Introduction: The South Asian Nuclear Tests

01 August 1998


The recent Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests have brought nuclear proliferation and the terrible threat of nuclear war back to the world's center stage. New Delhi's and Islamabad's nuclear moves have raised regional tensions, made Kashmir a potential nuclear flashpoint, ensured even greater impoverishment for their enormous and poverty-devastated populations, fueled a conventional and possibly nuclear arms race far beyond the borders of the two countries, increased the power and influence of military forces in both countries' political life, and vastly distorted definitions of international status and influence.

On a global level, the South Asian entries into the restricted club of admitted nuclear-capable nations have rendered obsolete the post-World War II nuclear status quo. Nuclear weapons were originally linked to the rise of the United States (then the world's sole nuclear power) as the post-War global powerhouse. Nascent Soviet nuclear capacity soon made the weapons part of the strategic arsenal of the Cold War. Over the next twenty years, Britain, France and China would all attain nuclear status, but there, according to the Nuke Five, nuclear parity was to stop. Possession of these ultimate weapons of mass destruction was deemed the exclusive right of the five leading victors of World War II, the same five nations who would consolidate the political/diplomatic version of their ultimate power as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

By 1970, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was enacted, the Nuke Five wrote into law their right both to keep their own megadeath weapons and to deny them to the rest of the world. Much of the treaty aimed at preventing nuclear have-nots from becoming nuclear haves. For many years that part mostly worked. But there was something else in the treaty. Article Six of the NPT called on the Nuke Five to move toward "the objective of complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons as an ultimate objective." Virtually nothing was done toward that end. In fact, the head of the US delegation to the 1995 negotiations on extending the NPT admitted that for Washington, "to say that we have to have a timetable for a nuclear-free world is disingenuous; it is nothing short of ridiculous." Yet many nations believed that allowing unchecked nuclear proliferation by the five powerful nuclear states was itself ridiculous. Mexico's Ambassador Miguel Marin Bosch, whose country, along with India and others led the 1995 effort to press for de-nuclearization by the then-Nuke Five, noted that during the years of the NPT, "what has occurred is an incredible accumulation of nuclear arms in five countries, especially the US and the former USSR ... Why are NWS [nuclear weapons states] so reluctant to begin a process of genuine nuclear disarmament? ... In part it is also because of the fear of losing their status, a status they would deny others....But why are their so-called national security needs more important than those of others? Why do they insist, as adults to children, that the rest of the world `do as I say, not as I do'?"

Despite those efforts, the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995 with no commitments by the Nuke Five to implement the goals of Article Six. In the absence of a US-Soviet nuclear standoff, many believed the main threat from nuclear weapons would come from the "loose nukes" finding their market-driven way to unsanctioned purchasers in unapproved nations. Major new national proliferation problems (except those needed to justify Western war hysteria against Iraq) lost their high-profile position. But now the emergence of two new full-fledged and openly nuclear states in India and Pakistan puts the question of proliferation squarely back to center stage. The move threatens potential escalations in the nuclear arms race between earlier nuclear powers and these new, unauthorized second-generation nuclear states. India and Pakistan's tests could lead to new efforts by the Nuke Five to create new kinds of nuclear weapons designed specifically to oppose the newer, perhaps less sophisticated weapons of the newest nuclear states. Under US leadership, the Nuke Five refuses to concede the reality that India and Pakistan (along with Israel, whose military forces conducted one or more joint nuclear tests with apartheid South Africa in 1979) are now nuclear-weapons states. The Nuke Five insist that acknowledgment of the reality of nuclear capacity represents a reward that should be denied the newly-declared nuclear states. It is certainly true that the Indian and Pakistani tests (as well as Israel's almost twenty years ago) represent the failure of the earlier effort toward a permanent haves/have-nots scheme for nuclear non-proliferation. Nevertheless, the response cannot be a head-in-the-sand denial of the sad but dangerous reality: India, Pakistan and Israel are now, however much we may oppose it, nuclear states. They must be dealt with as such, and held to the standards of earlier nuclear powers, including the responsibility to move urgently toward complete nuclear abolition. In fact, neither India's nor Pakistan's nuclear weapons tests were in direct response to the hypocrisy and power imbalance imposed by the Nuke Five. India's far-right Hindu nationalist ruling party, the BJP, was motivated by far narrower, indeed chauvinist, motivations of its own. And Pakistan's tests were thoroughly reactive to India's. However, recognition of the West's double standard, especially in India, played a key role in the widespread (though far less unanimous than first reported) popular support for the tests. Outside South Asia, opposition to these newest expressions of nuclear prowess must be clearly rooted in a simultaneous understanding of and opposition to the quarter-century old, and now clearly discredited, "two-tier" system of nuclear weapons.

Significance of the South Asian Nuclear Tests

The National Level

The two new nuclear nations had many different motivations in their decision to test. A Hindu-nationalist party with a long commitment to making India a nuclear weapons power leads the current minority government. India's goal in carrying out the nuclear tests - the BJP announced its intention to test only a day after taking office - was to claim higher levels of international credibility and influence. Pakistan, on the other hand, viewed their own nuclear tests in the context of deterrence against the better armed and far larger Indian military.

Yet despite those differences, the parallels are far more significant. The tests will lead to severe impoverishment of the populations in both countries. While poorer Pakistan will face tougher results from the US-imposed sanctions (being far more dependent on international aid), both countries' poor will pay a high human price. India, whose economy is one-third the size of China's, will suffer if a nuclear arms race develops with its larger neighbor. In both India and Pakistan the military and the nuclear arms industry will gain political power, likely at the expense of more democratically-oriented social forces. Both countries face a new threat of militarization of their societies, as empowered armies respond to growing unrest rooted in nuclear-driven poverty and dispossession. And both countries face a new international environment in which, in contrast to their claimed goals, they are widely viewed as international outlaws for creating new nuclear arsenals.

The Regional Level

The tests mean serious destabilization of the already tenuous balance of power in South Asia. The long-simmering, and already often deadly conflict over Kashmir becomes transformed into a site of potential nuclear war. Politically, Pakistan's nuclear test has objectively been partially rewarded, because the major powers for the first time appear open to internationalizing the Kashmir crisis, a longstanding Pakistani goal. India, on the other hand, was politically set back for the same reason: New Delhi had long sought to keep Kashmir a local/regional conflict. China's warming relations with India will almost certainly chill again, and Beijing's military relationship with Pakistan will be strengthened. Iran will likely feel legitimated to escalate its NPT-limited nuclear and conventional capacities, and public opinion in Egypt will likely call for a renewal of Cairo's long-abandoned nuclear weapons program. Israel, the other unacknowledged nuclear power in the neighborhood, may feel empowered enough to move toward expansion or improvement (either unilaterally or with US collaboration) of its nuclear arsenal, already sixth in the world in size and power.

The International Level

The Indian and Pakistani tests demonstrate the complete failure of the world's existing arms control and non-proliferation regimes to prevent new nuclear powers from emerging. The tests show the result of the Nuke Five's hypocrisy, and the failure of their effort to impose sanctions on two newcomers for imitating the Five's own past nuclear weapons history. They raise the danger that new nuclear arsenals among currently non-nuclear states, and nuclear escalation among acknowledged nuclear states, could become commonplace. There is a particular danger posed by the wide international coverage (however limited, preliminary, or inaccurate the coverage may have been) of the apparently euphoric public reactions in both India and Pakistan. The tests have put on the table the need to do exactly what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Nuke Five meeting in Geneva they would never do: rewrite the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so that new, so-called "rogue" Nuke States are held to the same standards as the old Nuke Five. Most important of all, the tests remind us of the need to fight for implementation of all parts of the NPT, so that complete nuclear abolition and creation of a nuclear-free world become the primary and immediate goals of the treaty's nuclear-armed signatories, rather than something US diplomats deem "ridiculous."

The Need for an International Response

The Indian and Pakistani tests have made the entire world a more dangerous place. Our response must be global as well. Our response must be an active campaign to demand:

  1. India and Pakistan should immediately commit to binding agreements prohibiting future tests and future deployment of nuclear weapons. Both should issue unilateral commitments of no use of nuclear weapons.
  2. The US and the other Nuke Five nations should stop defining the acknowledgment of India's and Pakistan's nuclear capacity as a reward, and understand it instead as acknowledgment of an international failure and a sad reality that carries with it severe responsibilities.
  3. India and Pakistan, along with Israel, should be formally acknowledged as nuclear states, and pushed/pressured to join the NPT as Nuclear Weapons States with all relevant responsibilities, beginning with a renewed commitment to full denuclearization and full implementation of Article Six.
  4. The entire Nuke Eight should be pushed to use the opportunity of this new nuclear crisis to recommit to full implementation of Article Six of the NPT, and full nuclear abolition.