Six lessons from South Asia

14 Aug, 1998    ·   134

Ramesh Thakur explains that nuclear disarmament would not become a distant dream if the world formed a strategy based on the lessons drawn from the South Asian nuclear tests

The progress that had been achieved in 1995-96 in eliminating the scourge of nuclear testing and the threat of nuclear proliferation seems like a distant dream. Yet, two months after the shock of the tests by India and Pakistan , the contours of a possible deal are taking shape. The new equilibrium will be based on six crucial lessons.



·                     The vital interests of key actors have to be accommodated in any security regime, otherwise it will unravel. The world was simply dismissive of India 's security concerns in drafting the clauses of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Outsiders underestimated India 's ability to break out of the attempted strangulation of its nuclear weapons option, and overestimated their own capacity to coerce India into submission.


·                     No matter how dominant, economics has not totally replaced geopolitics. Strategic calculations, raw politics and emotions have driven the nuclear policies of India and Pakistan even at the cost of economics.


·                     Non-proliferation and disarmament are two sides of the same anti-nuclear coin. If India and Pakistan are committed to a nuclear-free world, as they claim, then they need to be told in blunt language that their tests have caused a major setback to the anti-nuclear cause. The five nuclear powers have also to be called to account for their complacency and go-slow tactics on nuclear disarmament.


·                     The consequences of the tests have finally registered the reality of what many of us have been arguing for years: Nuclear weapons confer neither power, prestige nor influence. South Asians are less secure today than three months ago. Nuclear weapons are not going to help Islamabad and New Delhi combat internal insurgency, terrorism or corruption. Their economic programs have been disrupted. Nuclear weapons cannot help India and Pakistan solve any of their real problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition.


·                     Sanctions are too blunt to be useful diplomatic instruments. The contrast between the policy of constructive engagement with China and destructive disengagement with South Asia was painfully obvious. Lifting U.S. opposition to IMF loans to Pakistan recognizes the folly and counter-productiveness of punitive sanctions.


·                     In the clash between new strategic realities and selective puritanism, the latter has to give way. As they are saying in South Asia , what has been tested may be detested, but cannot be de-tested.


The new deal will have to be based on these six lessons. Nuclear weapons and missiles are part of regional reality. But they need not be put together. The genuine security concerns of India and Pakistan can be met without overt deployment: Tested capability is enough to assure deterrence without in itself leading to a fresh arms race. In return for a tacit acceptance of the new reality and the lifting of sanctions, both India and Pakistan must sign the CTBT: Unilateral moratoria is less helpful than legally binding accession. If they want the full range of dual-technology assistance, they can sign the NPT as well.



The anti-CTBT consensus in India rests on a deliberate, but very successful, campaign of disinformation which discredited the regime. Yet unlike the NPT, the CTBT is universal and non-discriminatory. Having carried out the tests, India need no longer have security worries about signing the CTBT. While the domestic political difficulties are largely of their own making, they will need help in changing public opinion and forging a new bipartisan consensus in parliament. The ASEAN Regional Forum could convene a major seminar in India on the CTBT, as was recommended by the ARF Track Two Seminar on Nonproliferation in Jakarta in December 1996.



The recently completed visit to the subcontinent by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was notable for the more positive atmosphere than the stridency that marked the cross-accusations in May. Non-negotiable ultimatums by either side will be unhelpful. If they understand each other's bottom lines, and respect each other's legitimate concerns on national security, regional proliferation and global disarmament, then we may still pull back from the nuclear brink yet again.



(An extract from Japan Times, July 27, 1998)