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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

Newsmakers 1998


By conducting atomic tests, the leaders of India and Pakistan raised the stakes in South Asia to a perilous new level

Reflections Out with the old, in with the new

Suharto Three decades of rule end in chaos and ignominy

Mahathir and Anwar The premier and his chosen deputy battle

Zhu Rongji China's reformer grapples with the Crisis

The Internet Governments don't have to love it, but can no longer ignore it

AS 1998 DAWNED, India and Pakistan were at loggerheads - just as they had been in every one of the 51 years since Independence from Britain. Their two armies faced each other not just physically on the world's highest battlefield, the 6,700-meter Siachen glacier in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir, but also psychologically. As the year drew to a close, no change there - but both nations had dramatically added nuclear capability to their arsenals.

The first indication that 1998 would be the year India and Pakistan gatecrashed the nuclear club came during the campaign for India's February general election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sprinkled its vote-catching rhetoric with hawkish remarks on defense and Kashmir - but also on the need to press ahead with developing nuclear weapons. The usual hyperbole expected of a Hindu nationalist party? Not this time. Within days of coming to power, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee instructed his scientists to begin tests. The result: five nuclear blasts on May 11 and 13, and a change forever in India's status on the world scene. Twenty-four years after it had carried out its first "peaceful" test, India had finally shown its true might. "Ours will never be weapons of aggression," Vajpayee later told the world in general and Pakistan in particular.

The Pakistanis were not convinced. Apart from feeding deep-seated suspicions about Indian (and Hindu) nationalism, the tests had left the Islamabad government in a military quandary. It had failed in its long-standing efforts to persuade New Delhi to stay conventional. And, at the same time, it had been unable to get Washington, its Cold War ally, to underwrite its security. Adding to Pakistan's frustration was resentment at the way successive U.S. governments had condemned its purchase of foreign missile systems. Self-assertion was in the air.

Two weeks after India, Pakistan exploded six nuclear devices. Unlike Vajpayee, who had used the tests to strengthen his party's hand in a shaky and disparate coalition government, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif acted in response to overwhelming public pressure - particularly from the powerful right wing. The military, too, played its part. Pakistani generals have long warned that they needed a nuclear deterrent to counter India's superior conventional power.

This sudden and worrying escalation of events in Asia's poorest region caught the world off-guard. Foreign intelligence agencies had failed to pick up any hint India was planning tests - tellingly codenamed "Shakti" (Power) - even though preparations had been underway for weeks in the western Thar desert. The U.S. State Department learned of the explosions not from the CIA but from TV news. When President Bill Clinton heard, he was dumfounded. "India can be a very great country without doing things like this," he said.

For all the international shock, signs that the Indians were politically prepared to raise the stakes had been detectable for some time. Just a day before Vajpayee took the oath of office, the BJP said it would "re-evaluate" India's nuclear policy and "induct nuclear weapons" into the nation's arsenal. The pledge came amid reports that Pakistan, allegedly with North Korea's help, had developed an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Its name? Ghauri, a 12th-century Afghan invader who established the first Muslim kingdom in India. Pakistan's top atomic scientist boasted that the new weapon could strike 26 Indian cities. On April 6, Sharif presided over its test-firing.

Some foreign observers declared themselves baffled as to why poor countries like India and Pakistan should wish to possess weapons of mass destruction. But the political truth is that there is broad support in both countries for developing a nuclear capability. This helps explain why the inevitability of U.S. economic sanctions, which were announced immediately after India's tests, failed to prevent Sharif responding in kind to India's blasts.

The Pakistani premier warned his people to expect economic hardship as a result of the U.S. economic retaliation (promptly delivered but now partially eased for both nations). He froze all foreign exchange accounts in a bid to save dollars for essential imports, and, in a personal display of belt-tightening, promised to "eat only lentils" - meaning he would forgo the meat that Punjabis like him consider a daily necessity. Most Pakistanis accepted Sharif's austerity measures, though growing suspicions about the propriety of his family's business dealings weakened him on other fronts. Over the border, the post-test euphoria had evaporated by year's end, replaced by concern over the soaring cost of such basic commodities as onions. In local elections in November, Vajpayee's BJP received a mauling from the Congress party.

The explosions brought an end to the nuclear "shell game" that New Delhi and Islamabad had been playing for decades. Now the fear is that these historical foes could escalate a conventional arms race into a far more perilous one. Alarmed, Washington persuaded them to seek a resolution to their festering dispute over Kashmir, which has led to two of the three wars between them. As 1998 came to a close, the ongoing dialogue had produced no concrete results. But, as Vajpayee put it in November, the important thing was not that nothing had been achieved, but that the two governments were talking at all. Given their new military might, that was no small blessing.

- By Ajay Singh and Arjuna Ranawana

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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