Not a Catastrophe: Another Look At the South Asian Nuclear Tests

A Response to William Walker

Professor William Walker's article, "The Risks of Further Nuclear Testing in South Asia" (ACT, Sept./Oct. 1999), was a welcome departure from what passes these days for scholarship on India and Pakistan. Walker makes a number of important observations regarding the present situation in South Asia, which is dominated by the lack of normal relations between India and Pakistan and which now has an overt nuclear dimension. However, like most commentators in Western countries, he also subscribes to the conventional wisdom that the 1998 nuclear explosions by India and Pakistan had catastrophic consequences for the world.

On the contrary, the psychological shock waves have far outweighed the real ones recorded by seismometers around the world. This comment is not meant to belittle the significance of the nuclear explosions conducted by India and Pakistan, but it is intriguing that India's explosion of a so-called "peaceful nuclear device" in 1974 was not cause for such large-scale alarm and attention. That test was perhaps more destabilizing because Pakistan could not reciprocate in kind, thus creating a significant asymmetry in the perceived balance of power between the two countries.

It was also well known that both India and Pakistan had maintained their respective nuclear ambitions since that first test, albeit without resorting to nuclear testing, similar to Israel or (previously) South Africa. Perhaps it is the audacity of India and Pakistan in openly flouting the big powers and the embryonic Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that has caused the stir. However, the bottom line is that five or six explosions-with possibly exaggerated results-cannot qualitatively expand the nuclear capabilities of these countries. More importantly, the perception of a nuclear asymmetry in South Asia has been removed for the time being. Therefore, the situation is not as bad as it is made out to be, rhetoric and armed conflict in Kashmir notwithstanding.

In addition, more credit has been given to the August 1999 Draft Report on Indian Nuclear Doctrine than is deserved. (See ACT, July/August 1999 for the text of the draft report.) While it certainly is a wish list of the pro-nuclear lobby, Walker also aptly characterizes it as having an "air of unreality, even adventurism." Obviously, for it to be become a real concern, it will have to be backed up by significant funding.

But recently, there has been noticeable backpedaling away from the draft report by the administration of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, in a November 29 interview, clearly attempted to downplay the significance of the draft document by labeling it as only "one of a number of papers, including one on a possible [emphasis added] Indian Nuclear Doctrine" that the National Security Advisory Board was tasked to prepare.<1> (See full interview.) He also tried to distance his administration from the policy recommendations contained in the draft by saying that a debate was underway and thus the report had yet to become "a policy document of the government of India."

More specifically, addressing the issue of a so-called "triad" of nuclear forces, which has raised hackles universally, Singh stated that a "triad was not a prerequisite for credibility" of India's nuclear forces. He even went a step further by indirectly chastising the authors for having borrowed the concept from Western analysts without paying close attention to their underlying assumptions, which do not apply to India. Therefore, he said, it was premature to talk of an Indian "triad."

Frankly, the language in the draft doctrine is not as worrying as the growing influence of the scientists and the increased power of the research and development organizations that cater to the military. The nuclear scientists and engineers who led these efforts in both India and Pakistan were feted as national heroes after the nuclear explosions. Their growth in stature will inevitably present itself as demand for higher and higher budgets in the future.

Fortunately, there are substantial countervailing forces that will act against such aspirations. Most commentators seem to have underestimated the potential for domestic opposition to India's nuclear adventure. That domestic support for nuclear weapons is tepid at best is apparent from the fact that Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not benefit from the Pokhran tests significantly in the recent elections. Its share of seats in the new Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, remained at 182-the same as the last Lok Sabha.<2> It is also noteworthy that in the new government the BJP is leading a precarious coalition of 23 parties with a majority of only 26 seats in the 543-seat parliament. The tensions within the administration are serious, as was demonstrated during the recent debates in the parliament on the price hike in diesel fuel and the insurance liberalization bill.

India's grim economic and demographic situation is a further deterrent to any nuclear adventurism in the future. India is the only country other than China to have a billion people. According to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute, the amount of land available to each Indian is shrinking, and food production is threatened by falling water tables.<3> The report also points out that India spends 2.5 percent of its GNP on its military and a mere 0.7 percent on health. It is no surprise that half of all children in India under four are malnourished and that 60 percent of women are anemic, as reported by a recent World Bank study.<4>

Economic realities aside, there is also domestic opposition to India abandoning its traditional role as the champion of nuclear disarmament. In an opening salvo against the draft doctrine, a leading leftist opposition group, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], met with Prime Minister Vajpayee and stated in a December 22 press release that the CPI(M) was opposed to nuclear weaponization and deployment.<5> It is calling for "a national commitment to no further nuclear explosive testing-first, through a unanimously adopted resolution of both Houses of Parliament and then, as soon as feasible, through an Act of Parliament." One may also recall that 250,000 people reportedly protested against the government's nuclear policy on Hiroshima Day in August 1998.

By carrying out the nuclear tests in 1998, the BJP government accomplished two major objectives. First, it showed it could stand up to the big powers. By doing so, it neutralized critics on the left and people like former Prime Minister Inder Gujral, a longtime advocate of global disarmament. Indeed, riding on a wave of near-unanimous support from across the political spectrum against signing the CTBT, Vajpayee, in a speech at the Asia Society in New York on September 28, 1998, justified the tests as "a powerful challenge to the practitioners of nuclear apartheid."<6> Speaking in this way, he sounded less like a leader of the BJP and more like the late Krishna Menon-the socialist firebrand who represented India at the United Nations in the 1950s. But it worked. Second, it demonstrated that India itself was a big power to be reckoned with, thus helping the BJP to shore up its electoral base, which advocates a strong position vis-à-vis Pakistan (and occasionally China). The BJP needed such a boost, especially since it has been soft-pedaling the Ayodhya temple issue since it first came to power at the national level in 1998-a move that has hurt its core base, but helped to retain precious coalition partners.

Having accomplished its basic objectives, it is unlikely that the BJP and its partners would risk drastic steps in this regard. In fact, there are clear signs that the Vajpayee government wants to sign the CTBT after building a domestic consensus. Singh emphasized that India's national security needs have now been satisfied and that there is now a need to reassure the international community. Significantly, he did not mention India's earlier demand for a "time-bound formula for nuclear disarmament," which was one of the main sticking points that resulted in the Conference on Disarmament deadlocking during the negotiations on the CTBT. Pakistan's policy on the CTBT can be expected to essentially follow India's.

Finally, the key to achieving peace and stability, and especially arms control, in South Asia lies in strengthening democracy in the region. As has been amply demonstrated, sanctions are largely ineffective and also counterproductive. Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, lamented in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor that the Brownback Amendment to the FY2000 Defense Appropriations Bill, which gave the president authority to waive all sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan, was an "extraordinary reversal of American policy."<7> He went on, however, to say: "Quite clearly a sanctions-based policy has not kept nuclear weapons out of South Asia."

Instead of focusing on a sanctions policy based on Cold War imperatives, a new strategy should be based on a broader engagement between the United States and the region as a whole. There are already signs that such a shift in thinking is taking place in the Clinton administration. For example, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson held discussions with Indian officials about cooperation in energy, science and climate change when he visited India in October 1999.<8> Singh, who has been holding a series of meetings over the past year with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott echoed the sentiment when he hinted that future dialog with the United States will be expanded to cover a wide range of subjects from energy and the environment to terrorism.

The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) initiative can serve as an example. It is difficult to understand why the United States can engage a so-called "rogue" state like North Korea and come up with a workable framework for denuclearization, and yet cannot do something similar in South Asia. It is also noteworthy, as U.S. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth has said, that KEDO has served as about the only place for regular contacts between the two Koreas-a rather significant benefit.<9>

Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to India and Egypt, was correct when he said that it is more urgent to defuse problems that drive countries to seek nuclear devices-a recommendation that applies not just to South Asia, but to others, such as Iran, as well.<10> President Clinton's anticipated visit to the region later this year provides an important opportunity to turn a new page.


1. "India Not to Engage in a Nuclear Arms Race: Jaswant Singh, External Affairs Minister," The Hindu, November 29, 1999.

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2. Y. Aggarwal. "Implications of Poll Verdict for the Congress and BJP," Free Press Journal, October 15, 1999.

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3. Alex Kirby. "India Passes Population Landmark," BBC News Online Network, August 10, 1999.

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4. Daniel Lak. "India's Malnutrition Crisis," BBC News Online Network, November 19, 1999.

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5. Press Release, Communist Party of India (Marxist),, December 22, 1999.

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6. Celia W. Dugger. "For Pakistan and India, Atom Pact is Hard Sell," The New York Times, September 30, 1998.

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7. Robert Hathaway. "Fresh Start or Shameful Retreat in South Asia?" The Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 1999.

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8. "Richardson Shifts from Proliferation to Energy Use," Statesman News Service, October 26, 1999.

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9. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. "Keeping the U.S.-North Korean Nuclear Accord on Track," Arms Control Today, August 1997.

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10. Steve Mufson. "Losing the Battle on Arms Control," The Washington Post, July 17, 1999.

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Subrata Ghoshroy is a senior evaluator in the Nationaly Security and International Affairs Division of the U.S. General Accounting Office. The views expressed here are his own.