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Some points that need to be made now about India's nuclear test

"George Perkovich" <> 15 May 98

As much as the American system miscalculated what the Indians would do, the Indians have miscalculated even more. Indeed, one reason for the U.S. misperception is the assumption that India would take its time and be careful not to undermine its own core interests, such as sustained economic growth. Testing nuclear weapons in many ways harms India, which makes it understandable to have thought they would not test.

What has the new government done? It presided over no technological development or breakthroughs, nor any military strategic innovation. The five devices that were tested were designed and built under previous governments - indeed, the devices have been ready for a number of years. The BJP's predecessor governments trusted the scientists who assured them that the devices would work - based on non-explosive testing - and wisely avoided the international isolation and economic penalties that would have come with testing. The point is, if Indian government claims about the test results are true this week, the previous governments were correct that the devices did not need to be tested. This means that the "gains" of testing are largely internal political, but come at a huge price in terms of international standing and security. (By the way, if the Indian claims about the technological successes in the tests are incorrect, then this shows that the CTBT has real merit - i.e., it's hard for even an advanced technological establishment like India's to develop reliable weapons without explosive testing).

The international security losses are as follows. China, which has worked over recent years to improve relations with India, and which has manifested no strategic interest in contesting India, will now feel that it must put India in its place. India will now provoke a more general political contest with China which India cannot win, and which was totally unnecessary. If India wanted to contest China, it should have waited until India's economy was strong enough to give it both the international clout and resource base for competing. India could not stand that the Chinese guard dogs don't growl and bark at India's shadow; India will learn that they should have let sleeping dogs lie.

Regarding Pakistan, India has provoked and in some ways legitimated Pakistan to move forward with nuclear weapon and missile programs that can be perceived as equalizing India's general strength advantage. Moreover, given the absence of early-warning, reconnaissance and other technological means for "stabilizing" a nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, the prospect of movement toward deployments will actually make India much more vulnerable in a crisis than it would have been.

India wants to be regarded as a major world power and to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The nuclear tests will instead make India be regarded as a hypocritical, quasi-rogue state. By going against a hard-won norm against nuclear testing, India undermines its claims as a responsible "colleague" of the existing major powers. It suggests a certain element of erratic behavior and decision making. Given the importance of the international nonproliferation regime to the vast majority of the world's states, it should be clear that no non-participant will be given a permanent UN Security Council seat. Moreover, this episode will probably make other states more watchful of India's human rights practices, including in Kashmir, and of India's approach to other valued international regimes such as free trade.

Having sketched a few reasons why the tests are counter-productive for India, one should also look ahead and identify measures that the U.S. and others can take to reduce the harm to broader interests.

Sanctions will be applied. The aim should be to rally as many other countries as possible to invoke them, also. The U.S. lacks credibility in this regard in part because it has refused to make a clear case that it seeks eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Thus the double standard of the U.S. approach reduces some of the concern over American sanctions in India, and some of the interest among other states in joining us. If Japan, Germany and other important non-nuclear-weapon states join in sanctions, the Indians will notice.

One way to improve the prospects of others joining in sanctions, and also to make sanctions serve a purpose beyond punishment, is to identify steps that India (and prospectively Pakistan) can take to have sanctions reduced and/or eliminated. The law, as I understand it, does not address the question of duration or of conditions for removal. This will inhibit other countries who are not enamored of U.S. over-reliance on sanctions in any case and, for example, find U.S. sanctions on all investment in Iran to be extremely unwise. Experts and others should now discuss steps that would allow sanctions to be removed. Obviously, India's signature of the CTBT is a must, without additional conditions or dickering. I would think that India's positive contribution in negotiations on a fissile material production cut-off, and ultimate signature of such a treaty, is another important requirement, one which India seemingly has indicated an interest in. Third, some formulation should be found and offered by India (and Pakistan) not to deploy nuclear weapons.

This third point needs elaboration. In our upset over the Indian tests, many Americans have assumed that India is now going to build and deploy a nuclear arsenal. This may come to pass, and may even be what the BJP has in mind. But it is not clear, nor is it foreordained, or likely to be without controversy within India. Actual deployment of Prithvi missiles with nuclear warheads, or Jaguar or other aircraft with nuclear weapons positioned at their bases, would be significantly more destabilizing than where we are today. Production and deployments of Agni missiles with nuclear warheads would be a major provocation to China, and also very costly and destabilizing. It is therefore important to explore with India whether this is what they have in mind, and to do whatever possible in terms of pressure or inducements to head off such deployments.

India has been remarkably restrained in its nuclear policy since 1974. No country has waited so long between tests of nuclear weapons, nor has any country with nuclear capability striven so vigorously, if ineffectively, to urge nuclear disarmament measures which would enable or encourage it to hold off further nuclear developments of its own. The Indian government still places emphasis on nuclear disarmament, and that can be the basis for restraints now. The broader point is that India's tradition of self-restraint should be respected, and India should be encouraged to find new ways to manifest it in light of the tests. Non-deployment is just one way.

Lastly, the tests this week are another example of how important domestic politics are in driving Indian nuclear policy. Within the polity, the U.S.-led nonproliferation regime is seen as colonial, an attempt by hypocritical, powerful white guys to keep India down and from acquiring the instruments of power enjoyed by the hegemons. India feels genuine moral righteousness about its demand that the nuclear-weapon states commit themselves to nuclear disarmament, at least as a clear objective over time. Unless and until the nuclear-weapon states make some movement towards clarifying this commitment, the devaluation of nuclear weapons in India and the rest of the world will be much more difficult to effect.