Nuclear Brinkmanship in South Asia

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Brinkmanship in South Asia


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


The campaign to prevent the spread or proliferation of nuclear weapons around the globe suffered a serious setback in May 1998. India and Pakistan between them carried out eleven nuclear tests thus confirming their long suspected potential in this area and bringing to seven the number of states with a declared nuclear weapons capability. The five Indian tests were carried out from 11-13 May, and the six Pakistani tests from 28-30 May. For almost 40 years membership of the nuclear club had been confined to the so-called 'Big Five' - the United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), China, France and Britain - yet within the space of three weeks that club had increased in size by a third. These disturbing events drove a 'coach and horses' through the international non-proliferation regime which the United States has been seeking to construct and suggested that we may be about to enter an era of more rapid nuclear proliferation, a development which the big powers will deplore but may prove unable to prevent.

In most respects the Indian and Pakistani decisions were inevitable at some stage. Each had for some years been a so-called 'threshold' state, that is they possessed the technical expertise to 'go nuclear' at short notice but were choosing, for political reasons, to keep their options open. The two states were also locked into a bitter and acrimonious relationship dating back to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Religious differences (India's population is predominantly Hindu, although with a significant Muslim component, whilst Pakistan is almost exclusively Muslim) and territorial disputes - particularly over Kashmir province - have added further layers of distrust. As the two sides have fought three separate wars against each other since partition - two over Kashmir and one over East Pakistan or what was to become Bangladesh - it is hardly surprising that they should define their national security interests in terms of military prowess with nuclear weapons being seen as the 'ultimate military insurance policy', to quote Fareed Zakaria (Newsweek, 8 June 1998). In effect, these were two nuclear weapons states waiting to happen and in May 1998, as Professor Brahma Chellaney stated, they 'gatecrashed the nuclear club' and lifted 'the veil of atomic ambiguity' which had persisted for almost two decades (International Herald Tribune, 14 May 1998).

The Immediate Catalysts

Each state has inevitably argued that its decision was forced upon it by the aggressive behaviour and provocations of the other. The dense fog of propaganda emanating from both New Delhi and Islamabad makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reach any definitive conclusions on that issue but three broad factors are worth mentioning by way of explanation. First, domestic political considerations were clearly a strong factor in shaping the calculations of each government. India's Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Atil Bihari Vajpayee, is currently the largest force in a highly unstable 14-party coalition government and it appears to have viewed the nuclear tests, quite cynically, as the ideal means with which to shore up its fragile political authority. The subsequent plaudits for the decision across the Indian political spectrum (the Communist Party excepted) and the nationalistic fervour it unleashed in the wider population - 91 per cent support was recorded in immediate post-test opinion surveys - testifies to the success of the BJP's policy of 'nuclear machismo', although its durability may be in doubt when broader political and economic realities eventually resurface. The Indian tests made it essential for the Pakistan government of Nawaz Sharif to respond or else risk a serious erosion of its own political legitimacy, particularly in a country where the military has been such a dominant institution with a long track record of political interference. This always made it extremely unlikely that the Pakistani government would feel able to heed international, and specifically American, pleas for it to desist and to stake out the moral high ground on the issue. …

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