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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NUCLEAR SHOCK

India's blasts pose nightmare scenarios - and one slim hope


AT FIRST, THE EPISODE was puzzling. Why did Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes seem bent on turning a budding friend back into an enemy by repeatedly branding China as the No. 1 potential threat to his country? After all, the neighbors had spent much of the past decade trying to heal the wounds that stemmed from a bitter border war in 1962. The thaw was widely welcomed throughout Asia, whose governments have long been concerned about conflict between the region's giants. Besides, neither India nor China, each with huge populations desperately in need of development, can afford a diplomatic and military tiff, especially in these times of economic turmoil. And while New Delhi seemed mildly embarrassed by Fernandes' outbursts, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is also foreign minister, made little effort to rein in his defense chief.

The mystery soon cleared, at least in part. On May 11, Vajpayee told a stunned world that India had just successfully conducted underground tests of three nuclear warheads (see story). The detonations, said top Vajpayee aide Brajesh Mishra, removed all doubt about New Delhi's "capability for a weaponized nuclear program." Within seven weeks of taking power, India's ruling coalition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had fulfilled its key election pledge to introduce atomic arms. And having China as a bogey conveniently provided additional cover for the move.

New Delhi's dramatic proclamation of its arrival on the world nuclear stage is hugely popular at home. It all but guarantees the political survival of the previously shaky ruling coalition. But internationally, the shockwaves unleashed by the explosions will reverberate for a long time to come. Realpolitik ensures that India, as a full-fledged nuclear power, will gain the clout and grudging respect that accrues to such nations. But New Delhi, as well as the world, are set to pay a steep price for the muscle-flexing.

Most alarmingly, archrival Pakistan, against which India has fought three wars, seems certain to follow suit. When the Pakistanis recently tested their new Ghauri missile, they gleefully noted it could reach any Indian city within 12 minutes. Fernandes promptly condemned the test - and accused Beijing of helping Islamabad develop the weapon. After India's nuclear detonations, Pakistan Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan vowed to "maintain a balance" with the Indians and top nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said Islamabad could conduct its own atomic test within a week. So what many observers already consider Asia's single most dangerous international rivalry has just become a lot more menacing. With an arms race now probable, both nations, tragically, will need to divert scarce resources away from urgent economic priorities.

Nor are the Chinese likely to sit still, with a nuclear-armed India that has just fingered them as its prospective chief enemy. In fact, both sides had worked hard to narrow their differences. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi made a landmark journey to Beijing in 1988. Five years later, the neighbors agreed to put aside their dispute over border territory to develop economic ties. In 1996, when President Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader to visit India, the two nations agreed to cut frontier troop deployments. Jiang also went to Pakistan and urged his hosts to shelve difficult issues involving India - a clear sign Beijing was more interested in regional peace than in siding with Islamabad against New Delhi. And just last month, Chinese armed forces chief of staff Fu Quanyou, in another groundbreaking trip, agreed with his Indian counterpart to make special efforts to safeguard regional stability. Despite China's relatively moderate response to India's blasts, it remains to be seen how much damage they will do to such hard-won progress toward détente.

Also upset is the United States, for which nuclear non-proliferation is a diplomatic priority. Washington quickly recalled its ambassador to New Delhi. Though President Bill Clinton intends to proceed with a planned visit later this year to India and Pakistan, sanctions are likely. A tough law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1994 requires the government to halt all aid and credits to India except for humanitarian purposes. America is India's biggest trade partner and top source of foreign investment. The regulation also obliges the U.S. to desist from backing aid to New Delhi by such international institutions as the World Bank, from which India is the third-largest borrower. Given their mutual interest in non-proliferation and stability in South Asia, the U.S. and China may in fact work together to dampen nuclear-related tensions there.

The costs to India do not end there. A chorus of condemnation echoed around the globe, from Europe to Russia to atomic-sensitive Japan, which threatened to cut off its $1 billion in aid loans to India, the largest by any nation. Australia and New Zealand also recalled their envoys, while Malaysia and Thailand said that New Delhi's blasts jeopardized ASEAN's goal of establishing a nuclear-free zone in Asia. And at a time when India sorely needs foreign investment, potential investors will be scared off by the prospect of a nuclear face-off between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Also in jeopardy may be the global Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by 149 governments, including all the declared nuclear powers. But the CTBT needs to be ratified by the signatories' legislatures. The explosions by India - the most conspicuous treaty holdout, together with Pakistan - likely means that the U.S. Congress, among others, will reject the accord, undoing years of painstaking diplomacy.

What to do now? For the international community, the priority must be to persuade India to sign the CTBT before it unravels, escalating military tensions globally. China, another longtime opponent of the pact, agreed to sign after it finished a couple of nuclear tests in 1996. Now that India has conducted its own detonations, it can undo much of the tension it created - and reap fresh goodwill - by backing the worldwide ban. In fact, BJP spokesman Venkatiah Naidu said that the tests had brought New Delhi "closer to signing the treaty," while aide Mishra declared his government's support for "a speedy process of nuclear disarmament, leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons." For both India and the world, there is little time to lose embarking down that path.

New Delhi's insecurities will also need to be addressed. Though China's energies are clearly absorbed by its own epochal economic reforms, its military might obviously troubles its neighbors, including India. Greater openness about Chinese diplomatic and strategic aims would help ease such concerns. Beijing, together with Washington and perhaps other powers, should also try harder to mediate sensitively and constructively between India and Pakistan, notably on the pivotal issue of Kashmir. National and global security is far more effectively guaranteed by such endeavors than by the development and pile-up of nuclear arms.


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