The South Asian Nuclear Crisis

Key Points

  • Three of the factors behind India’s bomb program are: (i) China’s 1964 test; (ii) the U.S. decision to send an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war in South Asia; (iii) the failure of the NPT extension and CTBT processes to include a disarmament plan.
  • U.S. sanctions, notably against Pakistan, may increase proliferation problems in the Middle East.
  • The U.S. needs to take urgent action to reduce regional nuclear dangers and the risks of accidental nuclear war and of black markets in nuclear materials.

India has developed its nuclear weapons program in reaction to local, regional, and global nuclear and political realities. Reacting to India, Pakistan has developed its own nuclear program. As is common with policies forged in reaction to external pressures or events, these two nuclear programs in South Asia have little internal strategic coherence.

India already possessed overwhelming conventional military superiority with respect to Pakistan, which it demonstrated in wartime. The five nuclear tests it conducted in May 1998 have not added materially to India’s actual military strength relative to Pakistan. On the contrary, India’s program provoked a reaction in Pakistan, opening up India to the possibility of nuclear attack. Pakistan now stands a better chance of using its proven nuclear capability and the deeper nuclear confrontation in South Asia to internationalize the Kashmir dispute. (India has insisted that it be resolved bilaterally and continues to do so.) In addition, China may use India’s nuclear weapons testing to justify providing more military assistance to Pakistan. Certainly India’s tests will not lead to any resolution of the lingering border dispute with China—as the history of China’s border dispute with the Soviet Union makes clear. Further, by conducting nuclear weapons tests when world opinion strongly favors banning them, India has hurt rather than helped its goal of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

If India tries to approach the size and variety of China’s arsenal (estimated to be about 400 warheads), it will have to expend enormous resources. Moreover, India simply cannot match the industrial and economic infrastructure of China, although they both have a similarly large population base. A nuclear arms race would mean that India would fall further behind in industrial infrastructure, economic growth, and consumer goods, even if one ignores the impact of the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

The situation is even worse for Pakistan, which will suffer far more from U.S. sanctions than India—it has a far smaller population base, is far deeper in debt, and has a much weaker scientific and industrial base. It would be ruinous for Pakistan to try to match India’s nuclear capabilities. Further, Pakistan has left itself almost no room to maneuver since its nuclear policy is even more reactive than that of India. It has tied its nuclear policy—including its strategy on nuclear testing and signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to India’s nuclear policy.

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons tests have greatly increased the threat of nuclear war in South Asia, notably over the Kashmir question. Moreover, there are also numerous global dimensions to the South Asian nuclear crisis. The tests have rekindled a nascent nuclear crisis in the Middle East, coming as they did at a time when the failing Middle East peace process is spreading gloom and restlessness throughout the region. At the same time, they have aggravated the already grave dangers associated with the potential diversion of nuclear materials from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union into international black markets.

In the Middle East, harsh U.S. sanctions against Pakistan for nuclear tests are being contrasted anew with U.S. military and economic aid to Israel (which has a far larger nuclear arsenal than Pakistan). This is intensifying resentment in Arab countries and strengthening proliferation pressures. Pakistan has strongly denied that its bomb is an “Islamic bomb,” and its policy since the tests appears to be consistent with its statements. However, there is the possibility that, given its very weak financial position and the debilitating impact of U.S. sanctions, Pakistani leaders may decide that sharing its nuclear-weapons technology and expertise with countries that provide it with aid may be necessary for the survival of the Pakistani state. Pakistan, which has declared a financial emergency, has already begun economic aid discussions with Saudi Arabia.

By unhappy coincidence this complex nuclear emergency is developing when the Asian financial crisis is deepening and affecting Russia in adverse ways. Economic conditions in Russia (the largest potential source of fissile materials for nuclear black markets) could greatly increase the severity of any regional nuclear crisis and more rapidly turn it into a global one. Another concern is that Russia’s deteriorating nuclear infrastructure presents the United States and the rest of the world with the threat of destruction by accidental nuclear war.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The NPT is an internally contradictory framework for nonproliferation that is being selectively and poorly implemented.
  • The nuclear weapons states have failed to make a practical and demonstrable commitment to complete nuclear disarmament, as is legally required of them by the NPT.
  • Russia’s continuing economic crisis could greatly complicate and rapidly globalize any regional nuclear crisis via black markets in nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials.

U.S. nuclear policy relies on a nonproliferation approach that is internally contradictory and cannot be successfully applied to the present crisis. On the contrary, traditional nonproliferation policies, such as sanctions, are aggravating problems.

President Eisenhower’s concept of “Atoms for Peace” (created as part of cold war competition with the Soviets) became the centerpiece of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (notably in Article IV). By agreeing to share its commercial nuclear technology with treaty signatories in return for a commitment not to develop nuclear weapons, the United States helped create a contradictory framework. Commercial nuclear technology has a large overlap with weapons technology. The U.S. provided assistance to both India and Pakistan under this program.

Article VI of the NPT also formalized promises by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. (France and China only signed the NPT in 1992.) India, Israel, and Pakistan—all of which became nuclear weapons states —did not sign the treaty and are still nonsignatories. In particular, India has, with reason, vigorously protested that the NPT is discriminatory since it legitimizes the possession of nuclear weapons by five countries without committing them to a practical plan for nuclear disarmament. Its repeated calls for nuclear disarmament, which continue, have been ignored or rebuffed.

The failure of the United States to put forward a credible plan for nuclear disarmament—or even to agree to deactivating of all its nuclear weapons—is a central roadblock to reduction of global nuclear dangers. Reductions of numbers of nuclear warheads, such as those mandated under START I and START II, can be counterbalanced by qualitative improvements in nuclear weapons capability. For instance, the U.S. Star Wars program is part of its current attempt to maintain nuclear strategic superiority at a time of declining numbers of weapons.

U.S. application of its own nonproliferation policy is inconsistent. Besides the case of Israel, the United States has taken no action to stop Japan, France, Germany, and other countries from extracting plutonium for commercial purposes—despite having recognized this technology as a proliferation problem. As another example, the U.S. has agreed to provide North Korea, which violated its NPT commitments, with two nuclear reactors. But Washington is imposing sanctions against Iran, which is in compliance with the safeguards requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. justifies these sanctions by U.S. intelligence data on Iran’s nuclear intentions, but this unilateral action contravenes the NPT framework.

Ill-considered U.S. political and military actions have directly and indirectly fostered India’s nuclear weapons program and hence that of Pakistan. The U.S.-Chinese confrontation in the 1950s was marked, among other things, by U.S. nuclear threats to China. China’s decision to go nuclear was a response to this and to the breakdown of Sino-Soviet nuclear and other cooperation. China’s 1964 nuclear test led directly to India’s decision to develop nuclear explosives. China’s nuclear capability and the Sino-Indian border conflict also resulted in China’s assistance to Pakistan, notably after the U.S.-China rapprochement in 1971-72, highlighted by President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.

The U.S. tilt towards Pakistan during the 1971 South Asian war was also a major factor in the 1974 Indian nuclear test. President Nixon ordered a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier battle group led by the Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to show U.S. support for Pakistan during the December 1971 war in South Asia. This implicit threat, and the shift in the strategic balance it implied, did not go unnoticed in New Delhi. Further, in 1971, the United States ended its opposition to China becoming a permanent member of the Security Council.

The 1971 war led to the independence of Bangladesh and a weakening of Pakistan, which then pursued a nuclear-weapons program with more determination. Pakistan, which has far fewer conventional military forces than India, saw its nuclear capacity as a deterrent to an Indian conventional attack. Pakistan’s nuclear program was put on an urgent footing after the 1974 Indian test.

Current U.S. policy is also hampered by the sanctions process. Sanctions against India and Pakistan are setting back long-held U.S. goals, yet there is no clear mechanism to end them. For example, sanctions against Pakistan are aggravating the potential for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. As another example, U.S. policy favoring democracy and human rights is being undermined by its sanctions against India, where U.S. support for a nuclear-armed China is being angrily contrasted with its treatment of democratic India.

Finally, U.S. policy in regard to Russian nuclear weapons and materials does not correspond to the gravity of the problem. Although there has been some progress in improving security at some nuclear sites, most of the problem remains unaddressed. Even worse, Russia’s nuclear ministry, known as Minatom, has successfully negotiated with the U.S., France, Germany, and Britain for a plutonium disposition plan that would entrench commercial plutonium use in Russia by providing it with a highly subsidized infrastructure. Other than de-targeting nuclear weapons, which is mainly a cosmetic measure as it can be reversed in seconds, no U.S. policy addresses the threat of nuclear war arising from a deteriorating nuclear infrastructure in Russia or from possible disintegration of Russian control over nuclear weapons.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

The United States should announce its readiness to de-alert all its nuclear weapons on a multilateral basis and unilaterally begin de-alerting weapons covered by the START II treaty.

  • President Clinton should convene a nuclear summit at which (i) an eight-power de-alerting agreement would be concluded and (ii) India, Israel, and Pakistan would agree not to mount their warheads on delivery systems and to remove those that have been mounted.
  • As India and Pakistan have each unilaterally announced a moratorium on nuclear testing, the United States should end sanctions on them.

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests have brought the nuclear control regime to a crossroads. The proliferation pressures will grow unless the United States takes the leadership to bring all eight nuclear weapons states to the table in an urgent manner that is based at least partly on the self-interest of the parties involved. The major U.S. short- and medium-term objectives should be to:

  • eliminate so far as technically possible the danger of accidental nuclear war and secure nuclear materials and nuclear warheads against diversion.
  • prevent regional nuclear conflict in South Asia and the Middle East.

These objectives are compatible with nuclear disarmament, but they do not require a prior commitment to a time-bound framework for it. Yet, achieving them would generate a momentum towards complete elimination of these weapons, which the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states are legally obligated to do under Article VI of the NPT.

A sort of moratorium on nuclear weapons use or threats is needed to start the process of disarmament. The technical measures to accomplish this involve various ways of deactivating nuclear weapons, which go under the rubric of “de-alerting.” Specific de-alerting techniques range from pinning open safety switches to removing warheads from their delivery systems and storing them separately under multilateral monitoring. These measures are complementary to the arms reduction process under the START treaties. Most of the world’s countries have been insistently calling for nuclear disarmament, and de-alerting is widely seen as a crucial first step.

Given the world situation, only the United States can provide the decisive leadership to start the process. The United States should declare that it is ready to de-alert all its nuclear weapons on a multilateral verifiable basis. This would vastly reduce the danger of accidental nuclear war and be seen as a giant step towards a nuclear weapons moratorium.

On the basis of a U.S. de-alerting commitment, President Clinton should invite all other seven nuclear weapons states to an urgent nuclear summit where an eight-power de-alerting agreement in principle would be signed and a process for accomplishing it would be set in motion. The agenda of the summit would include multilaterally verified commitment by India, Israel, and Pakistan not to mount their weapons on delivery systems and to remove any that have been mounted. India and Pakistan would also agree to sign the CTBT. (Israel has already signed the CTBT.) India and Pakistan have already declared moratoria on nuclear weapons testing. This provides sufficient basis for the U.S. to end sanctions against them. Ending sanctions in recognition of this very positive step that has been taken by both sides in South Asia would be the best way to provide incentives for further de-escalation and for participation in the U.S. initiative for de-alerting all weapons. In this process, the nuclear arsenals of India, Israel, and Pakistan would not be legitimized as instruments of defense, but as dangers to be addressed along with the dangers posed by the arsenals of the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states.

Russia has grown more reliant on nuclear weapons with the disintegration of its conventional military. To get Russia to agree to de-alerting, the United States could unilaterally withdraw the 150 or so nuclear weapons it has stationed in Europe back to the United States. (Only the United States has nuclear warheads stationed abroad.) The United States could also unilaterally de-alert the weapons covered by START II by removing them from their delivery vehicles. The West and Japan could also guarantee Russia and possibly some of the other nuclear weapons states the funds needed for de-alerting and for participating in multilateral monitoring and verification. These three measures would make Russian participation in de-alerting far more likely.

There is precedent for unilateral steps in the face of nuclear dangers, most notably President Bush’s unilateral decision in 1991 to remove most tactical nuclear weapons from the United States. President Gorbachev reciprocated and thereby kept a large part of the Soviet arsenal out of possible circulation. The Soviet Union was collapsing; there was no time for new treaties. The dangers today are at least as serious, and arguably far greater. President Clinton needs to take a step that is bold enough for the U.S. to rise to the challenge.

by Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research