West's strategy for preserving peace on subcontinent blown apart
By R. Jeffrey Smith
WASHINGTON: In the milliseconds needed to set off a few nuclear bombs early on Monday morning, the government of India blew apart the Western world's long-standing strategy for preserving stability on the Asian subcontinent and containing a dangerous nuclear arms race among India, China and Pakistan.
The seismic waves took just 20 minutes to dissipate in the Earth's crust, but the consequences of the explosions will persist in Washington and other capitals for months if not years. Virtually every aspect of Washington's relationships with India and Pakistan may now have to be re-examined, according to US officials and independent experts.
No longer can the world claim only five declared nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - and three undeclared powers, India, Pakistan and Israel. With scant regard for the admonitions of other members of the group, India has abruptly and loudly elbowed itself from the bottom into the top tier of this privileged elite.
A prevailing assumption of US policy in the region for the past 25 years - that regional stability could be preserved through deliberate, polite ambiguity about India's nuclear capabilities - is now utterly worthless. No one can ignore the country's weapons now, in Pakistan, China or anywhere else near enough to be within reach of India's nuclear-capable bombers or the force of medium-range Agni ballistic missiles now in the final stage of development.
This means that Washington faces the immediate challenge of stopping the chain reaction that it had long predicted in the event of an Indian or Pakistani nuclear blast, namely a decision by the other country to respond in kind with a blast of its own. The first seismic station to record the shock waves was a site near Islamabad called Nilore, and now Washington's task will be to convince the Pakistanis not to view the blasts through a prism of anxiety about New Delhi's intentions.
Few US officials were optimistic on Monday that they will be successful in preventing Pakistan from carrying out its repeated public threats to do so. "Pakistan did not want to be the first to test ... but now they will be forced to by public opinion," said one senior official.
The tests also destroyed another prevailing assumption of US policy: that Washington could slowly lure India away from its insistence that nuclear weapons are essential to its security by spinning a web of economic ties and political dialogue. An unusually tough and clearly written US law leaves the administration no choice now but to implement a punishing set of sanctions that could harm US-India relations for years to come.
Washington's enthusiasm for a tough response was no doubt deepened by its embarrassment at having failed to see that the blasts were coming. This failure stands in contrast to an episode in December 1995, when US spy satellites noticed suspicious work under way at the Indian test site at Pokhran, and US diplomats intervened in time to dissuade the ruling United Front coalition from going forward.
This time, India's military and top officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were more cautious as they prepared for the explosions. As one US intelligence official put it on Monday, "We were as shocked as anybody" due to Indian concealment efforts that deprived policymakers and the CIA of any advance warning.
Another US official said, "We knew that the BJP had always taken the position that India should be a nuclear power...but the political analysis was that they would not actually go through with this, that they would not do something that would be this costly." Whatever trust had existed between Washington and New Delhi on this issue will not be easily revived, according to this official and several others.
The significance of the blasts in narrow military terms remains uncertain.
While the Indian prime minister claimed in his public announcement
that one of the devices was thermonuclear, implying a hydrogen bomb, several
US government analysts cast doubt on that idea and said it was more likely
a "boosted fission" device that falls short of the most powerful
type of bomb devised by man so far.
Further clarification may not be available until US scientists have analysed any radioactive particles released by the blasts and captured downwind by Air Force sampling planes and ground-based radiation detectors.
India claimed the blasts were more powerful than its only other nuclear explosion, undertaken almost 24 years ago to the day on May 15, 1974, in a test India has never acknowledged involved a nuclear weapon. But US officials said the total force of the three explosions appeared to be 10 to 20 kilotons, or less than 20,000 tons of TNT - a force roughly similar to the previous explosion.
India's most likely aim, the officials said, was to confirm the development of a bomb design particularly suited for deployment atop the new Agni missile, which is to have a projected range of 1,400 miles and be capable of reaching more than 15 nations, including much of China. The missile requires additional tests before it can be deployed.
One clue to India's motives for developing such a warhead may be a statement on May 3 by its defence minister, George Fernandes, who denounced Pakistan's recent test of a new medium-range ballistic missile called the Ghauri and also claimed that China posed a military threat because it had deployed tactical nuclear weapons near the Indian border in Tibet.
But US intelligence officials say they believe the long-standing Indian claim of nuclear missiles in Tibet is false, and that by resuscitating the allegation, New Delhi may be manufacturing a foreign threat in an attempt to justify its own nuclear advances. China is in any event well-positioned to respond to any new Indian threat, with an arsenal of roughly 400 nuclear warheads already on hand and a well-established pipeline of quiet assistance to the Pakistani nuclear programme.
In broader strategic terms, the Indian blasts constitute a blunt rejection of efforts by the five declared nuclear powers to convince all other nations that their security will be diminished, not enhanced, if they acquire an overt nuclear capability. This idea served as the cornerstone of US efforts in 1995 toconvince the bulk of the world to forswear nuclear arms, and all nations in 1996 to forswear nuclear testing.
India had already rejected the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty as hypocritical efforts by the established nuclear powers to prevent anyone else from joining their club. But Washington had hoped this view would eventually give way as economic power, rather than military might, became the most important determinant of influence in the post-cold war era.
The blasts proved, if anything, that India is not buying that notion. Instead, as the Defence Department said in a report last year on proliferation problems, New Delhi continues to view "nuclear weapons as a symbol of international power and prestige" - much as the United States and the Soviet Union did in the heyday of the cold war.-Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) Washington Post.
Courtesy - DAILY DAWN - 13 May 1998