New Delhi's Nuclear Bomb: A Systemic Analysis

By Hu, Weixing | World Affairs, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

New Delhi's Nuclear Bomb: A Systemic Analysis


Hu, Weixing, World Affairs


In May 1998, India carried out five nuclear tests and formally declared itself a "nuclear weapon state" (NWS). This dramatic move stunned the world and immediately triggered a new round of the nuclear arms race in South Asia. India's archenemy, Pakistan, responded by setting off six announced nuclear tests just two weeks later. The nuclear crisis in South Asia was intensified by the Indian-Pakistani military conflict in Kashmir and almost brought the two countries into another major war in summer 1999. As the world's attention shifts to the Kashmir conflict, the challenge the Indian nuclear tests pose to the international nuclear order and the nonproliferation regime should not be overlooked.

As a nuclear weapon--threshold state, India's nuclear capability has long been known. New Delhi first demonstrated its nuclear weapon capability with its 1974 "peaceful nuclear explosion." Since then it had neither claimed to possess the bomb nor foregone the nuclear option. New Delhi was able to produce a significant amount of nuclear materials and equipment without international control. Nevertheless, the May 1998 tests did more than just confirm that India was a "virtual nuclear state." The testing decision was a calculated strategic move by New Delhi to make a forceful statement to the world. Frustrated by the nonproliferation regime and India's status in world politics, New Delhi simply blasted its way into the world nuclear club. The price for going nuclear is high. Besides social and economic costs, New Delhi is facing international isolation and sanctions. Its relations with major powers have deteriorated. While the rest of the world is engaged in reversing the nuclear arms race, why did New Delhi decide to move in the opposite direction? What are the strategic motivations behind the Indian bomb decision?

In explaining India's nuclear behavior, most observers emphasize domestic political factors, the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, national security threats, and the individual attributes of decision makers. In this article, however, I will focus on the system level of analysis to explain how systemic factors have changed India's threat perception and domestic politics on the nuclear issue. The systemic theory of international politics explains state behavior on the basis of the international system and argues that structural changes at the system level affect behavior at the unit level.(1) In the Indian case, the source of the nuclear policy shift was largely internal, and the rise of the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) to office was a triggering event for the May 1998 tests. But domestic politics alone cannot account for the Indian bomb. International systemic changes and pressure from international society on India's nuclear policy have had a strong impact on India's nuclear debate. Over the years, the systemic factors precipitated an Indian nationalistic reaction to the nonproliferation regime. Thus, the nuclear tests decision should be explained, as Robert Putnam's "two-level games" model suggests, by looking at how the international game and the domestic game interact.(2)

The systemic compulsion of the Indian bomb comes mainly from India's perception of its position in world politics. Although India is not a major power in the international system, it is a major power in the making. For a long time India has been frustrated by its ascribed status in world politics. It is very aware of its place in the international pecking order compared with that of other nations. Like other emerging powers, it finds its way to move up blocked by existing powers in the international system. Since the nuclear bomb is the symbol of a powerful nation, New Delhi believes the bomb will provide a shortcut to obtaining great-power status. India's normative attacks on the nonproliferation regime have often masked its real concerns of being marginalized in world politics. The rise of the Hindu-nationalist BJP signified India's strategic frustration with the international system and the eroding domestic support for Nehruvian foreign policy over the last two decades. …

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