Pokhran-II: Six Months after the Nuclear Tests

16 Nov, 1998    ·   152

Report of the eighth IPCS seminar on the Implications of Nuclear Testing in South Asia

The following is a report of the seminar organized by the IPCS on 13 November 1988 on the security situation in South Asia six months after the nuclear tests conducted by India . The speakers were Ajit Bhattacharjea, Rear Adm. Raja Menon and T.C.A. Srinivas Raghavan.



Ajit Bhattacharjea started the discussion with a review of the overall impact of Pokhran-II. The tests were a “serious error”. The economic fallout is yet to be felt while the political consequences have been disastrous. In his reckoning:



·                     The Non-Aligned nations were alienated going by India 's defensive stance at the NAM summit. Negotiations with the US were not going well with the Americans seeking to firmly cap India 's nuclear option. Relations with Japan and the G-8 have worsened.



·                     Pakistan , he said, was taking full advantage of India 's diplomatic embarrassment by attempting to internationalize the issue of Kashmir . The advantage accrued to India regarding Kashmir in the Simla Agreement has been whittled away by the tests. The situation on the Line of Control (LoC) has deteriorated with increased shelling by both sides leading to heavy casualties. The “proxy war” has intensified and threatens to remain so in the winter. The Indian Army is reportedly planning to move an additional 20,000 troops to Kashmir .                     



·                     The nuclear standoff undermines India 's conventional military superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan . Bhattacharjea reckoned that India 's nuclear deterrent is not credible. India has not accounted for the cost of engaging in a heightened proxy war. The nuclear option inevitably causes a divergence of resources. The Indian policy makers have overlooked the impact of the tests on the overall economy.                     


·                     Sino-Indian relations have deteriorated due to the veiled mention of China as a threat in Prime Minister’s letter to President Bill Clinton. Neither side was interested in reclaiming lost territories. That stance persists after the tests. However, the tests have needlessly harmed the 1993 and 1996 agreements pertaining to peace and tranquillity on the border. Nuclear deterrence is not a factor in bilateral relations with China . There is no prospect of a nuclear war with China .                     


·                     India 's case for a permanent seat in the Security Council has weakened after the tests.



Adm. Raja Menon reviewed the existing diplomatic stance of India and Pakistan . Before the tests, there was no nuclear agreement with China while India and Pakistan agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities/installations. After the tests,  India offered a no-first-use agreement to Pakistan and an agreement not to bomb each other’s cities. The Indian scientists have reportedly given the go-ahead for signing the CTBT.



Menon argued that in the analysis of the aftermath of Pokhran tests, the role of the scientific community is often overlooked. This is pertinent since no society has actually been able to check the “technology trajectory.” In the `politics of science’, a society’s leaders are generally unaware of the specifics of scientific endeavor which no one is able to control. Technology, in short, cannot be capped.



In the nuclear weapons area, this results in a emphasis on the accuracy of missiles. No nuclear power has escaped the technology trajectory, which drives a “trajectory of strategy”. Menon inveighed against the general assumption that strategy determines the development of technology, maintaining that it is generally the other way round. Nuclear scientists will push technology towards acquiring greater accuracy, which encourages strategies involving counter-force, first-strike and second-strike capability. Menon said there is no need for India to weaponize until it is able to produce weapons that proceed from counter-city capability to stage-5. Otherwise, the effort to gradually weaponize till reaching Stage-5 entails the abandonment of earlier weapons at each stage involving heavy cost.



Menon said India 's no-first-use offer, as opposed to a no-first strike, is “laughable” since it implies that nuclear weapons are essentially defensive in intent. Without affirming the Clausewitzian distinction between war and diplomacy, Menon said India should determine whether the nuclear weapon is a military or a diplomatic weapon, adding that a nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis China is credible only if was a diplomatic instrument. He maintained that the issue of no-first-use has not been thought through to its logical end by the official strategic community.



T.C.A. Srinivas Raghavan, speaking on the economic aftermath of Pokhran, said though the regnant sanctions did not hurt India there were intangible negatives affecting the economy after the tests. What is most evident since the tenure of Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister is the abdication of responsible leadership in economics in the country. Pokhran merely highlighted the absence of effective leadership in both the institutional and the developmental sector. Confidence in the economy remains the key issue after the n-tests.



Raghavan listed a few indicators reflecting the state of the Indian economy. GDP growth is now less than 5%; fiscal deficit is expected to go beyond 7% of the GDP; the exports are shrinking; the stock market is down and financial institutions like Unit Trust of India (UTI) are of little help; the public sector is finding it difficult to pay salaries; institutions like the Industrial Finance Corporation of India (IFCI) and Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) are in deep trouble. Raghavan said a combination of institutional limitations and the caliber of individuals managing the various institutions exacerbates the condition of the economy. The economy was already in a recession at the time of the tests; Pokhran brought this into focus. Indians may sneer at lowering of India 's rating by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, but the fact is that the international investing community listens to them. India may be expected to have a balance of payments crisis by the fall of 1999 which is currently offset by the existing $26 billion foreign exchange reserves.



P.R. Chari, speaking on the impact of the tests on Sino-Indian relations, said the rupture in the bilateral relationship will take long to breach. Having recently attended the “Summer Workshop on Defense, Technology & Cooperative Security in South Asia ” in Shanghai , Chari said the Chinese were “hurt” at the veiled reference to the Chinese threat while explaining India 's motivation for Pokhran ‘98. He observed that a significant section of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) leadership is pro-Pakistan and wishes to strengthen the anti-India element in the Chinese government. There is however a corresponding, but weak, pro-India section in the Chinese leadership. He said the challenge for Indian diplomacy is to display the requisite skill to exploit the anti-Chinese sentiment in the US Congress without aggravating the Chinese any further.



He said the situation of Indo-US relations is bleak since the Americans blame India for precipitating the nuclear tests in South Asia . The US can be expected to press the five demands listed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. The demands to desist from weaponization and testing of new missiles may increase as the Americans increase the diplomatic stakes. The real concern for the Americans is the possibility of India 's weaponization and deployment of nuclear weapons. The demand that nuclear warheads and the delivery systems be kept in different places was designed in pursuit of these policies.



Chari observed that India has, at best, an “imperfect deterrent” against only Pakistan at present. He pointed out that there is no evidence that the weapons can be mounted on fighter aircrafts; or that the aircrafts have been re-modeled to install nuclear weapons. If India relies on transport aircraft the deterrent would lack credibility.



A former Army officer emphatically ruled out the possibility of large-scale conflict with China since it faces serious logistical problems in invading across the border. He pointed out that China has only 5 brigades manning the border right from the Karakoram Pass to the North-East. He said there was a need for force reduction on the borders to ease tensions. He disagreed with the panelists who stated that Pokhran had worsened the security scenario for India . The proxy war in Kashmir was always there; the plans to send an extra division in winter is routine. He disagreed with Menon’s suggestion that India should not weaponize till it reaches Stage-5 capability and stated that India is no different from other powers whose nuclear arsenals have evolved over time. He also disagreed with the view that India has a conventional arms superiority over Pakistan , preferring to accept that it merely has a “slight advantage.”



Another discussant questioned the caliber of strategic thinking in India . He said analysts, by and large, were recycling the same opinions thus denying any fresh perspectives to the nuclear debate. There is, for instance, much talk about India 's nuclear de-alerting resolution in the United Nations without many having a clue about what it means. There is much speculation about the cost of India 's nuclear program but no one is attempting a serious study of it though figures are being "bandied about". He also lamented that the entire country is taking Atomic Energy Commission’s Chairman R. Chidambaram at his word that no further tests are required without any corroboration from the rest of the Indian scientific community. To hinge the nation’s entire nuclear program on the opinions of one man is dangerous, he said. He noted, however, that no other nuclear weapon state has ever announced the yield of its nuclear tests. India is now in some trouble because of the controversy over its claims.



He also stated that America is yet to impose sanctions that can hurt. There are no curbs on the activity of Indian banks in the US as yet. He said that the US Treasury Department can use a host of discretionary powers that can really cripple various leading companies within 6 months of their application. He said India is not prepared to face any fresh sanctions. A specialist on China raised a few unanswered questions. He wondered why the tests conducted before the institution of the proposed National Security Council (NSC)? Why was a moratorium on testing declared soon thereafter? Why were sub-kiloton tests conducted? Did the scientists have tactical nuclear weapons in mind when they conducted these tests? On the Chinese reaction to the tests, he said that the Chinese were “angry” that they had allowed themselves to be “misled” by the Indian attempts at reconciliation. They perceive the mention of China as a threat in the letter to President Clinton is inconsistent with the 1996 Sino-Indian agreement whose first line states that neither side will use military force against the other. Vajpayee’s letter implies that India 's signature on the 1996 agreement was an act of “bad faith.”



Another General said the country would have been no different without Pokhran. India would have remained just as badly administered as it was with the presence of its mafias and spiraling prices. He agreed that the NSC should have been instituted but doubted that the Council would host the kind of dispassionate debate needed in the interests of the country. He believed that key decisions will continue to taken on the spur of the moment as in the past. However, there is no reason to conclude that the government is not undertaking a strategic review. He said the significance of the tests lay in their ability to confer “independence of action” upon India .