Dispel South Asia's Nuclear Cloud

Article excerpt

As the world's attention is transfixed on bombing Saddam, the risk is growing that South Asia's undeclared nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, will conduct a new round of nuclear tests and missile deployments following the current elections in India.

South Asia's politicians are likely to move closer to an open endorsement of regional "weaponization" if right-wing Hindu nationalists garner enough voter support to form the next Indian government.

The potential ramifications for South Asia's economies and people are significant. In per capita income, both Pakistan (at $450 per year) and India (at $380) are among the poorest nations in the world. Literacy rates are dismally low - less than 50 percent. Malnutrition and disease are widespread. Yet both countries continue to spend more than 25 percent of their annual budgets - some $10 billion to $12 billion combined - on building their war machines. Reducing military expenditures by just 10 percent, for example, would fund the construction and operation of tens of thousands of rural schools. Complicating this situation is the elusiveness of peace in Kashmir. The disputed Himalayan enclave has been the flash point for military and nuclear tensions since Pakistan and India formally separated from Britain and each other in 1947. Islamabad and New Delhi already have fought two wars over Kashmir, in 1947 and again in 1965. But the potential for a new South Asian crisis resides not in the possibility of Kashmir flaring up again or in the rhetorical barbs that might fly between Hindu nationalists and radical Islamists. It lies in each country's nuclear command structure. Indian nuclear policy resides in the hands of its political leaders. Pakistan's Army chief controls that country's policy. A right-leaning Indian government, buoyed by nationalistic fervor, might authorize thermonuclear tests in India's Pokharan desert or deploy Prithvi missiles aimed at Pakistan. These moves could be seen as a way of demonstrating India's regional virility and its global identity as an independent, powerful state no longer subject to the whims of the world's superpowers. Such action on India's part would almost inevitably be met with an immediate and equal response from Islamabad. Pakistan could deploy Chinese-made M-11 missiles or conduct a nuclear test of its own. It's no coincidence that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited China last week for wide-ranging talks. …