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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 51, October 2000

Failing The Test: International Mismanagement of the South Asia Nuclear Crisis

By Achin Vanaik


Two and a half years after India and Pakistan exploded onto the nuclear stage, forebodings about the future of the region have become greater. In this period, on balance, neither the international nor the regional context has evolved in such a manner as to provide reasons for optimism. There is still time for a new approach to the crisis. But the opportunity will be lost unless the international community as a whole, and the five formally recognised nuclear-weapon states (NWS) in particular, are prepared to accept the full consequences, for their own policies and as well as those of India and Pakistan, of prioritising disarmament and non-proliferation over other diplomatic, political and, above all, commercial considerations. Business, as usual, is arguing for ' as usual', but there is nothing '' or '' about a nuclear cloud - a figurative, ominous cloud at the moment, but capable of materialising at any time.

The International Response

This question has three aspects: the changed disarmament context; the reactions of the NWS; and the reactions of the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS).

Since the May 1998 tests, negative developments have outweighed signs of progress towards disarmament. There have been three major positive developments: the emergence of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) - Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden - in June 1998; the April 2000 ratification, albeit heavily qualified, by the Russian Duma of the START II Treaty, and its unconditional approval of the CTBT; and the unanimous adoption of a Final Document, including a strongly-worded and unprecedentedly detailed programme of action, at the May 2000 NPT Review Conference in New York.

On the negative side, the most serious blow in the South Asian context was the US Senate' rejection of the CTBT in October 1999. For some time after the May tests, there was strong and growing support in the Indian pro-nuclear lobby for moving toward signing the test ban as a reasonable, minimum price the country had to pay for defying world opinion at Pokharan II. Now the US rejection has opened a trapdoor under both the credibility of the treaty and its prospects of ever entering into force. Consequently, the heat has been dramatically taken off both India and Pakistan. Both countries are officially committed to signing the treaty after securing an ill-defined national consensus. But with the passage of time, matters are moving into reverse gear: currently, there is a growing effort to justify more Indian tests in the near future.

Sections of the Indian strategic and pro-bomb scientific community (see, for example, the remarks of P.K. Iyengar, former Chair of India' Atomic Energy Commission, quoted in the last issue of Disarmament Diplomacy) are now beginning to say what was already being argued by many in the international scientific community - that India' hydrogen bomb test fizzled, despite New Delhi' claims of complete success. Moreover, it was always the case that for India to build a sophisticated nuclear arsenal of the kind it clearly aspires to, more tests would be required. Thus, the CTBT cannot remain indefinitely in a state of limbo without eventually having dangerous consequences. The danger of renewed testing in the region would, of course, be further increased by the election in the United States of a Republican president who has derided the CTBT as naïve and ineffectual.

Nearly as damaging to hopes of establishing incentives for denuclearisation in the region has been the saga over US plans both to develop a national missile defence (NMD) and regional Theatre missile defence (TMD) systems in East Asia and elsewhere. Even if Russia agrees to the sweeping ABM Treaty amendments being sought by Washington, or even to more modest but still significant changes, a best-case scenario would then be that China would definitely pursue quantitative and/or qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal, while Russia would become more unhappy, watchful and disturbed by longer-term US nuclear ambitions and preparations than before. The worst case scenario - US NMD and TMD deployment in the context of a collapsed arms control relationship with Russia - is nothing less than the full and final breakdown of the existing international non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Holding the line against an NMD of any kind, and also against an East Asian TMD, is thus vital. If China is forced into nuclear expansion and modernisation, this automatically raises the horizon of reference for India, whose ' credible deterrent posture' (already flexible and moveable) becomes redefined upwards, forcing Pakistan to move in the same direction. This would be a classic situation of events outside the control of China, India and Pakistan nonetheless having powerful determining effects on their behaviour.

If the knock-on effects in South Asia of NMD or TMD were not disheartening enough, the way the NWS, with the exception of China, have adjusted their policies towards India and Pakistan gives no cause for cheer either. For Russia and France, there have been no real dilemmas in accepting and effectively endorsing the ' status quo' Though going along with P-5 and G-8 statements and a UN Security Council resolution criticising India and Pakistan for going nuclear, demanding they accede to the CTBT, refusing them formal nuclear-power status, etc, the reality for both Paris and Moscow has been an unshaken commitment to the search for lucrative military and nuclear-related supply contacts. Britain has so far followed, and can be expected to continue to follow, the US lead. Both countries, unlike France and Russia, imposed post-test sanctions, subsequently scaled back, and maintain a blockade of sorts on certain kinds of military and technical equipment. But Washington and London have given up expectation that such measures will have a deep or lasting effect on nuclear policies in the region.

In fact, except for a short period of just a few months after the tests, and despite occasional public pronouncements to the contrary, the Clinton Administration has basically accepted the new nuclear status of both India and Pakistan, and primarily concerns itself with establishing the parameters within which they can function stably as small nuclear states (SNS). The main US concern, in other words, is that India (the regional pace-setter) and Pakistan behave as '' de facto members of the nuclear club. This requires, particularly on India' part, that it not promote proliferation through its own nuclear-related trading and diplomatic activities. It also requires - though not explicitly - that India especially join with the other NWS in opposing efforts by the most serious of the NNWS - the NAC states and others - to set the pace, pattern and content of whatever multilateral disarmament discussions, negotiations or activities are going on - i.e. that it accept the unwritten rule that ultimately, despite intra-NWS differences, they all have something of a common front against the NNWS. India certainly has no serious problems with meeting either of these conditions, and is happy to assure the US of its willingness to be accommodating, while Pakistan is solely preoccupied with ensuring that its need for a nuclear parity of sorts with India is recognised and accepted - that what is demanded of it by way of nuclear '' is demanded of India as well.

In addition to acceding to the test ban, both the P-5 and the NNWS would like India and Pakistan to join negotiations on a fissile materials treaty, or fissban, currently stalled at the CD in Geneva over the issue of its linkage to talks on nuclear disarmament and prevention of an arms race in outer space. India is happy to express its willingness to participate in fissban talks aimed purely at a cut-off. India' calculations are that negotiations, assuming they began, would take between 3-7 years to complete, and that New Delhi need not worry at this stage about what stand it should eventually take regarding the details and scope of a cut-off of production. It is advisable for it to show an accommodating spirit for now and leave for later the possibility of having to play a stalling role out of fears that it may not have accumulated an adequate stockpile of materials for its '' requirements. Pakistan, acutely concerned about possible disparities between its fuel stocks and India', is adamant that the issue of stocks and not just production be addressed. On this count, it has more in common with the NNWS than with the other NWS, which are united in opposing any proposals for international monitoring or reduction of stocks.

Overall, the NNWS response to the South Asia crisis has been varied but generally weak. Japan, Australia, and the European members of NATO, have now, after their earlier more hostile reaction, essentially attuned themselves to US signals. Following Washington' cue, they are increasingly inclined to restore the pre-test warmth and level of their relations with the two countries, while maintaining a belief in the ' price' of signing the CTBT and participating in fissban negotiations. If American pressure on the CTBT dissipates further because of a Republican presidency, then these countries are unlikely to compensate by raising the profile of the issue. On the fissban issue, the key to the breaking of the CD impasse does not lie in South Asia but, principally, in Washington and Beijing.

It is the NAC countries, plus a few others, which are prepared to persist with a more uncompromising stand toward both India and Pakistan' nuclear declarations and orientations. While in no position to use sanctions as an instrument of diplomatic pressure, these states are adamant that there be no acceptance, even informally or tacitly, of the nuclear status of the two countries; that it continue to be demanded of them that they denuclearise from levels currently reached; and that they accept a permanent non-nuclear status.

What of the neighbouring states of South Asia? None of them, as one can well imagine, is happy about the nuclearization of the region. But none of the governments is prepared to take a confrontational stance on the issue: the broader political, economic and diplomatic stakes are simply seen as being too high. Negative references are voiced in multilateral surroundings such as the NPT Review Conference, where the strong language of the final consensus document (the text uses the word "deplores" with regard to the tests) was endorsed by signatory states such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Of these, Sri Lanka is the most cautious, being very concerned not to offend India, while Bangladesh has been the least reluctant to voice occasional and oblique criticism.

The Regional Context: The Shortening Nuclear Fuse

While the world fiddles - and despite the dissonant warning calls from the NAC and others - the fuse to nuclear war in the region burns shorter. The powder keg, of course, lies in Kashmir.

Even before the Kargil war of May-July 1999, it was obvious to many, though not to the Indian pro-nuclear lobby, that a new level of tension had been unnecessarily and dangerously added to existing levels of hostility by the 1998 tests. Moreover, insofar as a nuclear exchange is most likely to take place between similarly equipped rivals in conditions of wartime or near wartime hostility, Kashmir had become the most likely place where such a catastrophe would occur. It is, after all, the only place where the same hot-cold war between the same two rivals has persisted for over fifty years and still shows no signs whatsoever of abating.

It should be pointed out that the Indian pro-nuclear establishment justifying Pokharan II was always more dismissive about this regional nuclear danger than the pro-nuclear establishment in Pakistan supportive of the Chagai tests. This had to do with the contrasting motives behind the two countries going nuclear. India did so essentially for prestige reasons related to its ' power' ambitions, and, expecting Pakistan to follow suit, had both a much stronger inclination and a greater vested interest in making light of the regional danger. Pakistan, as the reactive agent, had less reason for such dismissiveness, despite having to justify the magical workings of nuclear deterrence and seeking reassurance from its new status as a declared nuclear power.

But Kargil dramatically highlighted these dangers. Contrary to self-deluding views in India, hardliners in Pakistan were emboldened by the acquisition of a national ' shield' to launch a major military assault. During the conflict itself, thirteen nuclear threats and counter threats were publicly issued by prominent government and establishment spokespeople in both countries. This fourth war between the two countries, the most serious military engagement between two nuclear rivals (far outstripping in its scale and intensity any skirmish during the Ussuri River border conflict between China and the USSR), also illustrated how a conventional conflict in the region had the potential to escalate up to and including nuclear exchanges. Neither country has so far openly deployed its still limited nuclear arsenal, but there were unconfirmed reports that both countries had put their nuclear forces (a few gravity bombs to be delivered by aircraft) on alert.

Concerted US diplomatic pressure, predominantly exerted against Islamabad, was perhaps the decisive factor in ending the conflict and preventing further military escalation by India. But five years from now? If some deployment has, or has been assumed to have, occurred? For defenders of Pokharan II, of course, the fact that there was no nuclear exchange '' that deterrence '' Such reasoning - a circular logic that can only be broken by nuclear annihilation - is itself a cause for concern about the course and handling of future conflicts.

The aftermath of Kargil has not seen any easing of mutual tensions. On the contrary, relations between the two neighbours are today at perhaps their lowest ebb in post-independence history. From the Indian side, attitudes are more - indeed, exceptionally - hostile. In August 1999, the negative domestic fallout from the Kargil defeat played a large part in the military coup in Pakistan. The accession of a military dictatorship did not in itself justify a hardening of Indian foreign policy towards Pakistan, but it certainly gave New Delhi a powerful excuse to justify such a hardening of its posture. In the Autumn of 1999, this trend was exacerbated by the hijacking at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan of an Indian Airlines civilian aircraft carrying mostly Indian passengers. The final outcome of the crisis - in which the hijackers, of Pakistani origin, secured both their own safe passage back to Pakistan and the release and exchange of certain Kashmiri militants imprisoned in India - was widely seen in India as a bitter political-symbolic humiliation. Most of the Indian media and security establishment saw the hijacking as directly or indirectly backed by the Pakistan government. Since the same view prevails in regard to Pakistan' tacit support for Kashmiri insurgency on the Indian side of the Line of Control, the end result has been a general deepening of hostility toward Pakistan among the Indian elite whose negative impact should not be underestimated.

Never before among the Pakistani and Indian elites has there been such a strong or widespread feeling of hostility and demonisation of the Other. This may still be a minority sentiment on both sides, but its spread and depth are disturbing. It means that the view that the long-term security of their respective countries is incompatible with mutual coexistence, and requires the destruction or break-up of the Other, is becoming more widespread and institutionalised. Such a demonisation carries implications of the most obvious and worrying kind for the nuclear weapons issue regarding matters of desirable levels of preparations and possibilities and options for threat and use.

Conclusion: a Last Chance for Action?

Given this bleak and unstable political and security context, internationally and regionally, it comes as something of a relief to be able to argue that things could have degenerated even further than they have. There are two silver linings to the gathering storm clouds. First, there are the early stirrings of a nationwide anti-nuclear movement in the civil societies of both India and Pakistan. We are still at the stage of seeking to generate mass awareness of the evil of South Asian nuclearization, i.e. of attacking the efforts of the two governments to publicly legitimise their policies. But cumulative success on this front will help us to move to a subsequent stage where a confident anti-nuclear movement, replete with expertise and persuasive actions, can hope to influence governments themselves. Second, India has not yet openly deployed a nuclear weapons system: a situation which, in the first few months after the tests, few would have rushed to predict. Pakistan, of course, has officially stated that it will not be the first to openly deploy, but will immediately follow Indian deployment.

Part of the reason for India non-deployment has to do with its concerns about international repercussions. But India is also far from possessing an adequate command and control system, and may well wish to delay open deployment until functional structures and apparata are in place. Nor does the government have a developed strategic doctrine. What passes for one currently is the semi-official Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND), produced by the National Security Advisory Board at the behest of the National Security Council in June 1999. In August 1999, the draft was published by the government without, either then or subsequently, being discussed in Cabinet or formally endorsed. The DND is little more than a statement of intent and grandiose ambition, laden with assertions about the blessings of deterrence and accompanied by a wish-list of the requirements demanded by an open-ended nuclear arsenal capable of meeting all conceivable political-military challenges and threats (tactical weapons, triadic development, continuing research into space-based weaponry, etc.), including from the most advanced NWS!

The draft doctrine' importance lies not in its description of what an Indian arsenal will actually or eventually be like, but in furthering two political objectives: first, shifting completely the terms of the public discourse away from the issue of whether or not the country should have gone nuclear or should now reverse its path; secondly, setting the general parameters of discussion by postulating certain principles that should be accepted. Indian nuclear ambitions are grand and therefore must be flexible enough to change according to evolving circumstances and new technological and political possibilities.

Disturbing though these ambitions are, the existence of the current firebreak between testing and open deployment provides both space and time for consolidating efforts to restrain and reverse the Indian and Pakistani path. Civil society in both countries can be counted on to play an increasingly prominent and effective role, but cannot and should not be expected to do the work of the international community in exerting pressure on the two governments to draw back from the brink.

Achin Vanaik is a writer and journalist on nuclear issues, and a Fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. He is joint author with Praful Bidwai of the acclaimed ' Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Disarmament,' published this year in the US (Interlink Books) and Europe (Oxford, UK), and in South Asia (Oxford University Press, New Delhi and Karachi) as ' Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament' In mid-October, Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai were awarded the International Peace Bureau' annual MacBride Prize for their outstanding contribution to the South Asian anti-nuclear movement.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.