Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: U.S. Policy Challenges

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Key Points

* U.S. nonproliferation policy faces major challenges in South Asia, as India and Pakistan threaten to deploy deliverable nuclear arsenals.

* Incoherent U.S. nonproliferation policies and inappropriate influence strategies have encouraged India and Pakistan to advance their nuclear weapons capabilities.

* U.S. nonproliferation policies will influence Indian and Pakistani decisions to either further develop or curb nuclear weapons.

In May 1998, India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices. India has since declared its intention to deploy nuclear weapons, which would result in a retaliatory Pakistani deployment. Deliverable nuclear arsenals in South Asia would lower the threshold for nuclear use and could result in parallel Indian-Pakistani, Pakistani-Iranian and Sino-Indian nuclear arms races. Unbridled South Asian nuclear proliferation would also undermine the global nonproliferation regime, encouraging other states to follow suit.

Technological and financial constraints will prevent both India and Pakistan from deploying survivable nuclear weapons in the near future. Indian and Pakistani decisionmakers will also have to assess the potential diplomatic and economic costs, in particular the U.S. response to nuclear weapons deployment. Hence, the U.S. could persuade India and Pakistan to exercise nuclear restraint.

In the past, AMerica has failed to curb South Asian nuclear proliferation because of Washington's contradictory policies. Although &dared U.S. policy emphasized nonproliferation goals, other perceived political, commercial, and strategic interests often took precedence, sending mixed signals to India and Pakistan and encouraging them to advance their nuclear weapons programs. Moreover, the U.S. failed to influence Indian and Pakistani nuclear decisionmaking because of inappropriate influence strategies. Nonproliferation sanctions were insubstantial and rarely sustained; inducements were unconditionally extended. The past U.S. failure to pursue general disarmament also gave India and Pakistan a pretext to reject the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime as discriminatory and unjust.

The Clinton administration pursued a policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with India and Pakistan, hoping that inducement strategies would advance nuclear nonproliferation goals. But this policy of engagement was also meant to further other perceived U.S. political, strategic, and economic interests. Although some sanctions were retained to signal disapproval of both India's and Pakistan's nuclear developments, they were insubstantial and were too often eased unconditionally; undercutting their intention to influence Indian and Pakistani nuclear decisionmaking. And when its diplomatic aims conflicted with its nonproliferation goal, Washington downgraded its nonproliferation objective from totally eliminating to merely capping both India's and Pakistan's nuclear weapons capabilities. …