The Subcontinent Goes Nuclear

The post-Cold War dream of a world free from nuclear weapons had a rude awakening this May. India’s five nuclear tests and Pakistan’s even more provocative response are a major setback to nuclear non-proliferation and threaten a dangerous arms race in South Asia, one of the world’s most likely nuclear flash points.

Pakistan’s deployment of nuclear warheads on its long-range Ghauri missiles makes an already deteriorating situation even more dangerous. Both India and Pakistan have been suspected for decades of having nuclear capability. This spring’s tests removed any doubt and will accelerate the arms race between the two—and could make a future nuclear exchange a real possibility. China is unlikely to sit idly by and may now increase its nuclear arsenal targeted at India.

After 24 years of ambiguity, why did India risk a regional arms race, international condemnation, and sanctions by testing nuclear weapons? There are several immediate reasons.

Geopolitics. In the past 50 years, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and since India’s 1962 war with China the country has lived in fear of further attacks. In recent years, the Clinton administration has allowed China to acquire previously forbidden military, nuclear, supercomputer, and satellite technology, which China allegedly then made available to Pakistan. Only one month before India’s test, Pakistan for the first time successfully tested a ballistic missile capable of reaching India’s major cities. India has increasingly felt the regional balance changing to its detriment.

Nationalism. India’s newly elected nationalist government has a long-standing desire to make India a force in international affairs. As the world’s most populous democracy, it has irked India that it is excluded from permanent Security Council membership, the G-8 heads of state, and other major international forums. Since World War II, the price of admission into top status among nations has been the possession of nuclear weapons. India has knocked down the door and demanded entrance as a major power, and Pakistan has attempted to follow suit.

Nuclear power hypocrisy. Most important, while India has for many years been one of the leading countries calling for nuclear disarmament, it rejected the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty as hypocritical efforts by the nuclear powers to maintain their weapons while preventing others from acquiring them. The extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995 was based on a commitment by the nuclear powers to complete a test ban treaty by 1996—the treaty has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

What’s more, the treaties do not provide a timetable for the nuclear powers to destroy their own weapons, allowing stockpiles to endure long past the end of the Cold War that spawned them. A spokesperson for the Indian ruling party pointed out, "The American position is hypocritical. They are sitting on a mountain of nuclear arms, and they are pontificating to India and the world."

The Clinton administration has made trade its most important foreign policy objective, which has led to the transfer of previously top-secret technology to numerous countries, most notably China—allegedly in exchange for campaign contributions. If halting the spread of nuclear weapons is to be a priority—and it must—then the U.S. government has to give non-proliferation priority over trade and technology transfers—and that by necessity includes concrete and timely steps toward disarmament of our own nuclear arsenal. The United States cannot expect to retain its weapons while lecturing other nations not to acquire them. A significant U.S. initiative to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty and reduce its own nuclear weapons might yet curb a new arms race in Asia before it gets out of control.

If we do not make disarmament a priority, this spring’s explosions in India and Pakistan will be but harbingers of a new and more dangerous nuclear arms race that will engulf the developing world. The dream of a nuclear-free world will recede, and our children will once again face a future of annihilation rather than hope.

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