India and Pakistan appear to be in a straitjacket after conducting underground nuclear tests in May. The radioactivity may have been contained, but the worldwide fallout has been swift, severe, and predictable.
The decision to conduct nuclear tests should not have been a total surprise. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the lead party in the 18-party coalition Indian government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had announced its intention to "reevaluate" India's nuclear policy before ever taking office. In fact, the desire for nuclear testing predates the BJP government. In 1990, then-Prime Minister V. P. Singh had sanctioned the tests scheduled for the summer of 1991, but his government fell in November 1990. Three years later, then-Prime Minister Narashimha Rao's plans to test the Agni ballistic missile were thwarted because of detection by spy satellites. India may have planned to test a nuclear device—not just missiles—in 1994, but these tests were aborted after pressure from the United States and other nations.
After taking office on 18 March 1998, Defense Minister George Fernandes said, "We have not said that we are going in for nuclear weapons. Instead, through a first ever strategic defense review, we will examine our threat perceptions and in the light of day decide on induction of nuclear weapons." But he added, "I don't think we need to test (a nuclear device) at this point of time. We did a good job . . . in 1974 when India tested a nuclear device. The world knows India has the capacity and the capability. We don't need to perform for others. . . . It is not our purpose to start an arms race. India's policy is defense oriented, and not war-oriented." These statements appear to have been a clever ruse to ensure the secrecy of India's five nuclear tests.
Other security measures were implemented as well. The Pokhran test site is in the heart of the desert, where temperature in May rises above 100 deg Fahrenheit, worsening a dust that envelopes the area. The heat and dust combine to reduce the chances that ground activity will be detected by spy satellites. The scientists took further precautions by working at night, especially when U.S. and other nations' spy satellites were known not to be overhead. They also kept a low profile by working out of a ramshackle shed to monitor the progress of test preparations, and they stayed in Pokhran as infrequently as possible. In addition, visible activity was increased in Eastern India, where Defense Minister Fernandes had announced that an Agni ballistic missile would be test fired on 11 May—the same day as India's first round of nuclear tests. Conveniently, the Agni test was visible to spy satellites and confirmed U.S. suspicions.
Why, then, did India change its stand and conduct nuclear tests so soon after declaring that it would not do so until a strategic review had been completed?
Some speculate that the switch was the result of internal politics. When the BJP failed to win an outright majority in government, taking only 180 seats of 544 in the lower house of Parliament, it had to go slowly with its hawkish stand. Not all coalition partners were ready for nuclear testing. Critics of Prime Minister Vajpayee, like Senior Minister R. K. Hedge, said before the nuclear tests that the Prime Minister was "fatigued" and "tired" as well as "indecisive." After the tests, Vinod Mehta, Editor of Outlook Magazine, wrote: "Vajpayee was unable to build a Hindu temple his party had promised. But he seemed to tell fellow Indians: 'I am giving you something much, much better and much bigger—a BJP bomb."'
But such criticism is shortsighted. India has real geopolitical security concerns, and its enmity with both China and Pakistan cannot be discounted. The BJP government and the Indian populace were quite concerned with Pakistan's test firing of the Ghauri ballistic missile in April and by the massive aid from China. In addition to aiding Pakistan's missile and nuclear programs, China—a historic foe of India—has set up bases in bordering Burma and targeted Indian cities with ballistic missiles based in occupied Tibet—all the while professing friendship toward India.
In addition, China occupies large tracts of Indian land and has been making counterclaims to additional Indian territory. At the same time, Pakistan claims the whole of the Kashmir region, and China has encouraged Pakistani terrorist activities in various Indian states. With the conventional, unconventional, ballistic-missile, and nuclear threat from China and Pakistan, India has had no option but to address its security concerns by going nuclear and equipping itself with a deterrent force after adequate tests.
Pakistan is deeply indebted to China for assistance in its nuclear weapons program, and its stance toward India—hostile or friendly—is perceived to be dictated by China. The United States appears to have little influence over Pakistan any more, especially after the imposition of tough sanctions. In addition, many Indians believe that U.S. complicity—or blind neglect—allowed China's aid to Pakistan.
This situation is complicated by U.S. sanctions against both India and Pakistan. In spite of the U.S. State Department's desire to make sanctions "sting," Indian leaders expect that the United States will drop the sanctions in four months, because U.S. corporations stand to lose billions of dollars of business. Indian hopes are based on the removal of sanctions against China in 1996 and by British bankers' announcement that they will stand guarantees for U.S. private exports and projects to be set up in India. Indians also are preparing, however, for the worst: cancellation of the most-favored-nation status by the United States, which could trigger a trade war. Although exports could drop by 10 to 20%, and imports may be cut by one third, foreign trade makes up only about 5% of the Indian economy. On the other hand, Pakistan faces default on repayment of debts, for its foreign currency reserves are down to $1.3 billion. It has imposed severe restrictions on foreign currency transactions and implemented emergency efforts to cut its expenditures by half. Sanctions may precipitate a return to military rule in Pakistan.
At present, both India and Pakistan appear to be ready to enter into negotiations with the world community on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They want changes, however, in what they consider an "unequal" treaty. India will not accept the nuclear umbrella of any other nation in spite of U.N. proposals to consider Indian and Pakistani security concerns. Both countries insist that they be recognized as nuclear powers and be admitted to the nuclear club, with the same rights as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
The Indian government has an appreciation for U.S. intelligence reports and foreign policy assessments that Iran may be the next nuclear weapons nation in the region, followed possibly by Iraq. Israel is considered a potential nuclear weapons state and Pakistan's "Muslim" bomb is likely to be available to Arab nations hostile to Israel. It is apparent that an arms race in the region may be likely.
After the heat and dust generated by the nuclear tests, however, India and Pakistan are trying to cool down tempers by going slowly on the hostile propaganda against each other, even as Chinese criticism of India continues. To normalize relations between India and Pakistan, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have met and called for negotiations on all issues. The Iranian Foreign Minister has met Indian and Pakistan Prime Ministers and urged them to resume their dialogue.
A former Indian Prime Minister, I. K. Gujral, wants his country to offer unilaterally a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons and sign a nonaggression pact with Pakistan. Other measures have been suggested by important people on both sides, such as:
- Making a commitment not to attack each other's nuclear facilities
- Undertaking a joint effort to ensure that neither side uses nuclear weapons accidentally
- Developing a joint policy to press for the global elimination of nuclear weapons
General Mirza Afzal Beg, a former Chief of Staff of Pakistan's Army, has endorsed these suggestions and said: "Let us not waste our resources on an arms race any more. What we should do is just sit down and talk. We have not been doing that, and that is why the misgivings. We must search for peace."
After the nuclear tests, the prime ministers of both India and Pakistan have offered to return to the negotiating table. These tests have brought them together on an equal footing and may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Commodore Khanna retired from the Indian Navy after more than 30 years of distinguished service, during which time he commanded ships and shore stations and was awarded the Ati Vishst Seva Medal. At present, he is the managing director of his own firm, Techno Marine Services.
Lalit Sethi is a journalist of more than 40 years and was the special correspondent and deputy news editor of Statesman, a premier newspaper in India.