India's Strategic Misstep

08 Jun, 1998    ·   110

Stephen P. Cohen points out how India has soured its relations with Pakistan, China and the US due to its decision to nuclearize

In the three weeks since India conducted its nuclear tests, the tough talk of Indian leaders seems to have faded to a whisper. They are now proposing that their country and Pakistan sign a treaty agreeing not to be the first to use such weapons against each other. They have denied Pakistan 's claim that India will conduct yet another nuclear test, and they have reiterated the country's longstanding call for global disarmament.



No one should be surprised by this abrupt about-face. As it turns out, the nuclear tests may have significantly hurt India 's national security. First, India may have reopened its competition with China , this time with a nuclear tinge. Indeed, the Indian opposition has charged that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has jeopardized years of painstaking negotiations with China that in recent years had begun to show dividends in trade and troop pullbacks along their disputed border in northeast India .



Now, this détente is at risk. China is likely to continue its flow of technical advice, military equipment and economic aid to Pakistan . And China may once again support Pakistan 's position on the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir . China could also pressure New Delhi rather easily, by re-deploying troops along India 's northeastern border. This would force India to send soldiers back to the Himalayas , thinning its forces in Kashmir and elsewhere. Moreover, India has not developed the medium-range missiles that could reach Chinese cities, whereas it is vulnerable to Chinese nuclear attack.



As for Pakistan , its military has developed various nuclear responses -- from tactical weapons to an all-out attack on New Delhi and Bombay -- to counter any military movement by India across the border. Pakistani officials have also spoken of deploying the Ghauri missile, possibly with nuclear warheads. If that happens, the lives of Indians in New Delhi, Bombay and a half dozen other cities will depend on the Government in Islamabad -- a Government in which it is unclear who commands and controls the deployment of nuclear weapons.



India has also needlessly angered the Clinton Administration, contributing to President Clinton's greatest foreign policy disaster. Not only was his Administration caught off guard, but his hopes for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are dimmer than ever. Nor is Congress likely to rescue India by lifting the economic and military sanctions that have now been imposed. Mr. Vajpayee had thought that American businesses dependent on the Indian market would rush to defend their interests. But India is now blamed for triggering a new round of proliferation, and Congress is unlikely to be sympathetic to any easing of the sanctions.



India 's bombs were supposed to elevate it to the status of a great power. Instead, India finds itself with a worsening relationship with Pakistan , China and the United States . After the initial euphoria, it is clear that India must face reality and address the new strategic risks that it has created.



An extract from The New York Times, June 3, 1998