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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

PLAYING WITH FIRE

Pakistan pursues a risky strategy of bluff and retreat
with Western opinion

By Ajay Singh


JUST AFTER INDIA CONDUCTED a crude nuclear test in 1974, Pakistani premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto vowed that the nation would respond with its own test even if it meant his poverty-stricken countrymen had to "eat grass" to pay the bills. Recently, Pakistan's navy chief, Admiral Fasih Bokhari, recalled Bhutto's bravado in a conversation with reporters in Islamabad. "What comes after the explosion?" he asked with alarm. Are Pakistanis "ready to eat grass"?

It is no idle question. Since India joined the nuclear club by conducting two rounds of nuclear tests on May 11 and May 13, the Pakistan government has come under intense domestic pressure to retaliate with tests of its own. But doing so would have two serious consequences. First, it would attract the same punitive sanctions that a number of countries have leveled against India for contributing to nuclear proliferation. But sanctions would hurt Pakistan much worse than India, where World Bank loans comprise just 1% of GDP. Fully half of Islamabad's revenues come from loans and grants from foreign countries and multilateral agencies.

Second, by openly declaring itself a nuclear state, Pakistan would enter the blocks for a nuclear arms race on the sub-continent. Such a move could be devastating for the nation's fragile economy: Pakistan's market is relatively more open than India's and thus more vulnerable to a negative turn in investor sentiment. Also, Pakistan has just $1.2 billion in foreign exchange reserves - enough for only 10 weeks of imports - a sharp contrast to the $26.3 billion in Indian coffers.

Nevertheless, the decision is not cut and dried, and Pakistani officials have been sending out conflicting signals. They seem to believe that by threatening a test, they can win concessions from the West. Last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said at one point that Islamabad was in "no haste" to conduct tests. But nearly in the same breath he added that Pakistan could, if it wanted, "prove [its] nuclear worth" within 12 to 24 hours.

Sharif's threat could also be seen as a result of the failure of world leaders to develop a unified response to India's tests. Of the world's eight leading industrialized nations - all of which attended the G-8 economic summit last week in Britain - only Japan and the U.S. have imposed sweeping sanctions against Delhi. Evidently frustrated by what he saw as a weak-kneed response, Sharif said Pakistan may be "forced to test the deterrent, and no one can stop us from doing so." Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan took the threat a step further: "It's a matter of when - not if - Pakistan will test." It may have been bluster, but it was nevertheless hard to ignore.

On May 19, Sharif said a conference of all major political parties in Pakistan would be convened shortly to consider the question of whether to test or not. The suggestion that Pakistan was moving forward with its plans seemed a direct response to a provocative comment from Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani a day earlier. "Islamabad," said the man who until recently was president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), "should realize the change in the geostrategic situation in the world and roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir." India's declared nuclear capability, he added, "signifies its resolve to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan's hostile activities in Kashmir."

Kanti Bajpai, a professor of international relations at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, describes Advani's comments as "an attempt to turn the nuclear explosions into diplomatic muscle power." That's probably how Sharif saw it, too. He reacted quickly: "We cannot sit and rest in the face of such threats."

What will Pakistan do? China may hold the key. Most analysts doubt that Pakistan could explode a bomb without China's help. Feeling isolated and lacking broad international support in its efforts to see India punished, Pakistan last week sent foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. "There was a complete identity of views between Pakistan and China on the gravity of the situation," an official of Pakistan's foreign ministry said on May 19. While it remained unclear whether China was actively promoting a Pakistani nuclear test, the Islamabad official said Beijing most definitely did not try to discourage such a move.

In an atmosphere of heightened tension between Beijing and New Delhi, India asked its ambassador to China, Vijay K. Nambiar, to come home for "urgent consultations." An Indian foreign ministry spokesman said Delhi has "no intent to escalate tensions between China and India. We are looking for a cooperative relationship." For the time being, that seems an unlikely prospect. An opinion poll in China revealed that 76% of the respondents feared that the Indian tests posed a direct threat to China.

India has fought three wars with Pakistan since 1947 and suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of China in a 1962 border conflict. The Indian government accuses China of helping Pakistan develop a missile and nuke program. On May 18, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes reiterated his earlier charge that it was China, not Pakistan, that represented the "biggest threat" to India. The accusation, made days before the nuclear tests, shattered a 20-year thaw between Delhi and Beijing.

"It seems that with one stroke we have worsened our relations with the U.S., China and Pakistan," says Delhi academic Bajpai. "It has been a diplomatic nightmare." And India may not awake anytime soon. It is suddenly the regional bogeyman. At a three-day meeting of senior officials of the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, which began on May 20, India was the main topic of conversation.

But if India has become a diplomatic pariah, Pakistan is not directly benefiting. Sharif and others may have thought Pakistan could win concrete concessions from the West in return for not testing - à la North Korea's agreement to give up its nuclear program in exchange for new reactors. They may be wrong. Washington has so far offered nothing except a hint that the U.S. Congress might lift a ban on the delivery of 28 F-16 fighter planes for which Pakistan has already paid $658 million. The delivery of the planes was suspended in 1990 after the U.S. discovered that Islamabad was developing nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the G-8 summit, U.S. President Bill Clinton said it was in Pakistan's political, economic and security interests to refrain from a test. He painted a picture in which first Pakistan and then China and Russia would escalate military tension by ratcheting up the stakes. Concluded Clinton: "It is a nutty way to go."

If there's a silver lining within these cloudy developments it is the possibility that India may sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that forbids nuclear testing by its signatories. The other five declared nuclear powers have already signed. India and Pakistan are among 44 nations that must ratify the treaty by September 1999 before it formally comes into force. India has indicated that it might sign - provided certain restrictions on computer testing of nuclear weapons are met.

As Washington grapples with how best to prevent a possible Pakistani nuclear test, a planned Clinton visit to South Asia in November is taking center stage. U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel "Sandy" Berger has said that the visit is still on: "It remains important that we continue our dialogue with Pakistan [and] India. We have a better chance at slowing these [tests] if we remain engaged than if we don't."

The U.S. may find its hands full. On May 19, Delhi ordered a massive anti-insurgency crackdown on seven villages in an area bordering Pakistan. "We want to tell Pakistan that enough is enough and we will not tolerate any more interference in the [Kashmir] Valley," said Madan Lal Khurana, the BJP's Parliamentary minister. That is precisely the kind of threat that could escalate out of control. An ongoing war of words is the status quo. But with nuclear arms now backing up the rhetoric, new dangers loom.

- With reporting by Arjuna Ranawana/New Delhi, Shahid-Ur-Rehman/Islamabad, David Hsieh/Beijing and Al Reyes/Hong Kong


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