials will nonetheless seek to keep WMD out of the hands of the North Koreas, Irans, and Iraqs of this world. They will find considerable utility in the existing international non-proliferation regime as a global standard of behaviour, and as a way to avoid making non-proliferation merely a bilateral dispute between the United States and the nuclear aspirants.

Moreover, the 1998 tests, and the failure of American efforts to prevent them, do not erase the fact that successive Presidents from both political parties have seen the wisdom of emphasizing non-proliferation and restraint in their policies toward the subcontinent. Clearly, neither the tests nor continued Pakistani-Indian tensions have diminished the concerns that led earlier Administrations to take this tack. If anything, these concerns are more pressing than ever. This too suggests that the Bush Administration will not simply abandon non-proliferation efforts in the region.

Finally, US legislation punishing proliferation activities remains on the books. One can argue that such laws failed to prevent the 1998 tests, but one can make an equally plausible case that they impeded regional proliferation for many years. Presumably they will continue to exert at least a modest restraining influence. At any rate, neither Bush nor his senior advisers have suggested that they would seek repeal of existing non-proliferation legislation.

Still, the important decisions regarding non-proliferation and arms control in South Asia over the next few years will be made in New Delhi and Islamabad, and to an important degree in Beijing, rather than in Washington. The 1998 tests demonstrated that neither India nor Pakistan will be deterred by US threats or blandishments from taking steps deemed necessary to safeguard vital national interests or to achieve other important objectives. Unfortunately, many Indians who view a nuclear weapons programme as an essential guarantor of their nation' security will not consider the 1998 tests or India' relatively restrained actions since then sufficient for this purpose. Instead, they will feel strongly compelled to develop and perhaps deploy a more robust deterrent, and are not likely to be dissuaded from this course by the high probability that Pakistan would follow suit. A Chinese missile build-up in response to an American decision to include Taiwan in a TMD system would of course strengthen the political cogency of their arguments.

Such an unhappy scenario is not inevitable, however. India' stated policy of no-first use and its pledge to settle for a "minimum credible deterrent" rather than seek more full-blown capabilities should reduce the pressure on Indian decision-makers to move forward quickly on weaponization and deployment. Similarly, the Indian and Pakistani moratoria on further testing should work to stabilize the nuclear environment in South Asia. Indeed, it is not out of the question that either or both countries will decide it serves their purposes to sign (if not necessarily to ratify) the CTBT.

Even without abandoning its opposition to the CTBT or its scepticism about international arms control agreements that restrict Washington' freedom of action, there are steps the Bush Administration can take to promote restraint and stability in South Asia. At a minimum, it should encourage India and Pakistan to -

  1. resume a dialogue that could, over time, lead to meaningful confidence-building measures, including bilateral agreements capping the regional arms race.
  2. exercise restraint regarding - or better yet, freeze - the development, production and deployment of missiles capable of delivering WMD.
  3. join the rest of the global community in serious discussions looking toward a ban on the further production of the fissile material needed for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
  4. re-examine the policy priorities that have led both countries to squander scarce resources on the development of sophisticated weaponry while simultaneously ignoring the basic human needs of their citizens.
In a world of uncertainty, some things are certain. Decisions taken over the next few years will in large measure determine whether South Asia goes down the road of ever-escalating expenditures on ever more fearsome weapons, or whether India and Pakistan step back from this precipice. The United States will not dictate this choice, but it will, either through conscious decision or by default, have an important voice in the matter. And whether it wishes this responsibility or not, the George W. Bush Administration can escape neither the imperative of acting, nor the consequences of its choices.

Robert M. Hathaway is Director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prior to joining the Center two years ago, he covered South Asian affairs for thirteen years as a senior staff member of the House International Relations Committee.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.