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South Asia's Nuclear Wake-Up Call

May 1998

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

India's nuclear tests and its declaration of nuclear-weapon status have been widely seen as foreshadowing a nuclear arms race in South Asia and a wave of additional nuclear-weapon states. Although the tests did not actually change the existing dangerous confrontation there since India and Pakistan had long been credited with nuclear weapons capabilities, they did violate the 30-year international norm against new nuclear-weapon states and the newly established taboo against nuclear testing. Far from signaling the end of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the tests should be a wake-up call to strengthen the remarkably successful efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Indian action was largely motivated by the ruling party's efforts to gain support for its fragile coalition government by appealing to nationalistic pride. In the process, India exchanged its overwhelming conventional arms advantage over Pakistan for a situation where Islamabad will be more likely to deploy nuclear forces, which could strike New Delhi with little or no warning time, and sacrificed its improved relations with China for a potential nuclear arms race, which it can ill afford and cannot win, with Beijing.

The practically universal condemnation of the tests, including strong statements by the UN Security Council, the G-8 industrialized countries and most members of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), demonstrated the continuing strength of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Significantly, none of the states with possible nuclear ambitions even cited the Indian and Pakistani actions as a precedent for going nuclear.

The world was alerted to the extent of U.S. concerns by the immediate application of far-reaching sanctions against both India and Pakistan as mandated by legislation. While the automatic nature of the sanctions helped underscore the seriousness of the issue and deter others from testing, the legislation does not contribute to problem-solving since the sanctions, which provide powerful negotiating leverage to influence future Indian and Pakistani actions, cannot be eased without new congressional action.

In proclaiming itself a "nuclear-weapon state," India sought to share the status of the five existing nuclear-weapon states. This outcome is totally unacceptable. Rewarding New Delhi for violating a 30-year international norm against any new nuclear-weapon states would encourage others to follow India's lead. Moreover, it is not even a viable option. The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which now has 185 members, limits nuclear-weapon status to the five countries that had tested prior to January 1, 1967, because the signatories wanted to prevent any further proliferation. The treaty's amendment procedure was made impossibly demanding to preclude any controversial changes.

Since there is no possibility that New Delhi can be persuaded to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, India and Pakistan must remain outside the NPT. International efforts should focus on freezing the nuclear situation in South Asia by formalizing the status quo prior to the May tests. This could be accomplished if India and Pakistan joined the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) without conditions and agreed not to deploy any nuclear weapons. To cap their potential capabilities, they should also agree to join in future CD negotiations—without conditions—to cut off future production of fissile materials for weapons.

Such measures, which would reinforce the existing norm against proliferation and the taboo against testing, would certainly merit the lifting of the U.S.-mandated sanctions. By remaining outside the NPT, India and Pakistan would still be subject to the international restrictions that applied to them before the tests. The Nuclear Suppliers Group prevents trade in nuclear and dual-use equipment—even for peaceful purposes—unless a non-nuclear-weapon state accepts full-scope safeguards on all its nuclear facilities. This limited constraint would stand as a warning that there is a price to pay for remaining outside or withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation regime, but not attempt to isolate India or Pakistan from the international community.

The United States has at its command a range of incentives, including the elimination of the new sanctions and the proposed presidential visit, to encourage Indian acceptance of measures re-establishing the status quo. To make this possible, Congress must act promptly to give President Clinton greater flexibility on sanctions and to underscore the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to non-proliferation by ratifying the CTBT.

Looking to the future, the United States should improve relations with India, a democracy with a billion citizens, that will play an increasingly important role in the coming century. Balancing this objective with the strengthening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime in the face of the Indian and Pakistani tests presents a formidable, but by no means insurmountable, challenge.

Also from May '98... see ACT's special coverage of

The Crisis in South Asia