South Asia's Nuclear Wake-Up Call

By Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr. | Arms Control Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

South Asia's Nuclear Wake-Up Call


Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr., Arms Control Today


India's nuclear tests and its declaration of nuclear-weapon status have been widely seen as foreshadowing a nuclear arms race in South Asia and a wave of additional nuclearweapon states. Although the tests did not actually change the existing dangerous confrontation there since India and Pakistan had long been credited with nuclear weapons capabilities, they did violate the 30-year international norm against new nuclear-weapon states and the newly established taboo against nuclear testing. Far from signaling the end of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the tests should be a wake-up call to strengthen the remarkably successful efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Indian action was largely motivated by the ruling party's efforts to gain support for its fragile coalition government by appealing to nationalistic pride. In the process, India exchanged its overwhelming conventional arms advantage over Pakistan for a situation where Islamabad will be more likely to deploy nuclear forces, which could strike New Delhi with little or no warning time, and sacrificed its improved relations with China for a potential nuclear arms race, which it can ill afford and cannot win, with Beijing.

The practically universal condemnation of the tests, including strong statements by the UN Security Council, the G-8 industrialized countries and most members of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), demonstrated the continuing strength of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Significantly, none of the states with possible nuclear ambitions even cited the Indian and Pakistani actions as a precedent for going nuclear.

The world was alerted to the extent of U.S. concerns by the immediate application of far-reaching sanctions against both India and Pakistan as mandated by legislation. While the automatic nature of the sanctions helped underscore the seriousness of the issue and deter others from testing, the legislation does not contribute to problem-solving since the sanctions, which provide powerful negotiating leverage to influence future Indian and Pakistani actions, cannot be eased without new congressional action.

In proclaiming itself a "nuclear-weapon state," India sought to share the status of the five existing nuclear-weapon states. This outcome is totally unacceptable. Rewarding New Delhi for violating a 30-year international norm against any new nuclear-weapon states would encourage others to follow India's lead. Moreover, it is not even a viable option. The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which now has 185 members, limits nuclear-weapon status to the five countries that had tested prior to January 1,1967, because the signatories wanted to prevent any further proliferation. …

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