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Asia's nuclear sideshow: why the West may grin and bear it


25 July 1998

by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER, in New Delhi for the Sydney Morning Herald

The world shuddered at the prospect of India and Pakistan emerging as nuclear powers. Now it may have to settle for restricting them to minor nuclear arsenals. Herald Correspondent CHRISTOPHER KREMMER reports from New Delhi.

IS THE United States reconciled to the existence of nuclear arsenals in India and Pakistan? After a week of shuttle diplomacy on the subcontinent, the answer is a qualified "yes", although Washington wants to ensure their nuclear offspring is stunted at birth.

The language surrounding the visit of America's nuclear Mr Fixit, deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, to both countries was standard diplomatese - the talks were "constructive", the parties "optimistic".

Mr Talbott - who has written six books on arms control - is not talking about dismantling the existing weapons of mass destruction held by both sides.

But when the complex diplomatic manoeuvres of the coming months are completed, India and Pakistan may well feel that their May nuclear tests produced little more than some large holes in the ground.

Before the blasts began at Pokharan in India on May 11, the US and its allies already knew of - and tacitly accepted - the subcontinent's small nuclear arsenals, estimated to number no more than a few dozen devices. US think-tanks insisted that well enough be left alone.

"Under no circumstances should the United States push its transparency efforts to include nuclear capabilities, because at present opacity in South Asia actually contributes to stability," said a report submitted last year to the US Army by the influential Rand Corporation.

The blasts at Pokharan, and at Chagai Hills in western Pakistan, destroyed that "stability", but did not deliver the Big Power status coveted by New Delhi, nor a serious Western interest in resolving the Kashmir dispute, as Pakistan had wished.

The thermonuclear chest-thumping which followed the tests has been deflated by persistent doubts about the actual number, size and sophistication of the devices used, doubts expressed by the Lawrence Livermore laboratories in the US among others.

India's demand to be formally recognised as the world's sixth nuclear weapons State has been flatly rejected, and its ambitions for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council - which were being seriously considered before the tests - now

provoke only embarrassed chuckles.

"India is not going to blow its way onto the Security Council as a permanent member," said the US State Department spokesman, Mr James Rubin. "All it has done by conducting these explosions is to harm and make impossible, in the current circumstances, India joining the Security Council as a permanent member."

With investor confidence hit by sanctions, both economies have gone into a nosedive. Nervous investors have deserted stock exchanges in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, and Karachi. Sanctions also deny Pakistan spare parts for its mainly US military equipment.

What the nuclear renegades now confront is a calibrated strategy to bring them to the talks table, where it is hoped they can be coerced to bargain away their dreams of "credible nuclear deterrence" and return to good old ambiguity.

Washington's announcement this week that it would not seek to block a bail-out package for Pakistan from the International Monetary Fund was the first step in a process designed to play one side off against the other, diplomats say. US laws appeared to require equal sanctions against India and Pakistan, but while India has no exposure to the IMF, Pakistan is deeply indebted and on the brink of default since American pressure stalled the last tranche of a $US1.6 billion ($2.58 billion) loan following the tests.

With the US Congress expected to grant President Bill Clinton power to waive sanctions for up to a year, the White House is aiming to negotiate separately the entry of India and Pakistan into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

"The CTBT is central," said a New Delhi-based Western diplomat. "Getting India and Pakistan to sign the treaty is crucial if we're to save the international non-proliferation regime."

BESET by its economic crisis, Pakistan may be the first to buckle. Once it does, the pressure on India will increase.

New Delhi has already indicated its willingness to sign the CTBT and foreswear proliferation of nuclear technology, one of the principal aims of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is also willing to negotiate on the Fissile Materials Control Treaty, a safeguards convention limiting production of bomb-making materials such as plutonium.

In return, it wants access to "dual use" technologies - equipment which can be used for civilian and military purposes - currently banned under sanctions.

The main hurdle to a deal is the increasing political instability in both India and Pakistan. Rising prices, caused partly by sanctions, have made both governments unpopular and their opponents ambitious.

The Hindu-nationalist coalition of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is in a minority in Parliament, where the consensus against signing "discriminatory" arms-control protocols has been solid for decades.

The opposition Congress Party leader, Ms Sonia Gandhi, is reluctant to let Mr Vajpayee off the hook by supporting him if he signs the CTBT. Mr Talbott met Ms Gandhi during his visit to New Delhi, hoping to change her mind. A visit to India and Pakistan by Mr Clinton, scheduled for November, is under review pending progress in the Talbott talks.

The outcome of the process will have powerful implications for regional security in the 21st century, a view reflected by the new Australian Defence Force chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, who said this week that all countries, clearly including Australia, may need to acquire small nuclear arsenals unless arms control efforts succeed.

When the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and Defence Secretary William Cohen visit Australia for ministerial talks next week, they will come bearing good and bad news. US officials know they cannot abolish India and Pakistan's small nuclear stockpiles, nor end ballistic missile development. But they believe they can tie up the two fractious neighbours in enough red-tape to restrict their ambitions.

The main game is to stop further tests, prevent the deployment of existing weapons, and for warheads and missiles to be held at separate locations, preferably in the hands of defence scientists rather than generals.

If all that happens, the subcontinent's nuclear arms race will remain a resource-poor affair, dressed up in ominous jargon perhaps, but threatening mainly the protagonists themselves - more or less where things stood before May 11.


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